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Hayekian Social Theory and Religious Faith by Robert A. Sirico

Lord Acton, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, said that, “The first of human concerns is religion and it is the salient feature of the modern centuries.”1 We might ask if it this is still true, given the rise of secularism and the concomitant decline in weekly church attendance in the present moment, largely in the West. There is no question that secularism is the prevailing motivational force behind our politics and public life. In some sense, this was the hope of the American founders, who wanted space between the religious impulse and the law of the state. This form of secularity is not something to regret entirely, since separation of religious institutions (as opposed to religious inspiration) and the rule of law is a pillar of the freedom of religion. This is not a hindrance to the flourishing of religious faith but an opportunity to transform the culture. However, there is a different kind of radical secularism that seeks to reduce religion to a purely private matter, and even ban action in all spheres of life that derive from a religious impulse. Of this type of ideology, Pope Benedict XVI said:


John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “The Study of History,” in Essays in the Study and Writing of History, ed. J. Rufus Fears, vol.2 of Selected Writings of Lord Acton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1986), 514.


It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States comes to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms: the freedom of religion.2

In other words, the freedom of religion implies the freedom to allow religious faith in the minds, choices, convictions, and hearts of believers, a role in the shaping of economies, cultures, and even political trends. To deny this and try to stamp it out really amounts to a form of attack on religious liberty. Religion needs a zone of freedom in which to exercise its influence in society. I would argue further that to seek to minimize that zone really does amount to an attempt to control people. I agree with Lord Acton that religion really does remain, even today, a first concern of people and a driving motivation for the choices and actions of people. Yet, this claim may make some economists and other social scientists uncomfortable. It need not. Economists need only broaden their scope of study to include reflections on the formation and development of the social order, of which 2

Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the United States of America on their “ad limina” visit:


religion does and will continue to play an important role. Religious faith, shapes the morals, values, mores, and cultural rituals of every society,3 and historically played a critical role in the charitable and volunteer (i.e., non-remunerative) efforts that are necessary in every society that cares for the less privileged among us and those excluded from the matrix of exchange by age, ability, or artificial barriers put in place by legislation. 4 Religious belief informs the social order to a profound extent. But where does religion come from? Is it cobbled together by one person and presented in all its cognitive detail in one generation? Theoretically this could happen but such is not usually the case, and moreover, those religions that are put together like formulas, as onetime events, usually do not thrive being too brittle to endure. There is a difference between revelation and comprehension. Revelation comes as a direct instruction as to what to do or believe; comprehension comes from a period of examination, debate, dialogue, development and refinement of ideas according to trial and error experience, thought, and action. Religious ideas are the product of time, social learning and tradition, and gradually take hold and


Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2006).


For an outline of the religious history of the development of health care, see Robert A. Sirico, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2013), 146-151.


are concretized in the lives of believers through life experience, social evolution and development. Of course, this is not only true of religion; it is true of most systems of belief. Cardinal Newman wrote of this process of truth-discovery unfolding as a process in his dictum: “No mind, however large, however penetrating, can directly and fully by one act understand any one truth, however simple.�5 The venerable founder of our Society, Friedrich A. Hayek (1889-1992) was a thinker who dedicated the latter part of his scholarly career to understanding this process. His early interests were on psychology and on the science of the mind, but his professional academic life moved to an intense focus on economics, while studying at the University of Vienna. In the 1920s his work was on monetary theory, business cycle theory, the economics of socialism, and capital and interest theory. His most famous work was The Road to Serfdom and it focused mainly on political theory. But as time moved on, he gradually became interested in the intersection between the human mind and the formation and order of society. In 1973, one year before receiving the Nobel Prize, he penned some of his most profound writings on the social order. These writings are among the least read in his entire corpus but they have direct impact on our understanding of the role of religious faith in the evolution of society. His book Rules and Order, which 5

John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1947), 114.


serves as volume one of Law, Legislation, and Liberty6 is a remarkably fruitful look at the structure of society as an extension of the human mind and the nature of the relationship between the two. To some extent, we can see Hayek’s work here as an elaboration on the ideas of Lord Acton, whose thoughts adorn the opening pages of the very first chapter. This volume presents “two ways of looking at the pattern of human activities.” The first is to see society as a product of human construction, and to view every institution as the embodiment of some deliberate design, achieving precisely what it was intended to achieve. In this view, institutions serve human purposes when they have been designed to achieve those purposes. This view, writes Hayek, is “pleasing to human vanity” because it exalts intellectuals and their power over events and the shape of the world. Hayek calls this view constructivism or constructivist rationalism because it imagines that the whole of society can be made or comprehended through individual mental efforts. 7 The second view is the one Hayek was dedicated to elaborating upon in the work of his later years. He sees society as not solely due to institutions and practices constructed for specific ends but rather to the growth and evolution of institutions (including cultural habits and mores) that were preserved and


Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty: Rules and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 8.


flourished, even accidentally, because they were gradually refined in a way that allowed great success in navigating the social order, even if such institutions and practices were not specifically intended to bring about particular results. This view he liked to call the “spontaneous order� perspective, not because action is aimless but because social and cultural results are not designed or constructed but rather emerge from lived experienced and right reason. Many of the institutions of society which are indispensable conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits, or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. We live in a society in which we can successfully orientate ourselves, and in which our actions have a good chance of achieving their aims, not only because our fellows are governed by known aims or known connections between means and ends, but because they are also confined by rules whose purpose or origin we often do not know and of whose very existence we are often not aware.8

These separate and distinct models of understanding the social order have profound implications for the prospects of human freedom. In Hayek’s view, the main reason why people have been unwilling to admit the limits of the state in human affairs is due to this arrogant belief that scientific rationalism is capable of structuring the social order according to the design by intellectuals. Socialism,


Ibid., 11.


then, represents the fullest presentation of the constructivist vision, complete with a specific vision of the end state of society and role of everyone in it. But it also emerges in the legislative state that is constantly using the force of law to somehow forge results that rarely if ever come to be. Hayek argues that intended human design is not what makes the social order work and not what drives human action and development. He goes so far as to say that the social order is constructed not by any one human being’s knowledge but rather by the reality that we all benefit from knowledge that is not possessed by people but rather comes to us through embedded institutions and habits formed over time. The key problem of social order, he says, is not the acquisition or accumulation of knowledge but the utilization of existing knowledge that is dispersed widely throughout all the members of society. Using that knowledge effectively requires a high value on human volition, an openness to discovery, opportunities for learning, institutions that convey knowledge, and an environment of liberty that is tolerant of mistakes and provides opportunities for successful patterns of action to prevail and persist. The social order itself is never complete and its direction of change cannot be mapped out in advance of human choice. We need a broad framework of rules that come to us by virtue of cultural inheritance, worthy of man based on the capacity of human intelligence to identify the good and then seeking to realize it. (Indeed, the very


idea of justice, about which so many of our contemporaries speak, implies that things ought to be a certain way, rather than another, and that humans can know these things with some certainty, about which the scholastics wrote at length.) The spreading and persistence of these rules are made possible not only through intentions but also through the imitation of prevailing practices and the process of observing, transmitting, and developing these habits. Indeed, we all tend to follow practices in manners, morals, and law that we might not be able to defend or even articulate. These rules are an inchoate part of human nature which flourish from a heritage into which we are born and come to shape through our own actions. The common (and easiest) examples that Hayek would give here, within the field of economics, are prices on the market which act to accumulate the knowledge of its billions of participants and their actions. But it also pertains to everyday modes of being, from the times we eat and sleep to the manner in which we go about conducting our lives in marriages, ceremonies, professional conduct, business life, burial rituals, family structure and much else besides. The insight that much of the social order emerges from action and learning rather than intention and design, he traces to the Catholic thinkers of the middle ages. Hayek’s famous slogan that social phenomena are a “result of human action but not of human design� he identifies with the late scholastics. They named such


phenomena naturalis, which is a technical term meaning something that was not shaped by human will. In particular, Hayek identifies the Jesuit Luis de Molina as among the first to see that prices in the market economy were not a result of laws and decrees but result from the estimates of traders over time working with real trades in property. There might be a “just price,� wrote Molina, but only God can know it; the rest of us must depend on the letting prices emerge from market exchange.9 Today, as compared with the late middle ages, prices are an even more brilliant example of the spontaneous order celebrated by Hayek. They never stop changing. They run all day and night and people from every nation on earth contribute to their formation. And though the nightly news always seeks to account for why they went up or down, ultimately this is speculation because there are too many people, factors, decisions, and outlooks contributing to price discovery and formation to make rational sense of every movement in price. It is a classic example of what Hayek called the extended order: an impossibly complex system of institutional expression that results from human decision making that creates results far removed from the intentions of any particular individuals. It is particularly amusing for those of us who understand Hayek’s point to see the relentless speculation about whether the price in this or that market sector is 9

Ibid., p. 21. For an overall treatment of the economic thought of late scholastics, see Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory, ed. Stephen J. Grabill (Lantham: Lexington Books, 2007).


somehow being deliberately manipulated by particularly large players in a market. It is easy to imagine that some might try to so manipulate the market, but successes in this regard are short lived, and easily thwarted by actions, decisions, and events that evade the control of any particular traders within the market. Even more in contrast to the Hayekian way is to imagine that prices can be manufactured out of some bureaucratic process sealed off the from the actual experience of people in the marketplace who are seeking price discovery through negotiation and exchange. In the Hayekian view, this tendency from progressive revelation through real experience pertains not only to markets and prices but also to language, customs, mores, laws stemming from human experience (as opposed to rationalistic legislation), and the whole structure of society itself. The complexities are beyond the comprehension of rulers or intellectuals to describe,, much less to construct. They are the result of the gradual unfolding of experience. The conclusion of Hayek’s reflection on the structure of social order is that society needs to remove barriers to development and permit the flourishing of the choices of people who can adapt according to the conditions of time and place, gradually melding practices to their environment and remain rooted in their values. In colloquial terms, the social order must be built from the bottom up and not imposed from the top down. Intellectuals who seek to understand the social order


need to develop an attitude of humility and deference to the complexities of the extended order that emerges from human choices, and not imagine that they can comprehend the whole and adapt it according to their own designs. While reading Hayek one is struck by several insights as they pertain to the role of the homo religiosus. Notice first how often Hayek alludes to religious thinkers in the course of his discussion, such as the successors to St. Thomas Aquinas as well as to 19th century scholars of religion such as Lord Acton. In equal measure, he sets himself against the 18th- and 19th-century turn toward scientism or naturalism that imagines the whole of prevailing norms as essentially mythical and attempts to rationally construct society based on Cartesian principles and methods, such that all things that pass the test are preserved and all things that fail are thrown out. From Hayek’s description alone, we gain a pretty solid look at the emergence of the division between the two types of ways to understand the social order. It follows very closely between those who think in terms of an inherited religious tradition and those who dismiss such traditions as superstitious nonsense that can be easily wiped out with no great cost to us personally or to the social order. In reading the writings of the “New Atheists�, for example, one sees an alarming cavalierness with which they toss out the inheritance of millennia as if it offered nothing of any value whatsoever. They imagine that every belief system


ought to be subjected to a strict test of the evidence of the senses, and that every person ought to subject every thought to a thorough inventory, or that it is impermissible to carry around stories in one’s mind that one believes may or may not be true but are acknowledged by virtue of long-standing tradition. The whole of our intellectual and mental experience, in this view, ought to be completely constructed based on rationality alone, precisely as central planning socialists imagine that we can construct the social order from the top down. From a pastoral perspective, I can testify that the idea that the whole of our minds and lives -- from when we eat and what we love and everything we believe -- needs to be designed by us alone, can be a profound source of anxiety and is essentially an inhumane impossibility. Next, one is struck in this period of Hayek’s writing by the absence of overt discussion of any religious topic, even though, as Lord Acton says, the shape of society itself is so profoundly influenced by religious tradition, and always has been. The belief structures to which Hayek makes constant references -- mores, morals, habits, institutions, values, traditions, customs -- emerge out of the religious impulse. It is religion that is behind our rituals of birth, child rearing, marriage, death, and the basis for so much of who we all are and what we do. We know this from casual experience. We might not know a person’s religious tradition when we first meet but when the revelation comes -- “I was raised a


Reformed Jew,” or “I grew up in a strict Baptist family,” or “everyone I knew as a child was Buddhist,” and so on -- we find we know a good deal about such a person. This is not prejudice at work but rather valuable information to know about a person’s life and ways. And yet, given all of this, Hayek seems strangely unaware of the role of religion in particular in informing the course of social evolution. Finally, Hayek’s description of the gradual development of the shape of the social order also pertains to the development of religious doctrine. In the Christian tradition (and this pertains to most other religions as well), it is simply not the case that the dogma of the Trinity, the rubrics of the liturgy, or even what constitutes the revealed canon of Holy Scripture sprung fully formed and developed after the birth of the Church on Pentecost. To be sure, seeds were planted about all these matters, and early Christians always understood that the fullness of Christian truth had to be unfolded from what had been entrusted to them, and they employed reason to do this. These developments, however, took centuries. What we call the Canon of Scripture itself actually came to achieve its present form after centuries of discussion and debate. Likewise, the dogma of the Trinity similarly developed over centuries, as Council after Council were called to deal specifically with new ideas more precise and some vocabulary introduced, that were later dubbed heresies and further


defined, debated, developed and discussed not only in formal meetings but also in towns, among common folk, in monasteries, and among recognized leaders of the Christian community. Sometimes questions that were raised by the emergence of what were only later called heresies had not been fully considered in previous generations. The gradual development of doctrine came about in response to challenges and the answers themselves unfolded over generations of debate and experience. This last point in particular is elaborated upon by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his seminal essay on The Development of Christian Doctrine.10 Written in 1879, within the first two decades of debate over Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and written as a way to explain how Christian doctrine develops in the sense of change yet continuity, without contradiction. In this sense, Newman said, Christianity has developed its understanding of the relationship between the Church and the world. “Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world's history,� he writes at the outset. And he proceeds to do so in defense of the manner in which Christianity has developed over the centuries in an ever-changing, ever-evolving process of adaptation and refinement through real


John Henry Cardinal Newman, introduction to An Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 3.


experience. Newman’s own description of the development process appears to have some kinship to Hayek in its outlook: An idea not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it. Its development proceeds quickly or slowly, as it may be; the order of succession in its separate stages is variable; it shows differently in a small sphere of action and in an extended; it may be interrupted, retarded, mutilated, distorted, by external violence; it maybe enfeebled by the effort of ridding itself of domestic foes; it may be impeded and swayed or even absorbed by counter energetic ideas; it may be coloured by the received tone of thought into which it comes, or depraved by the intrusion of foreign principles, or at length shattered by the development of some original fault within it.

But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring.... In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.11


Ibid., 20.


Newman further makes the point that the Scriptures record the revelation given the Children of Israel, as well as the progressive development and implications of that encounter that enfold and respond within successive situations. Can any history wear a more human appearance than that of the rise and growth of the chosen people to whom I have just referred? What had been determined in the counsels of the Lord of heaven and earth from the beginning, what was immutable, what was announced to Moses in the burning bush, is afterwards represented as the growth of an idea under successive emergencies.12

This progressive unfolding of the idea happened over many centuries, through a historical narrative, one that continues to serve as the template of the Christian liturgy and prayer life. Believers are invited to enter into the life of Christ through ritual and prayer, so that the narrative of progressive unfolding of truth becomes the animating force in the conduct of our lives. The life of the Christian believer 2,000 years later is then bound up with the real events of the founder of the faith. Far from being an abstraction that is revealed all at once, the faith is “living� and formed in the course of lived experience and rational engagement with real history, which in turn becomes integral to the real experience of believers today. 12

Ibid., 36.


Newman contrasts this point of view of the development of Christian doctrine with the fundamentalist principle that we should be forever returning to the source documents and cobbling together -- from one generation and through rationalistic methods -- what should be the precise form of our belief and practice. He refers to this constructivist approach as essentially unhistorical and even dangerous because in taking this route we threaten to shred valuable information and experience, and throw on the fires the received wisdom and cultural inheritance of generations. While Faith involves a reasoned reflection upon both the natural and revealed sources of truth, it cannot be literally reinvented in one generation through rationalistic intellectual inquiry and decision making alone. This would be artificial and scientistic, substituting faith with pure positivist methodology. In both his description of the development of doctrine and his condemnation of the fundamentalist urge, his argument has much in common with Hayek’s own rejection of scientistic socialism, or for that matter a scientistic capitalism and any attempt to confuse naturalism with science. 13 Both fundamentalism and socialism are seeking to arrive at some purer truth than has been established through lived experience, argument, debate, and inheritance. The pure truth and pure model they seek is not only inaccessible to the human mind but it actually unachievable by 13

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011).


central planners and intellectual leaders, because it requires overthrowing the tacit knowledge that actually constrains the choices and beliefs of people in real-world action. Change in belief structures comes about gradually through learning and selection, not through a top-down imposition of a team of experts who have essentially invented some end state from their own minds. Perhaps secular scholars are so reluctant to admit matters of faith to social analysis for the same reason collectivist intellectuals are so reluctant to defer to the judgment of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace in matters of economics and social evolution. Radical skepticism, scientism, naturalism and socialism imagine that the world can somehow be built in one generation by the best and brightest, without realizing that the best and brightest that humankind has to offer is bigger than one generation, one group of minds, one human being, and that the knowledge we seek that makes possible a civilized extended order is essentially inaccessible to us as intellectuals but must be revealed through a long process of a gradually unfolding truth that emerges in steps. The battle to see the religious mind as an integral part of the social process is part of the same battle to regard the freedom of the marketplace through which much economic knowledge develops and which must be allowed to work itself out without the intervention of “scientists” who purport to have more knowledge than the human experience itself can provide.


However implausible it may seem, the development of society and the development of faith have more in common than might be first supposed.


Hayekian Social Theory and Religious Faith  

paper by Robert A. Sirico

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