Intellectual heirs to Hayek restate the case for freedom

BNick Schulz , AEI

If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same convictions; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. — Friedrich Hayek

One of Hayek’s “old truths” is that individual freedom is an indispensible means to both human flourishing and material progress and that it is threatened by misguided government bureaucracy. We are fortunate to have it restated extraordinarily well in today’s language in two new books: Arthur Brooks‘s The Road to Freedom and Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled.

Let’s start with Manzi. Uncontrolled draws on Manzi’s experience as an entrepreneur and a math and science geek. Unlike professional pundits, he comes to questions of political philosophy and political economy orthogonally; as a result, his observations offer genuinely original insights into longstanding political and social problems.

Manzi spent time as a researcher at AT&T labs and as a business consultant before founding Applied Predictive Technologies, a software firm that helps businesses run controlled experiments.  The experiments are designed to help companies learn what products, business strategies, marketing campaigns, and new technologies might help them achieve success.

Manzi learned that much of what management thinks might work prior to running the controlled experiments – based on induction or gut feeling – fails in practice. But only experimentation can reveal such failure.

Manzi learned that what applies to the business realm, applies just as well – and in some ways even better — in the social and political realm. The reason? “Causal density.”

Any given phenomena is the result of many variables, forces, and complex interactions. This is true for phenomena such as the movement of planets and other heavenly bodies (mass, gravity, etc.), weather patterns (wind, humidity, temperature, etc.), and biological phenomena such as disease (genes, environment, diet, etc.).

In Manzi’s telling, the environment in which human beings operate is one of extremely high causal density.  There are many, often hidden, variables influencing feelings, attitudes, values, orientations, behaviors and other factors that interact in the course of human affairs. This high density makes it extremely difficult to predict what, say, new government policies designed to change individual or group behavior might actually do in practice.

Manzi’s insight was built upon hard-won knowledge from his practical experience. And it is a direct assault on the planning impulse of so many policymakers. If human affairs are defined in part by high causal density, the policymaker must approach the task of policymaking with extreme humility. Policies thought likely to lead to improved outcomes are unlikely to have the precise effect envisioned.

“In the absence of experimental evidence,” Manzi writes, “we should have a rational status quo preference, and therefore place the burden of proof on those who advocate change.” And it is seldom that we have useful experimental evidence to guide central planners.

A status quo preference does not mean one is opposed to all policy interventions, however. This is where trail-and-error comes in to play.

Manzi, who has lived abroad for much of his professional life and now splits time between Paris and London, is a big advocate of America’s federalist system. One advantage of federalism is that it can create ample space for small scale trial-and-error efforts to solve political and social problems.

We can learn from the trial of, for example, RomneyCare in Massachusetts (which, as it turns out, is riddled with errors). The hope is that we will learn from these local experiments before imposing larger mistakes on the entire body politic.

This doesn’t always happen, of course – viz. ObamaCare – but proper respect for a federalist system would encourage distributed policy experimentation from which we might learn valuable lessons that might benefit us all down the road.

Arthur Brooks is a social scientist and the head of the American Enterprise Institute (where I hang my hat, so build in whatever discount you feel you must to what I’m about to say).

One of the great strengths of The Road to Freedom – and of Brooks’s approach to analyzing problems generally — is his stitching together threads from a variety of disciplines to weave a portrait of political and social life that best conforms to reality. These disciplines include behavioral, moral, and social psychology, public opinion research, economics, political theory, and more. Woven together he reveals the direct connection between freedom and a person’s sense of satisfaction, achievement, and happiness in life.

One of Brooks’s key insights from this multidisciplinary approach is that satisfying lives are distinguished by a sense of “earned success.” It doesn’t matter much if you earn a high income, accumulate a lot of wealth, or receive public accolades. What truly matters is if you feel that you’ve genuinely earned your successes (be they material, spiritual, or otherwise) in life.

This insight suggests there’s a severe limit to what the state can accomplish when trying to promote human flourishing.

To be sure, the state is an indispensible partner in ensuring humans thrive: it must establish a framework within which people live in safety and with room to realize their entrepreneurial capacities – to live as genuinely free men and women.

“The entrepreneurial idea for America simply limits the government to its proper role,” Brooks writes. “The government offers one tool to help provide a minimum basic safety net and solve some of the market failures that act as a barrier to private enterprise. Government should only be large enough to do these things.”

Successful governance of this kind is challenging enough to realize in practice. But once these basic goals are achieved, government’s ability to promote greater happiness and satisfaction for individuals is severely limited.

“The key to our success is free enterprise, the system our Founders left us to maximize liberty, create individual opportunity, and reward entrepreneurship,” Brooks says. “Free enterprise creates the opportunities our ancestors came to America seeking – the opportunities that allowed them to pursue their happiness in a new land. It is the free enterprise system that treated them fairly for the first time; instead of being penalized for lacking a noble birth, they were rewarded for their hard work and personal responsibility. Free enterprise made a country of immigrants into the most powerful, prosperous nation in the history of the world.”

Brooks frames the choices faced today starkly but effectively. “Will we see growing bureaucracy or more entrepreneurship? Will we be a culture of redistribution or a culture of aspiration?”

Brooks and Manzi are intellectual heirs to Hayek; they are admirably recapturing old truths handed down from America’s Founders and restating them for today’s generation. By giving us “direct answers to the questions we are asking,” both authors are indispensible guides to solving the challenges our country faces.

This op-ed appeared on AEI on 5/5/12

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