Ayn Rand and Friedrich A. Hayek: A Side-by-Side Comparison
Ayn Rand and Friedrich A. Hayek did more than any
other writers in the twentieth century to turn intellectual opinion away
from statism and toward a free society. Although they are opposed on
many philosophical and social issues, they generally agree on the
superiority of a free market. Rand’s defense of capitalism differs
dramatically from Hayek’s explanation of the extended order. In
addition, he approves of state activity that violates Rand’s ideas of
rights and freedom. The purpose of this brief essay is to describe,
explain, and compare the ideas of these two influential thinkers. To do
this, I present and explain an exhibit that provides a side-by-side
summary of the differences between Rand and Hayek on a number of issues.
In their early years of writing both Hayek and Rand were dismissed by
intellectuals but they were heralded by businessmen. Hayek began to gain
some respect from intellectuals when he published The Road to Serfdom
in 1944. He wrote a number of scholarly books, attained formal academic
positions, and earned the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. Rand never
did write scholarly works or hold a formal academic position. Her
philosophy must be extracted from her essays and her fiction.
Hayek was read in college classes sooner, and to a much greater extent,
than was Rand. He was viewed by intellectuals as a responsible and
respected scholar while Rand was not. His vision of anti-statism was
more acceptable to intellectuals because he called for some exceptions
to laissez-faire capitalism. In his writings he permitted concessions
for some state interventions. In his immense and varied body of work he
touched upon a great many fields including anthropology, evolutionary
biology, cognitive science, philosophy, economics, linguistics,
political science, and intellectual history. During the last 25 years or
so, Rand’s works have been increasingly studied by scholars. There is
now an Ayn Rand Society affiliated with the American Philosophical
Association and a scholarly publication devoted to the study of her
ideas—The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.In addition, her writings are now being
covered in college classes.
A Summary Comparison
(see below) provides a summary comparison of Rand and Hayek based on a
variety of factors and dimensions. With respect to metaphysics and
epistemology, Rand holds that “A is A” and that reality is knowable.
Contrariwise, Hayek argues that reality is unknowable and that what men
see are distorted representations or reproductions of objects existing
in the world. The skeptic Hayek goes so far as to state that the notion
of things in themselves (i.e., the noumenal world) can be dismissed.
Whereas Rand’s foundation is reality, the best that Hayek can offer as a
foundation is words and language.
Hayek supports the view that the human mind must have a priori
categories that are prior to, and responsible for the ability to
perceive and interpret the external world. He adds to this Kantian view
by making the case that each individual mind’s categories are
restructured according to the distinct experiences of each particular
person. Each person’s neural connections can therefore be seen as
semi-permanent and affected by his or her environment and experiences.
The mind’s categories evolve as each specific person experiences the
world. According to Hayek, there is pre-sensory knowledge embedded in
the structure of the mind and the nervous system’s synaptic connections
which can be further created and modified over time. For the neo-Kantian
Hayek, knowledge always has a subjective quality.
Reason for Rand is active, volitional, and efficacious. It follows that
she sees rationality as man’s primary virtue. She sees progress through
science and technology as the result of the human ability to think
conceptually and to analyze logically through induction and deduction.
Rand also contends that people can develop objective concepts that
correspond with reality.
In his philosophy, Hayek relegates reason to a minor role. He argues for
a modest perspective of people’s reasoning capabilities. He contends
that reason is passive and that it is a social product. Hayek’s message
of intellectual humility is primarily aimed at constructivist
rationalism rather than critical rationalism. As an “anti-rationalist,”
he explained that the world is too complex for any government planner to
intentionally design and construct society’s institutions. However, he
is a proponent of the limited potential of critical rationalism through
which individuals use local and tacit knowledge in their everyday
decisions. Hayek views progress as a product of an ongoing dynamic
evolutionary process. He said that we cannot know reality but we can
analyze evolving words and language. Linguistic analysis and some
limited empirical verification provide Hayek with somewhat of an
analytical foundation. His coherence theory of concepts is based on
agreement among minds. For Hayek, concepts happen to the mind. Of
course, his overall theory of knowledge is that individuals know much
more than can be expressed in words.
Rand makes a positive case for freedom based on the nature of man and
the world. She explains that man’s distinctive nature is exhibited in
his rational thinking and free will. Each person has the ability to
think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to
act according to those thoughts. People are rational beings with free
will who have the ability to fulfill their own life purposes, aims, and
intentions. Rand holds that each individual person has moral
significance. He or she exists, perceives, experiences, thinks and acts
in and through his or her own body and therefore from unique points in
time and space. It follows that the distinct individual person is the
subject of value and the unit of social analysis. Each individual is
responsible for thinking for himself, for acting on his own thoughts,
and for achieving his own happiness.
Hayek denies the existence of free will. However, he explains that
people act as if they have free will because they are never able to know
how they are determined to act by various biological, cultural, and
environmental factors. His negative case for freedom is based on the
idea that no one person or government agency is able to master the
complex multiplicity of elements needed to do so. Such relevant
knowledge is never totally possessed by any one individual. There are
too many circumstances and variables affecting a situation to take them
all into account. His solution to this major problem is to permit people
the “freedom” to pursue and employ the information they judge to be the
most relevant to their chosen goals. For Hayek, freedom is good because
it best promotes the growth of knowledge in society. Hayek explains that
in ordering society, we should depend as much as possible on spontaneous
forces such as market prices and as little as possible on force.
Acknowledging man’s socially-constructed nature, he does not view
individuals as independent agents but rather as creatures of society.
“Although Rand and Hayek are opposed on many philosophical questions,
they generally agree on the desirability of a free market and are among
the best-known defenders of capitalism in the twentieth century.”
According to Rand, the principle of man’s rights can be logically
derived from man’s nature and needs. Rights are a moral concept. For
Rand, the one fundamental right is a person’s right to his own life. She
explains that rights are objective conceptual identifications of the
factual requirements of a person’s life in a social context. A right is
a moral principle that defines and sanctions one’s freedom of action in
a social context. Discussion of individual rights are largely absent
from Hayek’s writings. At most he says that rights are created by
society through the mechanism of law.
Whereas Rand speaks of Objective Law, Hayek speaks of the Rule of Law.
Objective laws must be clearly expressed in terms of essential
principles. They must be objectively justifiable, impartial, consistent,
and intelligible. Rand explains that objective law is derived from the
rational principle of individual rights. Objective Law deals with the
specific requirements of a man’s life. Individuals must know in advance
what the law forbids them from doing, what constitutes a violation, and
what penalty would be incurred if they break the law. Hayek says that
the Rule of Law is the opposite of arbitrary government. The Rule of Law
holds that government coercion must be limited by known, general, and
abstract rules. According to Hayek, certain abstract rules of conduct
came into being because groups who adopted them became better able to
survive and prosper. These rules are universally applicable to everyone
and maintain a sphere of responsibility.
Rand espouses a rational objective morality based on reason and egoism.
In her biocentric ethics, moral behavior is judged in relation to
achieving specific ends with the final end being an individual’s life,
flourishing, and happiness. For Hayek, ethics is based on evolution and
emotions. Ethics for Hayek are functions of biology and socialization.
They are formed through habits and imitation.
Rand advocates a social system of laissez-faire capitalism in which the
sole function of the state is the protection of individual rights.
Hayek, or the other hand, allows for certain exceptions and
interventions to make things work. He holds that it is acceptable for
the government to supply public goods and a safety net.
For Rand, the consciousness of the individual human person is the
highest level of mental functioning. For Hayek, it is a supra-conscious
framework of neural connections through which conscious mental activity
gains meaning. He states that this meta-conscious mechanism is taken for
granted by human beings. The set of a person’s physiological impulses
forms what Hayek calls the sensory order. Perception and pattern
recognition follow one’s sensory order which is altered by a person’s
own perception and history of experiences.
Aristotle is Rand’s only acknowledged philosophical influence. They both
contend that to make life fully human (i.e., to flourish), an individual
must acquire virtues and make use of his reason as fully as he is
capable. Hayek was influenced by Kant and Popper in epistemology,
Ferguson and Smith in evolutionary theory, Hume in ethics, and
Wittgenstein in linguistics.
Although Rand and Hayek are opposed on many philosophical questions,
they generally agree on the desirability of a free market and are among
the best-known defenders of capitalism in the twentieth century. The
works of both of these intellectual giants are highly recommended for
any student of liberty.
A Summary Comparison
From the same author
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331 – April 15, 2015)
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319 – February 15, 2014)
The Best Novels and Plays about Business: Results of
311 – May 15, 2013)
Reflections on Victor Hugo's Les Misérables
309 – March 15, 2013)
First written appearance of the
word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.
Le Québécois Libre
Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary
cooperation since 1998.