Sophistpundit on Hayek, vanguards, and freedom

March 7, 2010

Over at Sophistpundit, a fascinating meditation on Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, focusing on the power of small minorities to generate cultural evolution:  what we pre-postmodern types might call progress.

The idea of a vanguard which sees farther than the population is probably as old as the human race – certainly as old as the first settled communities.  In the Republic, Plato gave it philosophical justification.  Over the last two centuries, we have seen no end of vanguards:  Marxist-Leninist, Freudian, and artistic avant-garde, to name three of the more influential.

But these were bogus self-anointed elites, each wielding a rationalistic formula for truth or happiness or beauty which it wished to impose on the thick-headed public.  Their methods were – and had to be – despotic.  The imbalance between the brilliant vanguard and the superstitious crowd could only be redressed by an armed empire of reason.

That true vanguards exist, however, can be deduced from the shape of all complex human interactions:  the power law.

The spike of the power law chart represents a tiny minority which disproportionately dominates an activity, statistically at least.  The activity in question can be earning an income, volunteering for a charity, adopting new technology, advocating a policy, running a fan club, selling a product – anything requiring a large enough group to achieve complexity.

Sophistpundit’s point, derived from his reading of Hayek, is that under conditions of freedom each of these successful vanguards is the winner of a competition with other elites.  Early adopters of technology can find themselves a step ahead or in a dead end.  The idle rich who invest in expensive fashions can become trend-setters or look ridiculous.  A book can become a blockbuster or – in David Hume’s phrase – fall stillborn from the press.

This, Sophistpundit observes, is trial and error on a cultural level.  Success is determined by many factors – but freedom, both for the vanguard to promote and for the public to select, is of strategic importance.  Previously successful vanguards, and their positions and products, can then be amended and, if necessary, overturned.  That is how communities evolve:  how progress is achieved.

Sophistpundit quotes the Constitution of Liberty:  “The argument for democracy presupposes that any minority opinion may become a majority one.”  He goes on:

So just as there are many products enjoyed only by small groups today, a few of which may become mass products tomorrow, so too are there beliefs held only by small groups today that may tomorrow become part of established tradition. [ . . .]

The strongest argument for liberty that can be found in this great book is the fact that in a free society there is much more trial and error as more of these small groups are able to experiment on a wider range of subjects.  The less free a society, the more constrained these groups are and the fewer in number they are likely to be.  At the extreme end what you end up with is a calcified society, where one minority group dominates what is available to the whole and Hayek’s engine of progress is all but brought to a halt.

It is customary to say “read the whole thing.”  Well, do it.  Reflect.  Then do it again.  You’ll find it well worth a second reading.