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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/16541/the-moral-imperative-of-the-market/

The Moral Imperative of the Market

April 19, 2011 by

If it is true that prices are signals which enable us to adapt our activities to unknown events and demands, it is evidently nonsense to believe that we can control prices. FULL ARTICLE by Friedrich A. Hayek


Jeffrey Tucker April 19, 2011 at 8:04 am

This article by Hayek sums up in the briefest way his theory of the pricing process, which is different from Mises’s own view. Kinsella sums up the relevant literature on this here http://blog.mises.org/5306/knowledge-vs-calculation/

fundamentalist April 19, 2011 at 8:56 am

Thanks for this article!

In “Fatal Conceit”, which I believe was written after this article, Hayek talks about the important role of religion in convincing people to follow principles that they can’t immediately justify. Fundamentalist Christianity did just that for centuries. It elevated private property and restrained envy. As those restraints loosened with the decline of fundamentalist Christianity, there was nothing to stop envy and lust from taking what they wanted from people who had worked hard for their wealth.

BTW, I use the term “fundamentalist” Christianity instead of “orthodox” because orthodox has more to do with the large body of teaching of the Catholic, Eastern and Protestant church. Orthodox Protestantism isn’t the same as Orthodox Catholicism. But fundamentalist Christianity is very light baggage that all three groups can easily carry. Fundamentalist Christianity means the acceptance of just the fundamentals – eg., the virgin birth, divinity of Christ, physical death and resurrection. All Christian groups can agree on the fundamentals even though their differing orthodoxies don’t agree.

Drigan April 19, 2011 at 10:19 am

Yes, we just can’t agree about what those fundamentals are. ;)

Anthony April 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm


Christianity has also been used across the centuries as a bludgeon against the rich, against money lenders, and basically against anyone who has achieved material success. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the verses in the bible that give a negative impression of rich people.

I am not sure how exactly you have decided that the net impact of Christianity over the ages has protected private property more then it has weakened it, but I would say the record is mixed at best.

fundamentalist April 20, 2011 at 9:22 am

Anthony, we should distinguish between two types of Christianity – popular and orthodox. Popular Christian practice has often fallen short of orthodox teaching. Popular Christianity has wielded the bludgeon against the rich for the most part. Orthodox Christianity has usually upheld the sanctity of property and the justice of a free market, especially since Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about the evil rich, but several of the “heroes” of the Bible were extremely wealthy, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. Is it a contradiction or is there a difference? There’s a difference. The Godly rich were blessed by God. But the evil rich obtained their wealth by immoral means.

Keep in mind that until at least the rise of the Italian cities in the middle ages the main ways to get wealth if you didn’t inherit it were plunder in war, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, bribery, obtaining a monopoly from the ruler, and theft of someone’s property by bribing a judge. Those were the primary means for getting wealth because few invested in new business ventures. Commerce and manufacturing were held in low esteem by most of society. So if you were wealthy in Biblical times, chances are good that you had stolen your wealth from someone else. That gave birth to the idea that one man can get rich only at the expense of others.

That began to change in Venice and Florence. For the first time in European history commerce had a good reputation. Some of the change in attitude happened because the Church switched from Platonic philosophy, in which the material world was evil, to an Aristotelian view of it as morally neutral. The shift was largely due to the efforts of Thomas Aquinas and it fit better with the Biblical view of wealth.

However, the Church’s stance on property and free markets had little impact on rulers. They continued practicing the traditional methods of getting wealth (theft) for centuries. The big change came with the Dutch Republic which decided to implement the Church’s teachings on property and markets. As Angus Maddison has written, the Dutch were the first nation in European history to really protect property.

Beginning first in Italy and then the Dutch Republic, increased wealth became possible primarily by investing in businesses. But a lot of theologians never caught on to the change. In the past it was true that one man could gain only at the expense of others, and many theologians assumed that was still true. Other theologians caught on and realized that the new wealth came from honest means and saw it as a blessing from God, comparable to the wealth of the Biblical heroes.

Today we still have that tension. The divide is mostly between fundamentalist Christians (as defined above) and “modernist”, unbelieving “Christians”, or the religious left. The left still holds on to the ancient idea that one man cannot grow richer except by making someone else poorer. Fundamentalist Christians for the most part have caught on to economics and the “new” means of creating wealth.

Sorry for the long post, but your question was good and deserved a solid response.

Allen Weingarten April 19, 2011 at 9:20 am

I appreciate and continually learn from the teachings of Hayek. Yet I question his statement that “the struggle between the advocates of a free society and the advocates of the socialist system is not a moral but an intellectual conflict.” It is true that there is an imperative to understanding free markets, pricing, etc. But can we deny that the Keynesians & socialists justify their economic positions by appealing to ‘justice’ and ‘charity’? I submit that it is their flawed moral positions have swayed the West into accepting ever more government intervention. Not only is Keynesianism and socialism immoral, but so is the intellectual dishonesty and double-talk that sustains it.

Drigan April 19, 2011 at 10:25 am

They certainly do frame the question from a moral perspective, but I believe they do that because they don’t understand the intellectual flaws with their supposedly morally superior position. If they intellectually understood that there is no moral difference to victimizing a person at gunpoint and voting to have someone else take something at implied gunpoint, then they would likely back off of their wrongheaded ‘compassion.’

Allen Weingarten April 19, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Drigan, you might argue (as did Socrates) that if people understood their true interest, they would behave morally. Thus, moral errors would be due to a lack of intellect. Yet it is my belief that envy and intellectual dishonesty are not due primarily to that lack, but to a choice of adhering to one’s passions, rather than his aspirations.

I submit that wicked people such as Hitler and Stalin were above average in intellect, and that a decade of learning of the greatest books ever written would not change their readiness to murder. Conversely, there are those of little formal education, who have a sense of right and wrong. This is not to say that understanding does not matter, but rather that it is not the only influence.

fundamentalist April 19, 2011 at 12:21 pm

“…if people understood their true interest, they would behave morally.”

I agree if you include the short/long run distinction. People would behave morally if they understood their true long run interests. Unfortunately, many things are profitable in the short run only to come back and bite us in the long run.

Drigan April 19, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Originally you were arguing about justice and charity. Now you are arguing about intellectual choice, I’m not really sure what your statement was saying anymore.

Jonathan M. F. Catalán April 19, 2011 at 12:41 pm

But can we deny that the Keynesians & socialists justify their economic positions by appealing to ‘justice’ and ‘charity’?

Hayek and Mises provide powerful arguments as to why socialism and interventionism cannot sustainably or efficiently provide that ‘justice’ and ‘charity’.

Allen Weingarten April 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm

True, so do you believe that if people read or heard their analyses they would accept the free market? If not, why not?

Jonathan M. F. Catalán April 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I don’t know if they would accept a free-market. Hayek didn’t accept Mises’s entire sociological vision when he read Socialism; even for Hayek his ‘conversion’ (for lack of a better word) took time. Nevertheless, if one is persuaded that a certain option is wrong then it leads them to explore the other available options, which will hopefully lead them to the correct one.

Allen Weingarten April 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Jonathan, I am not asking for anyone to accept every iota of anyone’s entire vision. Rather I am asking whether those who believe that government intervention is needed for justice would conclude that justice is better served by the market. If not, why not?

Gilbert W. Chapman April 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm

May I suggest, Mr. Weingarten, that you are correct in surmising that justice is better served by the market process than by government intervention. However, I would like to add one other facet to ‘market justice’ that seems to have disappeared during the latter part of the 20th century, as Hayek pointed out somewhat differently: The Concept of Noblesse Oblige. Now, there is no doubt the phrase, “Let the buyer beware”, has always been in evidence within our society since its founding. But, (with the exception of slavery and ethnic biases ), most of the ‘common folk’ within our society benefited from the efforts of a community’s town fathers. That is, up until FDR came along.

As a matter of fact, one of the principle reasons Grover Cleveland vetoed so many ‘ear mark’ pieces of legislation was because he felt neighbors and benevolent wealthy fellow citizens should take care of their own, so to speak. What changed in the 20th century was that the capitalists began to let, and eventually encourage, the government to care for the needy (for lack of a better word), and removed themselves from local public life.

As an example, one need look no further than the membership roster of local school boards. As a youth, I can well remember (in Hartford, Connecticut) of seeing distinquished lawyers, insurance company executives, and M.D.’s serve on those boards. With wealth and power (generated through the ‘little people’) come responsibilities. And, those responsibilities do not end by writing a check to a charitable institution. Noblesse Oblige entails much more than that.

Allen Weingarten April 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm

I agree with you Mr. Chapman as to the virtue of Noblesse Oblige. I would add that when there is local charity, as when one aids a relative or friend, there is a partnership between the giver and receiver, rather than resentment.

Gilbert W. Chapman April 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Thank you, Mr. Weingarten . . . . . You have captured the essence my posture in far fewer words than I did ! ! !

And, more significantly, I think Professor Hayek would agree with us.

Allen Weingarten April 20, 2011 at 4:00 am

In addition to Hayek’s stunning intellectual accomplishments, he was a gentleman.

Gilbert W. Chapman April 20, 2011 at 5:22 am

I couldn’t agree more with you.

As a graduate student at the University of Hartford in the 1970′s, I had the honor of having a private conversation with him shortly after he received the Nobel, thanks to Dom Armentano. A gentleman indeed!

Allen Weingarten April 20, 2011 at 9:48 am

I did not have your benefit of meeting Hayek, but only of reading some of his writings. In one article he mentioned his preference of those who have the culture of knowing when someone is not interested in whether another cares to discuss something. In another he shows his appreciation of Keynes as a charming person (although unfortunately he understands little about economics).

Paul Stephens April 21, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I wrote this before I saw any other comments.

Wow! This is a side of Hayek I never saw, before. Here, he really is a moral and intellectual conservative.

“The taut discipline of the market.”

This was written very late in Hayek’s career – about the time that he was angling for a British knighthood. He finally did get a lesser recognition from the Queen’s List, and was very proud to have received it. The von in Hayek’s name was also earned (by his grandfather – something to do with the Napoleonic Wars, if I remember correctly), so Hayek had no sense of entitlement, and little of noblesse oblige, either, since his was an intellectual, public service family, not rich landowners or industrialists.

For me, the key fact about Hayek which I only learned about much later was that he was related by marriage to the Wittgenstein’s. Hayek and Ludwig’s (and hence, Paul’s as well) mothers were first-cousins, which also explains them both fleeing the Nazis. Hayek mentions somewhere that the only time he actually met Ludwig was at the exchange of prisoners following the WWI armistice – Wittgenstein had been captured, and spent some time in a POW camp. I think Bertrand Russell and some others helped get him out, or maybe better treatment for him (since Italy was a British ally in that war).

Hayek, as this article indicates, was something of a moral prude, with strong bourgeois morality. I think part of this was a put-on. This was at the time when Margaret Thatcher was lionizing Hayek, and he might have been having some fun with her imagined prejudices. I think most people who knew Hayek in person regarded him very highly as a “Mensch” or whatever. He wasn’t at all mean-spirited or even very judgmental, as Milton Friedman was, for example.

Which brings me to another point which is just killing libertarians in the Hayek tradition – namely, that he was an intellectual authoritarian, a supporter of Pinochet, and even part of the “Chicago School” of economics. Although most readers here know differently, we are a small and isolated minority. And articles like this only reinforce the idea that Hayek was some sort of imperialistic “economic royalist,” or whatever.

I’d be interested to hear what other people who knew Hayek personally might think. Of course, I only knew him in the classroom and from his books. He might have been a horrible racist reactionary in personal life. More than one genius in intellectual history fell prey to that “tradition.”

Gilbert W. Chapman April 22, 2011 at 5:04 am

Mr. Stevens ~

Not to be sarcastic, but I just don’t grasp your point. In 25 words or less, could you express your ‘theme’?

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