But Smith was, until the end of his life, an 18th-century moralist. He thought the market could be justified only in light of individual virtue, and he was anxious that a society governed by nothing but transactional self-interest was no society at all. Neoliberalism is Adam Smith without the anxiety.
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That Hayek is considered the grandfather of neoliberalism — a style of thought that reduces everything to economics — is a little ironic given that he was such a mediocre economist. He was just a young, obscure Viennese technocrat when he was recruited to the London School of Economics to compete with, or possibly even dim, the rising star of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge. The plan backfired, and Hayek lost out to Keynes in a rout. The initial excitement over Hayek had dissipated. His peculiar notion that doing nothing could cure an economic depression had been discredited in theory and practice.
He later admitted that he wished his work criticising Keynes would simply be forgotten.
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Hayek cut a silly figure: In , he was an academic without a portfolio and with no obvious future. He begins by assuming that nearly all if not all human activity is a form of economic calculation, and so can be assimilated to the master concepts of wealth, value, exchange, cost — and especially price.
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Prices are a means of allocating scarce resources efficiently, according to need and utility, as governed by supply and demand. For the price system to function efficiently, markets must be free and competitive. Ever since Smith imagined the economy as an autonomous sphere, the possibility existed that the market might not just be one piece of society, but society as a whole.
Within such a society, men and women need only follow their own self-interest and compete for scarce rewards. Hayek built into neoliberalism the assumption that the market provides all necessary protection against the one real political danger: To prevent this, the state need only keep the market free. Neoliberalism recognised that the state must be active in the organisation of a market economy. The conditions allowing for a free market must be won politically, and the state must be re-engineered to support the free market on an ongoing basis. The lawmaker is obliged to leave well enough alone — to not distort the natural actions of the marketplace — and so, ideally, the state provides a fixed, neutral, universal legal framework within which market forces operate spontaneously.
As Keynes jetted between London and Washington, creating the postwar order, Hayek sat pouting in Cambridge. Stuck in England, without influence or respect, Hayek had only his idea to console him; an idea so grand it would one day dissolve the ground beneath the feet of Keynes and every other intellectual. Left to its own devices, the price system functions as a kind of mind. And not just any mind, but an omniscient one: Reaching out to him as an intellectual comrade-in-arms, the American journalist Walter Lippmann wrote to Hayek, saying: It is a grand epistemological claim — that the market is a way of knowing, one that radically exceeds the capacity of any individual mind.
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Such a market is less a human contrivance, to be manipulated like any other, than a force to be studied and placated. Economics ceases to be a technique — as Keynes believed it to be — for achieving desirable social ends, such as growth or stable money. The only social end is the maintenance of the market itself.
In its omniscience, the market constitutes the only legitimate form of knowledge, next to which all other modes of reflection are partial, in both senses of the word: Individually, our values are personal ones, or mere opinions; collectively, the market converts them into prices, or objective facts. After washing out at LSE, Hayek never held a permanent appointment that was not paid for by corporate sponsors.
No one cared what he had written! There had, however, been hopeful signs: Then there was Margaret Thatcher. To anyone who would listen, Thatcher lionised Hayek, promising to bring together his free-market philosophy with a revival of Victorian values: Hayek met privately with Thatcher in , at the very moment that she, having been named leader of the opposition in the UK, was preparing to bring his Big Idea off the shelf and into history. What could he say?
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For the first time in 40 years, power was mirroring back to Friedrich von Hayek his own cherished self-image, a man who might vanquish Keynes and remake the world. Organic, spontaneous, elegant processes that, like a million fingers on a Ouija board, coordinate to create outcomes that are otherwise unplanned. Applied to an actual market — one for pork bellies or corn futures — this description is little more than a truism. This is less banal, but still inconsequential; a Keynesian accepts this description happily. But what if we bump it up one more step?
What if we reconceive all of society as a kind of market? The rise of modern science generated a problem: Is a human being simply an object in the world, like any other?
There appears to be no way to assimilate the subjective, interior human experience into nature as science conceives it — as something objective whose rules we discover by observation. Everything about the postwar political culture lay in favour of John Maynard Keynes, and an expanded role for the state in managing the economy.
Before the war, even the most rightwing economist thought of the market as a means to a limited end, to the efficient allocation of scarce resources. From the time of Adam Smith in the mids, and up to that of the founding members of the Chicago school in the postwar years, it was commonplace to believe that the ultimate ends of society and of life, were established in the non-economic sphere.
On this view, questions of value are resolved politically and democratically, not economically — through moral reflection and public deliberation. The classic modern expression of this belief is found in a essay called Ethics and the Economic Interpretation by Frank Knight, who arrived at Chicago two decades before Hayek.
Economists had struggled for years with the question of how to place the values on which an otherwise commercial society is organised beyond mere self-interest and calculation. Knight, along with his colleagues Henry Simons and Jacob Viner, were holdouts against Franklin D Roosevelt and the market interventions of the New Deal, and they established the University of Chicago as the intellectually rigorous home of free-market economics that it remains to this day.
They did not worship equations or models, and they worried about non-scientific questions. Most explicitly, they worried about questions of value, where value was absolutely distinct from price. It is not just that Simons, Viner and Knight were less dogmatic than Hayek, or more willing to pardon the state for taxing and spending.
It is not the case that Hayek was their intellectual superior. But they acknowledged as a first principle that society was not the same thing as the market, and that price was not the same thing as value. This set them up to be swallowed whole by history. It was Hayek who showed us how to get from the hopeless condition of human partiality to the majestic objectivity of science.
In so doing, it puts any value that cannot be expressed as a price — as the verdict of a market — on an equally unsure footing, as nothing more than opinion, preference, folklore or superstition. There is the market, in other words, and there is relativism.
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