Order, Institutions, and Ethics and Hayek's Thought

Ferruccio Magatelli

Advisor: Peter J. Boettke

Committee Members: Richard E. Wagner, Frederic Sautet, The Mercatus Center

Enterprise Hall, Room 318
December 07, 2009, 07:00 PM to 07:00 PM


Hayek's critics contend that his treatment of two seemingly opposing ideas, traditionalism and institutional design, is responsible for inconsistencies in his thought. The first essay will examine such alleged inconsistencies and their implications. What has been described by many observers as Hayek's failure to produce a tight ideological unity can be ascribed to his ambivalent approach to the role played by rationality and rule-following behavior in individuals' actions. This ambivalence is mainly brought about by his pessimism about the ability of modern democracies to preserve the order of the Great Society and the traditions on which the Great Society rests. It will be argued that while Hayek fails to fully reconcile these opposing concepts, his emphasis on institutional design, if interpreted within the context of the Hayekian theory of cultural evolution of the mind, is fuly consistent with his criticisms of constructivist rationalism. Following Hayek's epistemology and his early notion of effect on tradition, then not only is "responsible" institutional design possible, but, under certain circumstances, it is also necessary.

In his theory of the emergence of institutions, Hayek clearly opposes the concept of spontaneous order against constructivism. This stark dichotomy reveals some tensions in Hayek's thought as, on his own account, constructivist ideologies seem able to both prevent the spontaneous emergence of an order and generate institutions coherent with deliberate design. The second essay discusses whether constructivism and spontaneous evolution are two alternative and mutually incompatible explaination of the emergence of institution or whether constructivism can be interpreted in evolutionary terms.

In ethics, Hayek believes that the ultimate measure of justice is aptitutde to preserve the social order. Hayek's attempt to demonstrate that economic liberalism has a moral foundation is guided by a strong anti-rationalism. Since society is complex and its facts unknowable, unforseeable, and unpredictable, individuals are incapable of devising a set of principles that proves appropriate for all circumstances. This highly skeptical epistemology leads him to reject a priori conceptions of ethics in favor of those systems of fules that have survived a selection process in which evolution takes the place of reason.  Hayek's focus on human ignorance, which inspires his notion of liberty, is reflected in his approach to government intervention and his strict reliance on the rule of law. The third essay will examine th econsequences that the strict adherence to the rule of law has on Hayek's political philosophy.