Liberalism, Specialization and Eclecticism (English translation)

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 23.9.2012

(Original Italian publication: Movimento Libertario)

When I was in London doing a master’s degree in political philosophy at the London School of Economics and realized that the economic philosophy course did not include a single lecture, seminar, text or article dedicated to classical liberalism in general and the Austrian School in particular, I went to the head of department (Richard Bradley) and asked him why not. His reply was brusque: “We don’t do that stuff,” he said. More than by the substance of this response, that is, by the absence of arguments (after all, Hayek – Nobel laureate in economics and one of the greatest exponents of the Austrian School – had taught at the LSE), I was struck by the tone, which was what one might expect perhaps from an ungracious manager of a Cartier jewellery store to whom someone had proposed they sell tacky trinkets.

If you have a look at the online course in political philosophy taught by Michael Sandel of Harvard University (which otherwise has an excellent format), you won’t find a single mention of the exponents of classical liberalism or the Austrian School (which may reflect the non-mention of any classical liberal or exponent of the Austrian School by Harvard ‘legend’ (sad to say) John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice).

Not to mention my undergraduate degree course in economics at the La Sapienza University in Rome, where it could happen that on mentioning Hayek to a professor he would ask what an attractive American actress had to do with economics and on telling him Hayek was an exponent of the Austrian School, he would think one was talking about a ski school.

Kukathas is therefore right when, referring to Hayek (but the same is true for other giants such as Mises, for example, and in earlier periods, Bastiat and Menger) he states that “Hayek is … a figure who has gone unrecognized by most contemporary political theorists as a contributor to liberal thought – or indeed political thought – in the twentieth century”, that “one is unlikely to see university courses on Hayek’s political thought” and that “Hayek’s ideas and concerns are not addressed in any of the major critiques of liberalism which have appeared over the last three decades”[1].

Why not? Where does it come from, this a priori rejection by the academic world of classical liberalism in general and the Austrian School in particular?

Certainly not from the content. In the field of economics, liberal theories (one need only think of the Austrian School’s theory of economic cycles) are perhaps the only ones capable of explaining the current economic and financial crisis within a theoretical framework which is abstractly coherent in its microeconomic, macroeconomic and philosophical components and were able to predict its coming well in advance. So no, the content has nothing to do with it, since probably no school of thought has been more successful (not in the sense of consensus, but in the sense of the solidity and coherence of its arguments) than classical liberalism in general and the Austrian School in particular. Why then such decided and total a priori rejection?

There are many possible reasons, interdependent rather than alternative to each other. One may be the fact that liberalism implies a huge change in the reference system: that is, a shift away from the idea that law derives from authority to the idea that authority is derived from the law, in other words, away from  the idea that the law orbits around  authority to its opposite. Contrary to what one tends to take a little too hastily for granted, the academic establishment is very often tendentially conservative and inherently averse to change. As Koestler put it, “The inertia of the human mind and its resistance to innovation are most clearly demonstrated not, as one might expect, by the ignorant mass – which is easily swayed once its imagination is caught – but by professionals with a vested interest in tradition and in the monopoly of learning. Innovation is a twofold threat to academic mediocrities: it endangers their oracular authority, and it evokes the deeper fear that their whole, laboriously constructed intellectual edifice might collapse”[2]. For this reason all the voices raised against state interference in education (of any level and type) are very welcome.

Another of the reasons underlying this a priori rejection of liberalism, more complex perhaps but in my opinion no less plausible for that, can be linked to specialization. In universities, in the workplace, in people’s aspirations, even in the judgments they make about other people, specialization (learning more and more about something ever smaller) has increasingly become the only parameter of reference. Specialization is not an evil in itself, on the contrary (in the words of Hayek, “Research, of necessity, requires specialization, often in a very minute field”[3]). What is bad, from my point of view, is when specialization becomes dogma, a universal parameter of judgment, the only acceptable, practicable and travelled road; when it leaves no room for other approaches, especially in the social sciences. This is a negative thing because, first of all, in many cases it means clipping people’s wings, especially those of young people: it is as good to see a person with an inclination to specialise follow this inclination as it is sad to see an inherently eclectic person encouraged to castrate his or her real vocation and specialize in order to conform to the dominant standards. Moreover, and contrary to popular belief, this tyranny of specialization (or “barbarism” as Ortega y Gasset called it) is negative because it conflicts with the development of individuality which, even and perhaps especially when it is eclectic, is a necessary condition for a free market and an essential component of the social sciences. Without eclecticism Apple would never even have come into existence, as anyone who has read Steve Jobs’ biography knows. In his wonderful Stanford speech, for example, (usually linked to the final phrase “Stay hungry, stay foolish”), Jobs recounted the way his spontaneous interest in calligraphy, which he took courses in (as an auditor) at university, purely for pleasure without any ‘project’ in mind as to how to put into practice the things he was learning out of sheer passion, would be fundamental many years later for the development and success of the Mac. Jobs concluded that part of the speech by saying, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life … Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”[4].

I have said that eclecticism, non-specialisation, is essential not just for a free market but also for science in general and for the social sciences in particular, which are so influenced by everything that concerns the human person and therefore so interrelated one with another that they cannot be understood without being in some way, to some extent, combined. The ability to connect them may be more important than specialised in-depth analysis: “in the study of society exclusive concentration on a speciality  … may impair our competence in our proper field … Nobody can be a great economist if he is only an economist – and I’m  even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger”[5]. So perhaps classical liberalism (which unites economics and political philosophy, philosophy of law and history, biology and astronomy, and more besides) is indigestible to the dominant culture/ideology (which lauds and exalts specialization and compartmentalization) precisely because of its eclecticism. The dominant system of thought (accustomed to its formulas, its tables, its prisoner’s dilemmas and its macro aggregates that have so little to do with human action) cannot follow liberalism, cannot organize it and therefore  gets lost, runs aground. And then, like the worst of those who fail to understand something, instead of going off to read, ask questions and find out about it, the dominant system of thought denigrates it, banishes it, rejects it a priori, and closes up like clam.

Today we often read in the newspapers, said perhaps by some member of government, things like, “The country needs more scientists and engineers.” Phrases of this type are a very clear expression of the extent to which collectivism implies the slaughter of individuality. On one hand, if anything, the country needs people who do what they want to do, who are enthusiastic about what they do, who do it well, whatever it is, and have the courage required to seek out what they love doing and do it. On the other hand, the phrase “The country needs…” implies the idea of ​​society as organization, characterized by the fact that all its members, to the extent that they belong to it and act within it, work towards an arbitrary goal established from above (which can work well for companies, but not for society, because wherever society is conceived of as an organization there will be totalitarianism). A free society is a spontaneous order in which people – provided they act within the law, that is, within general and abstract principles (rules of individual conduct which apply to everyone in the same way) – are free to pursue their own individual ends (a term that indicates a concept not merely different from but opposite to ‘selfish’) without any interference whatsoever by ‘society’ or, on its behalf, by the state in particular. In a free society, the phrase “The country needs…” makes absolutely no sense: individuals need to find what they love doing (whether it requires specialization or whether it requires eclecticism) and, each person starting out from his or her own specific situation, find the way to do it. Today more than ever, those who, being eclectic, are discouraged or even crushed by the dominant models need, the same way they need food, the example of those rare eclectics who have had the courage to find what they love doing and do it, with enthusiasm.

This short essay is dedicated to and inspired by Camilla Bruneri, whom I wasn’t fortunate enough to know personally but whose articles I was fortunate to read.


[1] Kukathas C., 2006, “Hayek and Liberalism”, in The Cambridge Companion to Hayek (CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge), p. 183

[2] Koestler A., 1959, The Sleepwalkers (Arkana-Penguin Books, St Ives), p. 433

[3] Hayek F.A., 1967 [1956], Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Routledge & Keagan Paul, London), p. 122.

[5] Hayek FA., 1967 [1956], Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Routledge & Keagan Paul, London), p. 123.

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