Quote of the Day

This passage appears in F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, pages 112-113 under the heading Our Animistic Vocabulary and the Confused Concept of ‘Society’ (footnotes omitted):

[I]n the study of human affairs difficulties of communication begin with the definition and naming of the very objects we wish to analyse. The chief terminological barrier to understanding, outranking in importance the other terms we have just discussed, is the expression ‘society’ itself – and not only inasmuch as it has, since Marx, been used to blur the distinctions between governments and other ‘institutions’. As a word used to describe a variety of systems of interconnections of human activities, ‘society’ falsely suggests that all such systems as of the same kind. It is also one of the oldest terms of this kind, as for example in the Latin societas, from socius, the personally known fellow or companion; and it has been used to describe both an actually existing state of affairs and a relation between individuals. As usually employed, it presupposes or implies a common pursuit of shared purposes that usually can be achieved only by conscious collaboration.

As we have seen, it is one of the necessary conditions of the extension of human cooperation beyond the limits of individual awareness that the range of such pursuits be increasingly governed not by shared purposes but by abstract rules of conduct whose observance brings it about that we more and more serve the needs of people whom we do not know and find our own needs similarly satisfied by unknown persons. Thus the more the range of human cooperation extends, the less does motivation within it correspond to the mental picture people have of what should have in a ‘society’, and the more ‘social’ comes to be not the key word in a statement of the facts but the core of an appeal to an ancient, and now obsolete, ideal of general human behaviour. Any real appreciation of the difference between, on the one hand, what actually characterises individual behaviour in a particular group and, on the other, wishful thinking about what individual conduct should be (in accordance with older customs) is increasingly lost. Not only is any group of persons connected in practically any manner called a ‘society’, but it is concluded that any such group should behave as a primitive group of companions did.

Thus the word ‘society’ has become a convenient label denoting almost any group of people, a group about whose structure or reason for coherence nothing need be known – a makeshift phrase people resort to when they do not quite know what they are talking about. Apparently a people, a nation, a population, a company, an association, a group, a horde, a band, a tribe, the members of any particular place, all are, or constitute, societies.

To call by the same name such completely different formations as the companionship of individuals in constant personal contact and the structure formed by millions who are connected only by signals resulting from long and infinitely ramified chains of trade is not only factually misleading but also almost always contains a concealed desire to model this extended order on the intimate fellowship for which our emotions long. Bertrand de Jouvenel has well described this instinctive nostalgia for the small group – ‘the milieu in which man is first found, which retains for him an infinite attraction: but any attempt to graft the same features on a large society is utopian and leads to tyranny’.

The crucial difference overlooked in this confusion is that the small group can be led in its activities by agreed aims or the will of its members, while the extended order that is also a ‘society’ is formed into a concordant structure by its members’ observance of similar rules of conduct in the pursuit of individual purposes. The result of such diverse efforts under similar rules will indeed show of a few characteristics resembling those of an individual organism possessing a brain or mind, or what such an organism deliberately arranges, but is it misleading to treat such a ‘society’ animistically, or to personify it by ascribing to it a will, an intention, or a design. Hence it is disturbing to find a serious contemporary scholar confessing that to any utilitarian ‘society’ must appear not ‘as a plurality of persons… [but] as a sort of singe great person’.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of Hayek’s death. His was a great mind, and we could do well to have more thinkers like him.


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