Monday, June 7, 2010

Great Society

My preparation for an upcoming Liberty Fund conference has including rereading Hayek's Law, Liberty and Legislation.

He makes reference to the phrase "Great Society" in reference to classical liberalism or the society that emerged and evolved as a result of spontaneous order. This process is familiar to readers of Hayek and is well described in Hayek's three volume work.

I got to thinking about this month's blog discussion, in particular the role played by elites/intellectuals in shaping public perception and belief. An illustrative example is the appropriate of the phrase Great Society from Adam Smith by Lyndon Johnson to describe the welfare state of his administration.

His use of this phrase describes a society and process of interaction that is the opposite of the Adam Smith original. Yet, if anyone has heard the phrase Great Society today - what and whom do they think of?

Clearly those that are familiar with this will think of the myriad welfare programs of the Johnson administration, significantly developed and implemented during a time of war. This Orwellian use of language illustrates one of the primary methods of interventionist intellectuals in their efforts to "plan" a society toward "social justice".

On this point, Hayek writes:

There is apparently no end to the violence that will be done to language to further some ideal and the example of "social justice" [is paramount as and example] . . .It would seem as if the conviction that one is arguing in a good cause produced more sloppy thinking and event intellectual dishonesty than perhaps any other cause. (Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2 page 80)

Hayek gives more credit than is earned when he offers sloppy thinking as an explanation for intellectual malfeasance in discourse. His second explanation seems more pervasive. I am thinking of the ASET book club discussion last month of Sowell's Intellectuals and Society. He provides an example of a conversation with a Clinton cabinet secretary who, when presented with his comments on video tape, asserted, that's not the way I remember it. To the public intellectual, it would seem, by any means necessary, is the governing approach.

Dan Klein writes in an important article gives background to the Great Society:

It seems to us useful to resuscitate the term "great society," meaning the extended liberal social order -- akin to Karl Popper's "Open Society." The term achieves great prominence in Hayek's trilogy, Law, Legislation and Liberty (published 1973, 1976, 1979), although Hayek moved to the term "extended society" or "extended social order" in his final work, The Fatal Conceit (1988). Hayek gives a brief history of the term "great society" in the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty (148). Adam Smith uses the term "great society" four times in his chapter, "Of the Order in which Societies are by Nature recommended to our Beneficence," introduced in the sixth edition of TMS in 1790 (see pp. 229, 234), and once again at page 235, and Smith used the term eight times in WN (86, 260, 421, 651, 681, 726, and 747). Walter Lippmann's statement of the liberal order, The Good Society (1937), uses "Great Society" and "Good Society" interchangeably. Lippmann uses the term freely in other works as well and presumably acquired it from Graham Wallas, who published his book entitled The Great Society in 1914.

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