To compromise or not to compromise?

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, September 23, 2010 ,

Tory Historian, having had to read numerous British political philosophers and to discuss their fascinating and overwhelmingly important ideas, has always found it slightly odd to hear people pronounce that the British do not care for ideas - they just muddle through. Given that most of the modern world's ideas (and all of the more beneficent ones) emerged from this country to spread across the world, this seems to be particularly fatuous.

It was, therefore, with some interest that TH received a link to an old essay of Friedrich Hayek's, first published in the Spectator in January of 1945 and reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, presumably because this is by Hayek and not because they are particularly interested in Britain.

Hayek's friends and acquaintances who tell him that he should not worry because the British always muddle through somehow must have been responding to his great bookd The Road to Serfdom in which he warned that the economic structure that had been put together during the war and was intended to continue afterwards was leading to statist tyranny of the kind the war was supposed to have been fought against.

Well, apart from the fact that British history is ambivalent on whether the people had always simply muddled through, Hayek makes a very important point:

The peculiar point about these invocations of the genius for compromise is that they are produced in reply to an argument which, at least by implication, was a defense of the very institutions which have created this trait, and a warning that they are rapidly disappearing. If in the growth of the social and political structure of Britain the unforeseen and unintended has so frequently emerged, this is of course merely another way of saying that it has never been planned as a whole. In the piecemeal process of adaptation and change there has always been opportunity for the people to change institutions into something different from what they were intended to be, to create a society which was not the result of a single coherent plan, but of innumerable decisions of free men and women.

The confidence that in the end things would somehow turn out right was largely justified by the fact that in a free society the actions of the government were of minor importance compared with the manner in which the people turned to their own use whatever instruments the government provided. The trust in muddling through, in the capacity for reconciling opposites, is in fact an unconscious tribute to the laissez-faire age, wholly inappropriate to the fully organized society now widely regarded as an ideal.

Reliance on such a belief may indeed prove to be a very dangerous superstition. When one finds this particular argument used in effect as a defense of central planning of all economic activity, when it is appealed to as an assurance that none of the consequences need follow which experience shows to have followed elsewhere, the muddle has clearly been allowed to persist too long. If there is anyone who has no right to argue that things will not work out according to logic, who is not entitled to put his trust in the genius for compromise and for muddling through, it is the modern planner. If everything is to be "consciously directed according to a single blueprint," as he wishes, if every detail is to be thought out beforehand and to be made part of an integrated plan, there can be no room for those spontaneous adjustments by which a people adapt a system to their peculiar genius.
We are still living with the consequences of that insouciant mistake.

Read the whole piece. Very well worth it.


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