Jane Shaw Stroop has written a short and rather effective essay on Hayek’s “Atavism Thesis”. Hayek came to it after struggling with socialism and economic interventionism, as he wrote.
FA Hayek was born in 1899, fought in WWI (having contracted the Spanish flu and malaria on his way back from the front), and as a young man, encountered a most unpleasant series of events – which did not make liberalism very popular among the men and women of his generation. popular In contrast, liberalism was on the wane. There were many nuances of 19th-century liberalism but all shared the urge to move from deliberative governance to something more like an automated process, reducing politics to the most limited, technical endeavours. Certainly some politicians tended to be larger-than-life, flamboyant figures who could shape public opinion even in the 19th century. But liberals, of all stripes, were suspicious of playing public opinion as a piano to gain legitimacy in making their own choices. There should be a tribunal of public opinion, strictly scrutinizing all collective action, and possibly under such control.
The 20th century was a triumph of courage: bold leaders, bold decisions, bold ambitions. Politics, far from being a limited endeavor, reshapes human nature.
A few intelligent people around asked themselves how it was possible that the most educated societies could fall for this. Many thought it was an education problem. For example, the facts of political economy were largely counterintuitive and therefore difficult to digest. Hayek also followed that path, hence his insistence on better educating the “second-hand traders of ideas” (journalists, high school teachers, etc.) who tend to spread bad ideas in good faith. But at a certain point, after years of struggling with those ideas while treating those who held them in a kinder, more polite and scholarly manner, Hayek realized that the problem was perhaps not education but before education
Hayek concluded that humans have instincts that evolved genetically, beginning with human ancestors, pack animals, and continuing when humans lived together in small groups. This evolution ended about 12,000 years ago.
Those instincts were not evil. In fact, they included essential emotions like solidarity and empathy that kept the band alive. But they only benefited when people lived in small groups. The growth of what Hayek called the “enhanced order”—trade and communication outside the band, the modern economy—requires people to do things differently.
“Mankind has attained civilization and learned to follow rules (first in local tribes and then on a larger scale) which often forbid him to do what his instincts demand and no longer depend on a common understanding of events.”
According to Hayek, people have never completely abandoned their primal instincts and this draws them to socialism and fascism. Socialism and fascism give them “visible common purpose”. So essential in the distant past. But forcing people to share a visible common purpose is incompatible with freedom.
Contemporary research on cognitive biases reinforces Hayek’s point. I’d like to add to Jane Shaw’s excellent little essay, just one caveat. These instincts are not a concern when we are dealing with the public or with the common man – as many educated people believe. They are deeply embedded in all of us, and make even the most educated and sophisticated experience a lust to enjoy the vertigo of feeling part of an over-imposed “order” or good and proper group.