Our age is undergoing what many have described as a “Great Realignment.” This is nowhere more true than among conservatives. The fusion that brought together under Ronald Reagan social conservatives, free marketers, and national defense hawks has largely un-fused of late. Many conservatives have begun to talk about a “dead consensus.”[1] Given the nature of coalitions, which come together at specific times and places to accomplish certain tasks, this should not have been an unexpected occurrence.

But it is disconcerting. In times of realignment, friendships, and working relationships that have been built up over decades often are broken, some more slowly and some in more dramatic fashion. It is a moral challenge not to develop hard hearts toward former allies and friends, especially since the break-ups usually feel like betrayals. It is also an intellectual challenge, because it is easy when the realignments happen to want to agree with our new friends and coalition partners to the extent that we forget the true things that still bind us to the old.

Rather than forgetting our grievances and hard feelings, we often forget the truths we still hold together and the strengths of those who once persuaded us.

One of the places this has come out most strongly lately is in the hostility directed at “libertarians,” “libertarianism,” and indeed “free market” thinking. I put these terms in quotation marks because like “conservative” and “liberal” and many other important terms, the devil—and the angel—is in the details. There is no magisterium of libertarianism or free market thinking with which to judge what are the true dogmas and who are the orthodox practitioners of them. Nevertheless, the general tenor of conservative discourse has tended of late to cast cold water on certain aspects of free market thinking and economic thinkers who played a part in the conservative mind over the last half-century or more.

Among the reassessed is Friedrich Hayek. In a typically lucid essay last year Edward Feser gave a cogent reassessment of Hayek, not so much as an economist but as a social thinker who, he contends, among other things, imported ways of thinking about market interactions into all of society. He was guilty, Dr. Feser argues, of “economism”:

This subjectivism about value has great utility when our focus is merely on satisfying the material needs and wants people actually happen to have. Hayek’s purely procedural conception of just action, however, effectively treats value subjectivism as a completely general principle of social organization. The rules that govern capitalist societies must not treat any of the diverse ends people happen to have as objectively better or worse than any other. To acknowledge that there is some objective fact of the matter about what people ought to want, or some standard of value independent of the market, would open the door to justifying interference with the choices of economic actors, and thereby destroy the price mechanism.[2]

This subjectivism, Dr. Feser contends, is an acid that will eat away at capitalism itself: “If there is no standard of good apart from what people happen to want, how can Hayek complain if what they happen to want is an egalitarian redistribution of wealth, or freedom from religion and traditional family arrangements?”

I’m not sure Hayek was quite as much of a subjectivist as Dr. Feser depicts him to be, though it is certain that his philosophical views were not entirely developed or coherent. In a new article titled “Catholic Social Teaching and Hayek’s Critique of Social Justice,” Philip Booth and Matías Petersen examine Hayek’s critique, especially as found in his 1976 volume The Mirage of Social Justice, and why it does not necessarily touch on an authentically Catholic (and we might add, broadly conservative) understanding of the term.[3]

Hayek was not completely at fault, for, as Drs. Booth and Peterson acknowledge, Catholic speech about the topic has often been imprecise, leaving it a “moving and poorly defined target.” Nevertheless, they provide a noteworthy service by looking at the development of the understanding from 1860-1939, particularly in an examination of the work of Luigi Taparelli, and an assessment of its current usage. While social justice has all too often been defined even by Catholics as “redistribution of income by the state based on egalitarian considerations,” they show that it is really more what Aristotle referred to as “general justice.” In a fuller and authentic Catholic understanding it is:

a virtue; that it relates to how people interact in the economic and social sphere; that its practice is designed to bring the whole of society to a higher state of perfection thereby promoting the common good; that it is not fundamentally about creating a uniquely just distribution of incomes (although social justice does have distributional consequences); that it applies to all social institutions; and that there is a role for the state, but the state is not the primary (or at least not the only) actor.

Drs. Booth and Petersen acknowledge that Hayek does not have an “objective notion of the good as such” when it comes to the substance of a society (or at least a large and complex society). But it is not clear he was entirely subjective about justice or even that he would necessarily limit it to the personal sphere. Even with regard to the distribution of goods, he is not averse to the idea that there are “smaller scale orders in which it is possible to distribute goods on the basis of various interpretations of justice, taking into account effort and need.” They argue that Hayek did have a conception of an objective nature to justice in the personal and even business realm, explaining, for instance, how “an employer should determine employees’ wages according to known and intelligible rules and that it should be seen that all employees receive what is due to them.” Drs. Booth and Petersen’s challenge to Hayek and his followers is to ask themselves “why they cannot define a category of justice that relates to actions in the social and economic sphere within nonstate groups that make up the extended order and the great society such as businesses, families, civil society organizations, and so on.” They note that this is an important task since Hayek’s own incompleteness reinforced the “popular view that he is promoting an atomistic society rather than a society rich with social institutions.”

If Hayekians could extend their master’s thought, Drs. Booth and Petersen argue, then they could not only defeat such popular views, but enter into the dialogue their master was not able to enter because of his misunderstandings. And they could provide challenges to those who have extended the ideas of state action in ways that are imprudent. While the Catholic Church does not think the state is the lead actor, many have advocated this position. Hayekians who acknowledged a fuller view of social justice could still help Catholics—and those who have opposed the dead consensus—think more realistically about the difficulties in thinking about justice in the large scale and especially with regard to state actions. Drs. Booth and Peterson suggest that they could help their opponents think more clearly about what really is possible on a large scale and by the state in enacting social justice. They suggest that a Hayekian understanding of unintended consequences, such as the danger of creating new inequalities and injustices in the course of fighting old ones, should chasten the rightful desire for government to act for the common good in imprudent ways.

Many of those opposing the dead consensus say that “libertarian” and “Hayekian” ideas have paralyzed our ability to act in the large group. That may well be true, but if large-scale and state action are to be successful in warding off the progressive tide, they will require a great deal of prudence on the part of actors about prudence and possibility.

In the Great Realignment, we need to make sure we do not suffer a Great Forgetting. Hayek’s incompleteness brings a challenge for Hayekians. Drs. Booth and Petersen’s challenge to them is clear. But their essay also contains a challenge to those hostile to or suspicious of Hayek. The latter would do well to ponder what might be incomplete in their own thought if they ignore that in Hayek which is true.

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[1] Sohrab Ahmari et al., “Against the Dead Consensus,” First Things, March 21, 2019.

[2] Edward Feser, “Hayek’s Tragic Capitalism,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2019.

[3] Philip Booth and Matías Petersen, “Catholic Social Teaching and Hayek’s Critique of Social Justice,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 23, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 36-64.

The featured image is “Distribution of Loaves to the Poor” by David Vinckboons (1576-1629), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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