A Note on “Hayekian” Empirical Normative Systems

In the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973), we will find the most daring theses of Friedrich Hayek regarding the problem between law and politics. Just as his economic work of the 1930s and 1940s had been, in his opinion, misunderstood by his colleagues; just as he was surprised to hear the fervent readers of The Road to Serfdom (1945) attribute positions to him that he had not exposed there; also his legal-political work triggered simplifying interpretations that conceal the main contributions, still relevant for this time.

In Norms and order –that is the title of that first volume- the author does not propose to abandon legislation and return to customary law, nor to replace the political decisions of the administration of state affairs by a government of judges. On the contrary, it is stated there with a clarity that leaves no room for doubt that the powers of the state must be organised and operate in accordance with the rules and procedures of public law, made up of legislative bodies endowed with rules with a clear teleological content.

On the other hand, the genuinely innovative thesis that Hayek exposes in the aforementioned volume consists in affirming that the interactions between individuals in the scope of their exchanges destined to cooperate freely and voluntarily in the coordination of their respective life plans are structured around a set of abstract rules –that is, lacking a specific purpose- and general rules whose observance could occur in practice without the need for a positive enunciation. It is for this reason that Hayek affirms that the law is not created, but discovered, and that it is not legislated, but rather evolves.

On this last point, John Gray at his time, many years after Hayek’s death, lamented that his former mentor had spent the last years of his life discussing pseudoscientific ideas around alleged evolutionary theories. However, such suspicion cannot fall in any way on the triptych of “Law, Legislation and Liberty” (1973; 1976 and 1979).

What is found in the said work is an express taking sides with a tradition of thought that extends from the Late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the beginnings of Modernity: the school of natural law understood as something different from an ideal, derived from reason, about what should be, but to a set of normative beliefs effectively extended in a given population, which condition their behaviour, contribute to the formulation of a critical judgement about the value of actions and allow the formation of expectations about the expected behaviour of peers and, therefore, facilitate the ideation and coordination of individual plans.

For Hayek’s own epistemological conceptions, this tradition of thought acts as a kind of discovery mechanism on certain aspects of the legal phenomenon and the structural characteristics present in all human interaction and therefore his constant appeal to the history of ideas.

Hayek, in a peaceful and incontrovertible way for any specialist in the matter, syndicates Hugo Grotius as the initiator of the rationalist and idealist school of natural law, although holding him responsible, as he did, for the evolution of the identification of legislation as the only and exclusive source of law could be considered as an overly emphatic statement, which would abandon the very premises of cultural evolutionism to which Hayek himself adhered: if Grotius’ theses were so successful, it was largely due to the subsequent advent of the national states.

Although the truth is, however, that the characterization of Natural Law as a derivative of reason later allowed, in the 20th century, to receive from legal positivism the rejection of all Natural Law as “metaphysical”, thus leaving the formulation of the Law at the mercy of politics and, with it, in a serious crisis the very notion of “Rule of Law”.

It is for this reason that Hayek set out to rehabilitate the empiricist current of Natural Law, which seeks normative statements not in the derivations of reason, but in the discovery of notions about what could be considered right behaviour towards others through the investigation of patterns of behaviour actually observed in a given community that is structured around peaceful exchanges repeated over time.

The archetypal example of such kinds of normative structures given in practice, independently of their enunciation by any type of legislator, is represented by the communities of merchants: a repeated series of regular exchanges generates certain expectations about the conduct to be observed by the members of said group of merchants, which also allow to conceive and coordinate other business plans. For this reason, many times, conflicts between merchants are resolved through friendly settlers, or arbitrations, and judges resort to the opinion of specialised experts in a certain commercial area to dictate their decisions.

Such examples do not constitute proof that all law is spontaneous, but rather a powerful counterexample to the theses that hold, on the one hand, that legislation is the only possible source of law and those that, on the other, affirm that all law must be derived from reason.

Although both antithetical visions are synthesised in the figure of the rational legislator, whose legislative enunciations are derivatives of public reason, this in turn receives -in the first half of the 20th century and today- challenges from Realistic doctrines, which state that legislative activity is not a product of public reason, but of the exercise of political will.

It is in relation to this contest that Hayek plays the card of cultural evolutionism and of the legal system as a spontaneous order. In this sense “Law, Legislation and Liberty” is a new elaboration of “The Road to Serfdom”.

This theoretical controversy maintains its full validity to date: the confrontation that the predominant species of Liberalism, of an idealistic and rationalist nature, seems to be losing against Political Realism, which places political will above a system of human coexistence based on rules and not on discretionary decisions. In Hayek’s case, he sides with a rule-based political system, but what sets him apart from prevailing Liberalism is that such rules are not derived from reason, but rather emerge from experience.

This experience not only produces norms of just conduct to be discovered by the courts and enunciated by legislators, but it is also responsible for structuring the very apparatus for understanding such norms. It is for this reason that Hayek himself, in his book The Sensory Order (1952), called his particular philosophical vision “pure empiricism.”

Of course, an empiricist conception of Natural or Fundamental Rights – based on Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Edmund Burke, among others – is not exempt from difficulties, the main one being the task of identifying those empirical norms that effectively contribute to maintain a peaceful order of coexistence and provide them with the corresponding enforcement.

However, despite such difficulties, affirming that the existence of Natural Rights emerges from the experience that structure a peaceful order of coexistence and that they are the ones that legitimise the exercise of power and not vice versa, already constitutes in itself an affirmation worthy of being considered and, eventually, defended.

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