Hayek believes that society must be ordered on general principles which have evolved over time, often unconsciously, that are respected by the state and equally applied to all. These organizational rules must serve for long periods of time. In a dig at Lord Keynes he derides government’s tendency to concentrate on short term problems “because in the long run we’re all dead”. Making up the rules as you go along (even if you’re only 20 years old this must resonate) allows, in fact it demands, that the state become absolute.
So what kind of rules do we want? In this essay Hayek does not examine the subject the way he does in the later Constitution of Liberty. He is, of course, in favor of an effectively competitive market system. He is very much aware that our personal sense of justice frequently revolts against the impersonal decisions of the market. “We must face the fact that the preservation of individual freedom is incompatible with a full satisfaction of our views of distributive justice.” Here is the nub of the contention that animates the politics of all the world’s liberal democracies.
The hard decisions of the marketplace often make the public prefer the imposition of human intelligence as a counter weight, but they soon discover (or they should if sentient) that no matter how hard the market it leaves a person with a choice whereas the imposition of the government leaves none. The following paragraph though written almost 70 years ago could be the product of this morning:
“The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of the same rationalistic ‘individualism’ which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible. Indeed, the great lesson which the individualist philosophy teaches us on this score is that, while it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.”
What Hayek teaches us is that the only viable society is one based on individual liberty, a society that enacts general laws which are equally applied, and which resists the almost irresistible compulsion to interfere with the free exercise of individual rights; this interference is almost always excused in the name of social justice, a phrase that typically signals the approach of something nefarious. Social justice results from a free society where the government does for the people only that which is necessary for their welfare and which they cannot reasonably be expected to do for themselves. Whether the democratic countries of the world can successfully organize themselves along the principle of individual liberty is the compelling issue of our age. The alternative is submersion under a flood of moral sloth and societal dependence on a fattened bureaucracy.