A liberalism from first principles

One interesting question in examining any ideology is where you start. What are your starting premises when you decide how you think we best live together and organize our polity? You can start in different places – someone starting from the assumption that the state rests on the divine will of God will have to start with how this divine will can be ascertained and how to ensure it is best reflected in the organization of the state, for example – and someone believing in the equality of all human beings may start from that principle and then seek ways to ensure that a society minimizes inequality (this is how I read Rawls – as an attempt to start from the basic assumption that justice is fairness and that we should seek to arrange society in a fair way).

In a way these approaches represent the traditional starting points for theories about our polity – they start from theology or ethics. You ask what is the will of God or what is just – and then you try to build a state from that starting point. You may say that freedom trumps fairness, and that our organization of the state is to solely based on what maximizes individual freedom – this is one of the more common understandings of liberalism of the John Stuart Mill-type, for example (albeit horribly simplified here).

A liberalism or socialism based on ethics, or a conservatism based on theology, have an interesting thing in common, however, and that is that they share a very expansive epistemology. There is so much that is already known in both of these models of the state – it is assumed that the knowledge available to us allows us to organize the state in ways that are fair or free or that we can discern the will of the Lord and that we should just act on that.

Ideologies based on ethics or theology are all based on a kind of epistemological hubris.

An alternative would be to explore what ideologies you would choose if you are much more epistemologically humble.

In a quote that I have often used, Hayek lays out an epistemological position that I think could serve as such a starting point:

What the age of rationalism—and modern positivism—has taught us to regard as senseless and meaningless formations due to accident or human caprice, turn out in many instances to be the foundations on which our capacity for rational thought rests. Man is not and never will be the master of his fate: his very reason always progresses by leading him into the unknown and unforeseen where he learns new things.

Hayek, F Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy, p 507

This position is one where the knowledge available to use is not just limited – but diminishes with progress. Hayek eloquently, and much before his time, suggests that a key reason for this is complexity. In a far too little-read paper called “The theory of complex phenomena” Hayek lays out a very far-sighted analysis of complexity as a key constraint on any ideological or legal project.

Biological complexity over mechanical simplicity gives you a different point of departure for an ideological project.

It is a remarkable piece of writing in that it precedes so much of the discussion about complexity and society that we see today – and should as such be seen as a key contribution to much of the complexity studies that are undertaken today. Hayek’s ideological position in the public mind may have hindered this, and if so it is a pity, because in this paper is laid out a conception of social analysis that really requires attention in our time. Here is what he writes about the distinction between simplicity and complexity:

The distinction between simplicity and complexity raises considerable philosophical difficulties when applied to statements. But there seems to exist a fairly easy and adequate way to measure the degree of complexity of different kinds of abstract patterns. The minimum number of elements of which an instance of the pattern must consist in order to exhibit all the characteristic attributes of the class of patterns in question appears to provide an unambiguous criterion.

Hayek, F “The Theory of Complex Phenomena”

This is not quite algorithmic complexity – but close, and perhaps more interesting for social sciences. He concludes:

What we must get rid of is the naive superstition that the world must be so organized that it is possible by direct observation to discover simple regularities between all phenomena and that this is a necessary presupposition for the application of the scientific method. What we have by now discovered about the organization of many complex structures should be sufficient to teach us that there is no reason to expect this, and that if we want to get a head in these fields our aims will have to be somewhat different from what they are in the fields of simple phenomena.


Hayek suggests, in the concluding part that we should recognize the “importance of our ignorance”. Now, this has been taken as a limit on theories of the state grounded in ethics and theology, rather than – what I think is more reasonable – a suggestion that we need to start from epistemology.

An ideology grounded in the question “what can we know” is very different from one grounded in “what is just” – but it seems impossible to get to ethics without first passing through epistemology (or, well – it seems impossible to me, I can imagine that there is an argument that says that our epistemology is secondary to our ethics, and quite a strong argument too, perhaps based on a reading of Wittgenstein’s views in On Certainty — in order to doubt (epistemology) we need to first believe (ethics) – but I resist that because I think that ethics is as reflective and theoretical as epistemology, and thus we need to order our intellectual models to get at a reasonable sequence of constructing our ideologies – we feel first, and we are, but that is not ethics, but rather what Wittgenstein would refer to as Äusserungen, and it would take us too far away from the beaten path to try to build an ideology on that).

So what would this look like? What is a liberalism built on the conviction of our epistemological limitations and the resulting ignorance? I think it is an ideology that allows for far more uncertainty than risk, to start with — and I want to think a bit about what that means in future posts.

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