Political Authority and the International

Invisibility and Ignorance in Friedrich Hayek’s Evolutionary Social Theory

Friedrich Hayek premises his rejection of economic planning on the argument that conscious intervention plays a relatively minor role in human history. Hayek rejects all rationalist accounts of society, which he traces from Descartes through Rousseau and the French revolutionaries to the social planners of his own time. Our current society has not arisen through design, he argues; rather, it is a product of unconscious selection of those institutions and abstract rules that have proved themselves most successful in a competitive struggle. In his late work Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek credits the insight that all enduring structures are explained by processes of selective evolution to the complexity theory of Ilya Prigogine and the systems theory of his friend Ludwig von Bertalannfy. Hayek’s critics have tended to follow him in attributing his account of social evolution to the influence of the natural sciences. In this paper, I argue that, in contrast, Hayek’s account of social evolution is indebted to the work of the Scottish Enlightenment, and particularly to Adam Ferguson’s conjectural history of civil society. Nonetheless, I suggest that in order to characterize Ferguson as the originator of the theory of “spontaneous order” Hayek must dissociate the Scottish philosopher’s account of purposive yet unplanned order from his Christian faith in a “wise providence operating by physical causes.” By attributing Hayek’s evolutionary social theory to the natural sciences rather than to the Scottish Enlightenment, critics have been insufficiently attentive to the theological dimensions of that which functions as a true article of faith for Hayek: the view that continued social evolution requires that humans submit to the impersonal and incomprehensible forces of the market.

Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University, and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Her research interests include theories of sovereignty and biopolitics, critiques of human rights and contemporary European philosophy, particularly Agamben and Foucault. Her work has been published in Law and CritiqueHumanity: An International Journal of Human RightsHumanitarianism and DevelopmentTheory and Event; and Contemporary Political Theory. She is currently working on two projects: a book on the historical and conceptual affinities between the politics of human rights and neoliberalism in the late twentieth century; and an Australian Research Council DECRA project  “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War.”

4.00pm Thursday 1 September 2016
Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower
University of Queensland, St Lucia
For further information, please contact iash@uq.edu.au or 07 334 69492


Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower, University of Queensland, St Lucia