The left does not have a monopoly of wisdom - or, if we judge by the row about anti-semitism, any wisdom at all. There is one great truth which, historically, rightists have known better than many leftists. It is that our knowledge and rationality (two different things) are seriously limited.
Hayek, for example, famously based his defence of free markets upon the fact that:
The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.
The economic problem, he said, “is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.” In this, he echoed Edmund Burke:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.
To Hayek, free markets are a means of aggregating dispersed, fragmentary and even tacit information, and hence a way whereby we can avail ourselves of the general bank of knowledge.
We can of course add Michael Oakeshott to this tradition. As Jesse Norman points out (pdf), he too emphasized the limits of individual reason.
What we have here, then, is a powerful intellectual tradition – one which I think is validated by the research on cognitive biases inspired by Daniel Kahneman.
Which raises a paradox which I suspect is under-rated. It’s hinted at by Will Davies. For conservatives, he says:
Often the deeper anxiety is that the traditional monoculture of the nation, which dates back more than 200 years, is being questioned by feminists and post-colonial critics. Thus another paradox of the free speech panic is that what gets termed censorship is often quite the opposite – namely, the opening up of scholarly debate to a broader range of perspectives.
The paradox is this. If you believe that knowledge and rationality is limited and partial, then it is you who should especially welcome the voices of feminists and ethnic minorities. Their perspectives form part of the “general bank and capital” of wisdom of which Burke spoke. Without them, we are trading only upon the stock of reason of old white men – which is limited. (I should know: I am an old white man).
Similarly – in the spirit of Will’s piece – you should also welcome a diversity of mechanisms for revealing wisdom and knowledge. Yes, markets are one way of revealing these. But so too are scientific methods, peer review and academic debate. You should therefore regret the marketization of universities, as it overturns the wisdom of ages which is for them to be part of the non-market system.
There’s something else that might follow from the Burke-Hayek perspective – a support for worker coops.
Hayek was right to say that markets are a way of mobilizing fragmentary and dispersed information. But as his LSE colleague Ronald Coase pointed out, markets are often suppressed (pdf) in favour of corporate hierarchies. Such hierarchies might well not be an optimal way of aggregating dispersed information: this might be because of path dependency or because firms suffer a form of bureaucratic capture by top managers*. Instead, it’s possible that one way better using fragmentary information is to give workers more say in how the firm is managed. Doing so mobilizes their knowledge of small inefficiencies. It’s a way of aggregating marginal gains through cognitive diversity.
My support for worker democracy owes less to Marx – who wrote little about post-capitalism – than it does to Hayek.
My point here is simple. It’s that diversity should be a rightist ideal. If you take seriously Burke and Hayek’s warnings about the limits of our cognitive powers, you should welcome the diversity of perspectives that comes with hitherto silent groups – women, workers and ethnic minorities – being given a voice.
Which poses the question: why, then, are rightists not championing diversity and coops?
One possibility is that there is a tension here. Ways of harnessing diversity – be it worker democracy or giving more voice to minorities - require us to abandon the wisdom of the past. There’s a trade-off between availing ourselves of the general bank of wisdom of ages and of that of the nation. My personal preference is for the latter. So, in fact, was Hayek’s – hence his essay, Why I am not a Conservative. Many rightists, however, seem prefer the former. Corey Robin says this is simply because their true attachment isn’t to freedom or efficiency but simply to established hierarchy. I wonder: how would one prove him wrong?
* Competition does not eliminate such inefficiencies. We know this from Bloom and Van Reenen’s work showing that there’s a persistent long tail (pdf) of badly managed firms, and from de Loecker and Eeckhout’s work showing that profit margins (pdf) have trended upwards since the 1980s and are widely dispersed.