The Agonist Journal

First of all, Friedrich Hayek isn’t who many think he is. Everything which follows—the arguments for student loan debt forgiveness, the case for an anthropology of the common good, the digressions about outmoded political labels—all hinge on the notion that when people make the typical arguments from free market first principles, even their hero would have considered them zealots. The French philosopher Bruno Latour, in his book We Have Never Been Modern, argues that the theoretical division between nature and society is largely an arbitrary and erroneous one. Perhaps this essay should be titled “We Have Never Been Laissez-Faire.” Because even the author of The Road to Serfdom recognized that a coherent vision of the common good exists antecedent to the character of markets or the demands of corporations.

Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, philosopher Edward Feser provides a corrective to the popular notion that Hayek believed in a sort of domino theory of free markets, in which any social interaction that is not monetized runs the risk of falling subject to creeping state totalitarianism:

[H]ayek never gave so silly an argument. Nor will one find in his work the chirpy optimism with which many libertarians and Reaganite conservatives ritualistically defend the market economy. Hayek’s case for free enterprise doesn’t fit any of the usual simplistic stereotypes. He not only explicitly and persistently rejected laissez-faire, but could write as eloquently about the moral downside of capitalism and the emotional attractions of socialism as any left-winger. In an era in which—young socialist chic notwithstanding—global capitalism appears to have swept all before it, it is the triumphalist defenders of the free market rather than its critics who have the most to learn from Hayek’s cautious, nuanced apologia.

“Perhaps the most compelling argument against bilking people for cash is this: fuck schools. They don’t deserve the money they’re owed.”

Hayek—a lapsed Catholic, Feser reminds us—formed his ideas within the crucible of an essentially Augustinian pessimism concerning the human mind’s ability to discern perfectly and then act upon complex truths. Hence his fealty to a market-based pricing mechanism, markets being a more accurate reflection of complexity than, for instance, bureaucratic declaration. But that he advocated for a certain use of markets does not mean Hayek opposed government intervention in every form. In The Road to Serfdom, in fact, he argues in favor of regulation establishing social safety nets and safe working conditions. You can agree or disagree with Hayek on any number of issues, but you must concede that his thinking is more subtle, more nuanced than both his acolytes and detractors give him credit for. Still, his ideas aren’t perfect. But those imperfections, it should be understood, don’t have a left- or right-wing bias. They have an idolatry bias. As Freser writes in the conclusion to his essay on Hayek,

The problem is one of fetishizing capitalism, of making market imperatives the governing principles to which all other aspects of social order are subordinate. The irony is that this is a variation on the same basic error of which socialism is guilty—what Pope John Paul II called “economism,” the reduction of human life to its economic aspect. Even F.A. Hayek, a far more subtle thinker than other defenders of the free economy, ultimately succumbed to this tendency. Too many modern conservatives have followed his lead. They have been so fixated on socialism and its economic irrationality that they have lost sight of other, ultimately more insidious, threats to Western civilization—including economism itself.

This “economism” percolates down to au currant issues such as the student loan crisis. And it really is a crisis. Says Robert Farrington in a recent article in Forbes,

It’s no secret that student loan debt has grown out of control, and that there’s no end in sight to this $1.5 trillion problem. After all, a Forbes analysis from this year showed that the average college graduate from the Class of 2017 left school with $28,650 in unpaid federal and private student loans. More than 44 million borrowers also owe their share, with more than 1.3 million owing six figures or more on their loans.

Most people, regardless of their ideologies or voting records, agree that crushing student loan debt is a problem. What they disagree about are solutions. Farrington, for instance, goes on in the same piece to criticize Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to forgive student loan debt, because 1.) it doesn’t include a mechanism to control the runaway costs of higher education, and 2.) it doesn’t incentivize students to aim for careers in which they’d make the salary to be able to repay the loans without difficulty. Related to Farrington’s concerns is Philip Klein’s much more emotive take, namely, that student loan forgiveness would be “a slap in the face” to everyone who responsibly paid off his loans in full and on time. Between Farrington and Klein we see in general terms the spectrum of what passes for “conservative” critique of student loan debt forgiveness. And they are not entirely wrong. The problem is that, like most self-professed conservatives who couch their arguments in the language of liberal economic fetishization, they are right for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against bilking people for cash is this: fuck schools. They don’t deserve the money they’re owed. And Farrington is right that debt forgiveness without price controls would only be treating the symptoms. The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and most of that is due to an intentional bloating of administrative staff. Heather MacDonald, acute critic of academe, describes this corruption in the pages of City Journal:

[C]ollege tuition is not an act of God, beyond human control. It is a result of decisions taken by colleges themselves—above all, decisions to bulk up their bureaucracies. Bureaucratic outlays rose at nearly twice the rate as teaching outlays from 1993 to 2007, according to the Goldwater Institute. From 1997 to 2012, colleges hired new administrators at twice the rate of any student-body increase, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found. Colleges inevitably claim that government mandates force this administrative bloat upon them. But the vast majority of administrative hires are voluntary: for every dollar in mandated bureaucratic spending from 1987 to 2011, public universities added an additional $2 in discretionary bureaucracy, and private universities added $3, according to economists Robert Martin and Carter Hill. Fiefdoms focused on diversity and student services grew at the fastest clip, in the name of fighting the campus oppression to which minority and female students are allegedly subjected.

By following the course of this resource grab and the billions of dollars being funneled into new administrative operations, one can discern the priority of these institutions. And it certainly isn’t to strengthen the humanities or the liberal arts. The gutting of humanities and of hard science programs at the University of Tulsa is but the most recent example of an institution of so-called higher learning “reorganizing” itself to prioritize diversity bureaucrats over real education; it is happening all over the country. What is more, the programs being cut are the very ones which might provide students with the moral and cultural vocabulary to criticize the cravenness of the administrative power grab.

Higher education in America has all the tell-tale signs of a classic scam. Let’s call the scam “credentialism.” In many ways, what’s happening here and now is similar to what happened in China in the Seventh Century after Emperor Yang Guang established the civil service exam. At first the exam seemed to be a reasonable way to introduce meritocracy into the kingdom. But, as the editors of n+1 explain in “Death by Degrees,”

As time went on, more and more people took—and passed—the exam’s first round. Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates—.016 percent—passed all three.

In other words, an entire market proliferated around the exams, and of course markets tend to grow. More tests, more takers, more unnecessary requirements for civil jobs. This is how credentialism takes hold. The editors of n+1 go on to write:

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly—and very dimly—a system for imparting knowledge...As the credentialism compulsion seeps down the socioeconomic ladder, universities jack up fees and taxi drivers hire $200-an-hour SAT tutors for their children. The collective impact may be ruinous, but for individuals the outlays seem justified. As a consequence, college tuitions are nowhere near their limit; as long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and more.

There is, to be sure, some overstatement here. The neurosurgeon who removes a tumor from one’s brain knows what he is doing independent of the market function of the Harvard Medical school where he was educated. Nevertheless, it is true, in many cases, that what passes for merit is merely an effect of power structures. Nor is the credentialism scam unique to the academy. In a sense, it is a synecdoche for much of the American economy and the culture writ large.

And it is just here that we run up against one of the limitations of Hayek’s market as price mechanism: the assumption that if people are paying the high cost of tuition, then that is what tuition must be worth. The market being too radically subjective to provide moral guidance, the Hayekian dismisses out of hand the notion that there might be objective truths beyond economism which are vital to human flourishing, even though Hayek himself certainly recognized their existence. Like all liberals, the Hayekian errs on the side of proceduralism. Yet to call “good” what people want and “bad” what they do not is to deal in a solipsistic nihilism. And in the process the language used to describe what people should want gets denuded.

Another problem with Hayek’s price mechanism, particularly salient in the context of higher education, is that it discounts the outsized effects corporate interests have on society. For various historical reasons that would require another article altogether to explain, most people are unable to be entrepreneurs or to independently homestead. Rather, they rely on corporations in order to survive. But corporations require for growth the opposite of what humans require for our collective flourishing. As Jonathan McCormack observed in the spring issue of this journal,

Elite-driven advances of changing sexualities foster de-normed individuals that define themselves not by family, nation, religious affiliation, or tradition, but rather through self- creation according to the liberated individual will. With this groundwork in place, corporations can then gain control of the populace by dictating and manipulating multiform identities based on nothing more than appetites atomized from any larger cultural networks.

It is corporate interests, instead of the state or some other institution, that organize and direct society. The human person, then, is made to resemble the infinite flux and transience of capital. This over-reliance on corporate-underwritten visions of society, Freser notes,

entails an economic dependency of individuals on centralized authority, of a kind that is in some ways analogous to what Hayek warned of in his critique of central planning. As with socialism, conformity to the values of centralized authority becomes, in effect, a precondition of the very possibility of feeding oneself. By way of example, we may note that the political correctness Hayek would have despised is today more effectively and directly imposed on society by corporate Human Resources departments than by government.

In other words, if you want to live, be woke and rootless and have a bachelor’s degree.

There is a kind of posturing that is prevalent among self-styled conservatives of a certain stripe. It consists of leaning into the logic of economism and, even as they try to argue against progressive policy, employing the grammar of the fetishist in their critiques. You see it used by Ben Shapiro, for example, but for shorthand let’s just call it the Walshean Turn, after pundit Matt Walsh. Take the heart of Walsh’s argument against Elizabeth Warren’s student debt forgiveness plan:

All of the talk about “relief” and “forgiveness” obscures the point. The government cannot snap its mighty fingers and make the debt go away. That is not going to happen. No plan has been presented that would or could accomplish such a thing. Someone has to pay your debts. The debt you agreed to, while purchasing the product you wanted and will keep, has to be paid. The only question is this: who should pay it—you or someone else? I don't see how you could offer any sound argument for the latter. Even if you can convince me that the debt is “unfair” and “predatory” and you were “taken advantage of,” it still seems clear that the fairest of the unfair remedies is for the person who took out the loan to pay it. Because if it's unfair that you have to pay your loans, it's certainly many times more unfair that I should have to pay your loans.

Walsh’s argument is that there’s a right and a wrong choice, but Senator Warren—damn her socialist heart—thinks the government should give citizens the chance to make the wrong one. But notice: Walsh presupposes that moral decisions are made by individuals in a sort of vacuum. He presupposes the same kind of atomization of the individual which economism not only fetishizes, but requires. He dismisses out of hand the notion that society should be structured towards the ends of the common good. But why should usury be valued more than jubilee? Was there ever any debate here? No. Meanwhile, Wash’s Lockean notions of self, of freedom, and of the good are too anemic to answer big, difficult moral questions. The only good he can articulate is the upholding of contracts.

In the journal Postliberal Thought, Andrew Willard Jones comments insightfully on the recent Sohrab Ahmari-David French dustup:

Reaction to Ahmari has demonstrated that this debate is severely hampered by conservatives’ nearly exclusive use of the language that late liberalism supplies. Focused on the distinctions between private morality, public governance and the proper overlap between the two, the debate has retained liberalism’s most fundamental concepts and will not, therefore, bring us anything new. This is because, as is the case with all ideological systems, the construction of the language of late liberalism and the pressing of its conclusions are two aspects of the same endeavor. If we use their categories, we will find ourselves trapped within their conclusions. We must break the coherence of this idiom if we intend to resolve our internal fights and articulate a critique of the current regime without unwittingly reinforcing it. A brief attempt at the deconstruction of two basic liberal binaries might be, I hope, useful. They are: religious/secular and moral/political.

This is the root of the problem with the Walshean Turn. You cannot use the grammar of liberalism to critique the excesses endemic to liberalism. They share the same origins and one cannot see the other, as it were. Conservatives who call themselves “the real liberals” (should we call them Quillette conservatives?) fall victim to the ad infinitum regression of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy. Hence libertarianism (“Well, the markets aren’t quite free enough”). And progressivism (“Well, our notions of self aren’t liberated enough”). And any number of offshoot sects of the Lockean core of liberalism.

Having invoked John Locke twice, I should explain why I’ve done so. In the past six months or so it has become fashionable to pay attention to illiberal conservatives[1], as if they had suddenly sprung fully formed from the pages of First Things overnight like toadstools. Matthew Continetti, prominent Beltway neoconservative, is representative of this tendency, as we can see from these words of his in The Washington Free Beacon:

Here is a group that I did not see coming. The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post- liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

Although Continetti dismisses post-liberal critiques of Locke out of hand without actually addressing them, his characterization is accurate. What it boils down to is something that Matt Walsh and Ben Shapiro and any random lefty campus agitator all share in common: Locke’s notion that freedom and individual power are synonymous. Now, this is a complex historical claim which would require a separate book, certainly not an essay, to explore. Luckily for us, D.C. Schindler has done just that in his book Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty. In a nutshell, Schindler says that Locke obsessed over freedom of the will, but he also claimed that “the mind” is the driver of the will. I have written elsewhere that this is a bit like saying that a car decides where to go based on GPS. It is an infinite refraction of subjectivity, its purpose being that it enables one to avoid making any metaphysical claims.

In this Lockean conception of mind and will, what morality amounts to is whether or not an individual wants something. If he directs his will towards it, it is good. What we have here is a sort of psychological precursor to Hayek’s pricing mechanism. Untethered to larger metaphysical claims, morality becomes a tug of war between wills. Objectivity perishes in the crossfire of solipsistic reasoning. Men and women are turned into toadies of ideology. In Schindler’s words, “If freedom is conceived as power, then a basic form of the exercise of freedom in the world is the conversion of the world into money.”

So post-liberal critiques of Locke matter because our whole social order is predicated upon ideas which, if he did not outright invent, Locke at least popularized. It might be better, therefore, to say that post-liberal conservatives are in actuality pre-liberal. After all, markets, like culture, haven’t always been Lockean. Says John Milbank in Church Life Journal:

[W]hile the perennial presence of an acquisitive instinct is banally true, there is no real evidence of any pre-modern social inclination anywhere to organise an economy, much less a socio-political order, on the minimum basis of individualistic greed. To the contrary, as Karl Polanyi famously asserted, this has been almost universally avoided by embedding the economic in social goals of reciprocal human flourishing. It is only capitalist modernity that perversely does just the opposite: embed social and political pursuits in the economic realm, itself newly understood in terms of a mutual satisfying of essentially isolated egoistic needs.

This difference is the dividing line in political taxonomy. It is the most important question by far. Is it possible to serve the common good through rapacity and weaponizing radical individual will? There have always been conservatives who would answer in the negative. And we have never been laissez-faire.


[1] A strange term, no doubt, for isn’t a conservative illiberal by definition? Of course. But then, ours is a thoroughly liberalized era, and the modifier illiberal serves to distinguish what might be called true conservatives from the neoconservative mainstream.