April Freeman Banner 2014


Diversity, Ends, and Rules

What the liberal order permits.


In a previous column, I wrote about how the market promotes diversity by allowing us to use our different comparative advantages to benefit ourselves.  I also noted how trade promotes the ends of those who are concerned about diversity by facilitating our contact with a wider array of people, independent of their race, ethnicity, or national identity.  I want to pick up on some of those themes this week and extend them in a slightly more theoretical direction by talking about F. A. Hayek’s vision of classical liberalism and how it relates to diversity.

Hayek emphasized that one of the great advantages of the liberal market order is that by requiring agreement on only a small number of things, the scope for peaceful coexistence and collaboration is widened among people who disagree on many other things.  One need only recognize that people with different consumer preferences manage not only to coexist with one another but also engage in mutually beneficial trade with producers who meet those various needs.  Even more generally, liberal societies enable people with different values and ideas about life to find peaceful ways of interacting to achieve their respective goals.

Hayek understood that the only way a society can respect diversity is if people agree on basic rules, especially what he called “ends-independent” rules of justice.  These rules must permit all individuals to pursue their own ends peacefully rather than being aimed at specific social ends.  That is, the rules cannot have a concrete purpose; rather, they must be general enough to allow the achievement of a variety of purposes.

Like Money and Language

In this way the rules of justice are analogous to money or language, both of which can be seen as “ends-independent” means for achieving a variety of ends.  Money and language have no purpose of their own.  They are simply means by which people pursue their own particular purposes and plans. Moreover, they permit peaceful interaction among people who disagree about ends.

So it is with the legal order of a liberal society.  Instead of our having to agree on the ends, with the State controlling the means, markets allow us to agree on the means while respecting a diversity of ends.

Note that classical liberalism still requires a common commitment, not to a set of ends or values, but to a set of means that comprise legitimate behavior under the rule of law.  The agreement on private property, contract, and exchange as legitimate means to one’s ends, as well as the agreement that force and fraud are illegitimate means, are what unite the members of a liberal order.

It is this that makes peaceful disagreement about ends possible.  The liberal order is the only way to achieve a society in which diverse preferences, values, and ends are truly respected.  Indeed, classical liberalism’s emphasis on agreement over means nourishes the diversity of ends.  However, once we take the social-justice approach and begin to demand agreement on ends, we eradicate the possibility of peacefully coexisting with those whose ends differ.  In other words, social justice can kill real diversity.



Contributing editor and Freeman Online columnist Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback. This summer, he will be lecturing for FEE at Rebels with a Cause.

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April 2014

Around the world, people are struggling to throw off authoritarianism, with deeply mixed results. From Egypt to Venezuela, determined people build networks to overthrow their regimes, but as yet we have not learned to live without Leviathan. In this issue, Michael Malice and Gary Dudney discuss their glimpses inside totalitarian regimes, while Sarah Skwire and Michael Nolan look at how totalitarian regimes grind down the individual--and how individuals fight back. Plus, Jeffrey Tucker identifies a strain in libertarianism that, left unchecked, could reduce even our vibrant movement to something that is analogous to the grim aesthetic of architectural brutalism. The struggle for our lives and freedom is a struggle for beauty; it begins inside each of us.
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