[Paleopsych] CPE: Andy Denis: Was Hayek a Panglossian Evolutionary Theorist? A Reply to Whitman

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 7 20:49:49 UTC 2006

Andy Denis: Was Hayek a Panglossian Evolutionary Theorist? A Reply to 
Constitutional Political Economy, 13, 275 -285, 2002.

[Lots of comments by me below.]

andy.denis at city.ac.uk
Department of Economics, City University, London, UK

* Contact details and address for correspondence: Andy Denis, Department 
of Economics, School of Social and Human Sciences, City University, 
London, Northampton Square, LONDON, United Kingdom EC1V 0HB. Telephone: 
þ44 (0)20-7040 0257; FAX: þ44 (0)20-7040 8580. URL: 

Abstract. By means of a consideration of Whitman (1998) the present paper 
considers the meanings of 'Panglossianism' and the relation between group 
and individual levels in evolution. It establishes the connection between 
the Panglossian policy prescription of laissez-faire and the mistaken 
evolutionary theory of group selection. Analysis of the passages in Hayek 
cited by Whitman shows that, once these passages are taken in context, and 
once the appropriate meaning of the term 'Panglossian' has been clarified, 
they fail to defend Hayek from this charge, but, on the contrary, confirm 
that Hayek was, indeed, 'a Panglossian evolutionary theorist'.

JEL classification: B31.

1. Introduction

This paper is a response to Whitman (1998) 'Hayek contra Pangloss on 
Evolutionary Systems', which seeks to exculpate Hayek from the charge of 
Panglossianism in his application of evolutionary theory to society. The 
present paper argues that Whitman has misunderstood the substance of the 
accusation of Panglossianism against Hayek.2 He may have been indirectly 
influenced by Gould and Lewontin (1979), which is widely assumed to 
identify Panglossianism with Darwinian adaptationism. Prior to that paper, 
the term Panglossian in evolutionary theory referred to the group 
selectionist fallacy, that groups could be selected in which individuals 
behaved altruistically. Thereafter, however, it was-- less appropriately-- 
taken to refer to Darwinian adaptationism, the view that features of 
organisms could be understood by asking what function they would best 
carry out.

The paper begins by considering the meanings of the term 'Panglossian' and 
the relation between group and individual levels in evolution. It 
establishes the connection between the Panglossian policy prescription of 
laissez-faire and the mistaken evolutionary theory of group selection. 
Attention then turns to an analysis of the passages in Hayek cited by 
Whitman. The analysis shows that, once these passages are taken in 
context, and once the older, and more appropriate, meaning of the term 
Panglossian has been re-established, they do nothing to defend Hayek from 
this charge, but, on the contrary, provide compelling evidence that Hayek 
was, indeed, ' a Panglossian evolutionary theorist'. A final section 
summarises the findings of the paper.

2. The Meaning of the Term Panglossian in Evolutionary Theory

The phrase 'Pangloss's theorem' was first used in the debate about 
evolution ... not as a criticism of adaptive explanations, but 
specifically as a criticism of 'group-selectionist', 
mean-fitness-maximising arguments (John Maynard Smith cited in Dennett 

Daniel Dennett (1995:238–9) argues for a distinction between Leibnizian 
and Panglossian paradigms, which he identifies in biology with the 
standpoints of individual and group adaptationism, respectively. Dennett 
regards the Leibnizian standpoint as the source of the bulk of our 
understanding of the living world. To understand a biological structure or 
phenomenon, the most fruitful approach is to 'reverse-engineer' it, to ask 
what purpose the structure would best serve were it the result of 
deliberate invention. No understanding of the heart, for example, is 
possible except on the hypothesis that it is there for a specific purpose: 
to pump blood around the body; similarly, the chain of structures from 
lungs to mitochondria can only be understood on the basis of the roˆle 
these structures play in respiration. Now adaptationism works well, though 
imperfectly, at the level of the individual organism. A major source of 
these imperfections is the fact that the replicators, in whose interest 
inherited characteristics should be understood as operating, are, not 
individual organisms, but those organisms' genes. Once the individual 
organism is understood as a vehicle of the underlying replicator, the gene 
(Dawkins 1989b:82), many of these imperfections vanish. Nevertheless, 
taking as a working hypothesis that the structure and behaviour of an 
organism is adaptive is a fruitful approach because all parts of the 
organism share a common genotype-- and hence a common interest-- which 
they can best realise by cooperating. The 'selfish organism' is close to 
the 'selfish gene' (Dawkins 1989a:6).

Panglossianism, on the other hand, according to Dennett, is the assumption 
of group selection-- 'the old Panglossian fallacy that natural selection 
favours adaptations that are good for the species as a whole, rather than 
acting at the level of the individual' (John Maynard Smith cited in 
Dennett 1995:239).

The group selectionist argument has been succinctly expressed and 
criticised by Richard Dawkins:

A group, such as a species or a population within a species, whose 
individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of 
the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose 
individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the 
world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing 
individuals. This is the theory of 'group selection' [expressed] in a 
famous book by V.C. Wynne-Edwards [Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social 
Behaviour] ... [But if] there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to 
exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely 
than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will 
tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations

[Note this "after several generations. Dawkins is invoking the "long run" 
or "t to infinity" metaphor.]

of natural selection, the 'altruistic group' will be over-run by selfish 
individuals, and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group (Dawkins 

The members of a group, unlike the members of an organism, have diverse 
interests: each individual is set up to realise the interests of its own 
DNA, by getting that DNA copied as many times as it can into future 
generations, by using the structures, executing the behaviours and 
exemplifying the predispositions which have tended to achieve that goal in 
the past. The members of an organism share an interest in cooperation, 
those of a group, for lack of a shared interest, must, perforce, compete. 
Now, clearly, groups (populations, species) do die out, and whether a 
group happens to die out may depend on the behaviour of the individual 
members of that group. But for that fact to exert any evolutionary 
selective pressure, there must be a mechanism such that the behaviour, on 
the basis of which the group is to be selected, is actually in the 
interest of its members to carry out.

So, according to Dennett and Maynard Smith, Panglossianism in evolutionary 
theory originally referred to the 'group selectionist fallacy'. Then later 
Gould and Lewontin used the term to refer, in the words of the title of 
their article (1979:581), to 'the adaptationist programme'. The Gould and 
Lewontin article has stirred considerable interest and controversy. 
Dennett's verdict on the paper is to read it as an attack on the excesses 
of adaptationism-- adaptationism as ideology rather than heuristic-- which 
has been massively misread as a refutation of adaptationism:

Gould and Lewontin memorably dubbed the excesses of adaptationism the 
'Panglossian Paradigm,' and strove to ridicule it off the stage of serious 
science ... The Gould and Lewontin article ... is widely regarded ... as 
some sort of refutation of adaptationism (Dennett 1995:239).

Though not intending any direct reference to the Gould and Lewontin paper 
(Whitman, personal communication), it is in fact in this-- mistaken-- 
sense that Whitman responds to the charge of Panglossianism against Hayek. 
But it is in the other, the Maynard-Smithian, not the Gould-Lewontinian, 
sense that Hayek can sensibly be accused of Panglossianism. On this 
charge, Whitman's article does nothing to defend Hayek; on the contrary, 
Hayek's real Panglossianism is brought out clearly in the passages that 
Whitman cites.

The big question is this: given that it is individual humans who choose 
their behaviour in the context of their inherited predispositions and 
capacities, and the range of social norms and examples of behaviour 
presented to them, can behaviours be systematically selected which are 
beneficial for the group or society of humans but impose a cost on the 
individuals carrying out those behaviours? Hayek gives an unambiguous yes, 
he refers repeatedly and approvingly to 'group selection', and supports 
his argument with reference to the very book by Wynne-Edwards criticised 
by Dawkins in the passage cited above. Speaking of the rules of conduct in 
primitive human societies, he says that:

the 'functions' which these rules serve we shall be able to discover only 
after we have reconstructed the overall order which is produced by actions 
in accordance with them ... all the individuals of the species which exist 
will behave in that manner because groups of individuals which have thus 
behaved have displaced those which did not do so (Hayek 1967:70).

And in a footnote to this passage, Hayek refers the reader to the '[a]mple 
further illustrations of the kind of orders briefly sketched in this 
section ... in V.C. Wynne-Edwards, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social 
Behaviour, Edinburgh, 1962' (Hayek 1967:70 n7).

When we act, what we do is describable, if sufficiently regular, by a 
rule. But the question is whether the rule is an epiphenomenon, like the 
arrow formation of geese flying in each others' slipstreams, a pattern 
which emerges from generalising a large number of instances of the 
particular action, or whether the individual actions are executed because 
of the rule. In the first case, the collective outcome is just what 
happens to result from the actions of many individuals each following 
their own interests. In the second case, the actions of individuals are 
functional for the purposes served by the rule. The use of the term 
'functions' in the passage cited -- albeit in quotation marks -- only 
illustrates Hayek's functionalism. As Hodgson says,

Vanberg ... is right to suggest that Hayek's argument has a functionalist 
quality; it assumes that the contribution of a rule to the maintenance of 
a system is sufficient to explain the existence of that rule. Absent in 
Hayek's argument is the specification of a process by which a rule that is 
advantageous to the system is sustained in operation within that system 
(Hodgson 1993:168).

It is a basic assumption in Hayek that individual actions serve a 
'function' for the collective, that is, that in carrying through one's own 
interest, one is simultaneously (and more importantly) carrying through 
the interest of society; that actions performed by individuals are 
automatically functional for society. This is to assume all our problems-- 
theoretical and practical-- away.

So, to the question, whether behaviours can be systematically selected, 
which are beneficial for the group or society of humans but impose a cost 
on the individuals carrying out those behaviours, Hayek answers yes. But 
in reality the correct answer is no, and for exactly the same reasons as 
in the biological context. If a population or group of humans follows 
rules for altruistic behaviour, it may prosper and expand at the expense 
of a similar population following a different, more selfish rule. But if, 
in that altruistic population, a rebel adopts the selfish rule, the rule 
coding for the more selfish behaviour, then he will prosper relatively to 
the more altruistic members of the population. The rule for the selfish 
behaviour will tend to displace its altruistic allele:

{Note "tend to," another invocation of "the long run." Evolution is in 
fact a continuing *process,* in which indeed there may be competing 
forces, in this case, on for the individual and another for the group, 
though it may be quite common for the two processes to reinforce one 
another. In the "long run" altruistic individuals die out, but then again 
in the "long run" selfish groups die out, too. Until this "long run" is 
over, which it never is, groups with lots of selfish individuals may very 
well reproduce less than those with lots of altruistic individuals. The 
total number of selfish individuals across groups may go up, or it may go 
down. It all depends on the situation at hand. It is not a matter to be 
decided by invoking the "long run." When these debates were generating the 
most heat, that is, around the time _Unto Others_ was coming out, I asked 
the statisticians there if there was a way of measuring, in the field as 
opposed to theoretical exercises, the relative strengths of individual and 
group selection. There being no response, I presumed the statistical tools 
had not yet been developed. Whether they have since, I don't know.]

other members of the population will see its connection with personal 
success and wish to adopt it. Rules for socially desirable behaviour can 
only be successful to the extent that there is a mechanism giving 
individuals the incentive to engage in that behaviour. Wynne-Edwards group 
selection is as fallacious in the social as in the biological context, and 
for identical reasons. It is in this sense that Hayek can justly be 
criticised for 'Panglossianism'.

3. F.A. Hayek: No Panglossian?

The previous section presented the argument that what was wrong with 
Hayek's account of cultural evolution was that he applied to the social 
context the fallacious group selectionist theory of Wynne-Edwards. That is 
not how Whitman sees things, however. He defends Hayek, instead, against 
the charge of adaptationism, of Dennett's 'Leibnizian paradigm, and 
doesn't consider the differences between adaptationism applied at the 
level of the individual and the level of the group. One section of 
Whitman's article in particular is germane to the discussion: Section 2 
'F.A. Hayek: No Panglossian' (47–493)-- the heart of Whitman's essay. Here 
Whitman cites four passages in which Hayek supposedly rejects 
Panglossianism. Each is worth considering in detail.

The first such passage (48) is a citation from The Fatal Conceit, where 
Hayek seems to show himself aware of the problem with potentially 
Panglossian interpretations, and dissociates himself from them:

I have no intention to commit what is often called the genetic or 
naturalistic fallacy. I do not claim that the results of group selection 
of traditions are necessarily ''good" -- any more than I claim that other 
things that have survived in the course of evolution, such as cockroaches, 
have moral value (Hayek 1988:27).

The context of this passage is a polemic with AGN Flew over his 1967 
booklet Evolutionary Ethics. Now, the notion of evolution deployed by 
Hayek was intended, I submit, not to provide a scientific understanding of 
the social order, warts and all, which has emerged from a blind, 
pitilessly indifferent evolutionary process (Dawkins 1995:155), but to 
present that order as something desirable, beyond the competence of humans 
to interfere with. The significance of Evolutionary Ethics here is that 
Flew got the apologetic role of evolution in this scheme of thought 
exactly right in his discussion of Social Darwinism:

many people are inclined to believe, that whatever is in any sense natural 
must be as such commendable, and that Nature is a deep repository of 
wisdom, [so] for many the process of evolution by natural selection 
becomes a secular surrogate for Divine Providence; and ...for some the 
possibility, or even the duty, of relying on this benign and mighty force 
presents itself as a decisive reason why positive social policies must be 
superfluous, and may be wrong indeed almost blasphemous! (Flew 1967:15).

So Hayek is responding to the charge, in Evolutionary Ethics, that those 
who thought along the lines actually adopted by himself were committing 
the 'naturalistic fallacy', deriving an ought from an is. Flew is clear 
that such a standpoint is Panglossian: if evolution leads to an 
institutional structure which has been selected for its beneficial 
influence on human societies, then certainly there will be excellent 
reason to leave that inherited institutional structure alone. Whitman 
cites the passage from The Fatal Conceit to support his view that Hayek 
rejects such Panglossianism.

A number of points can be made about Hayek's response here. Firstly, we 
have to be quite clear here that Hayek's statement about not committing 
the naturalistic fallacy is a claim on Hayek's part: it is not 
(necessarily) what he says, but what he says he says. Hayek himself points 
out that what scientists describe as their own procedure is not to be 
trusted: 'The scientist reflecting and theorizing about his procedure is 
not always a reliable guide' (Hayek 1942, cited in Ransom 1996). Hayek's 
claim here no more closes the matter, than the denial of a suspect that he 
robbed the bank must eliminate him as a suspect. And the fact that Hayek 
is aware of the naturalistic fallacy is, again, no more evidence against 
him committing it, than a suspected bank robber's agreement, that robbing 
banks is illegal, would be evidence of his innocence.

Secondly, what is truly significant here is that Hayek refers to the 
'group selection of traditions', because-- as we have seen, and whatever 
claims Hayek chooses to make on the subject-- group selection, of the 
Wynne-Edwards variety, to which, as we have seen, Hayek explicitly refers 
his theory, does lead to Panglossian conclusions. Wynne-Edwardsian group 
selection, as Maynard Smith says, is 'the old Panglossian fallacy'.

[Hold it here. That there are "Panglossian" forces favoring groups in no 
way imples what should be called Pan-Panglossianism -- please spread my 
new meme! -- that everything works for the good of the group. Recall my 
earlier telling that Stephen Sanderson, in his splendid _The Evolution of 
Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective_, made a (moderate) 
functionalst out of me when he attacked *pan*-functionalism, though he 
called it functionalism pure and simple.

[If Hayek is a *moderate* Panglossian, then he is correct and insightful.]

And thirdly, taking the passage in the context in which it occurs, it is 
clear that Hayek does endow the products of cultural evolution with moral 
value: they are products of a process of selection according to human 
survival value, and the products of biological evolution, such as 
cockroaches, are not. The very next sentence after those cited by Whitman 
make this abundantly clear:

I do claim that ... without the particular traditions I have mentioned, 
the extended order of civilization could not continue to exist (whereas, 
were cockroaches to disappear, the resulting ecological 'disaster' would 
perhaps not wreak permanent havoc on mankind); and that if we discard 
these traditions ... we shall doom a large part of mankind to poverty and 
death (Hayek 1988:27).

Whitman's second example is also from The Fatal Conceit:

It would be wrong to conclude, strictly from such evolutionary premises, 
that whatever rules have evolved are always or necessarily conducive to 
the survival and increase of the populations following them ... 
Recognizing that rules generally tend to be selected, via competition, on 
the basis of their human survival-value certainly does not protect those 
rules from critical scrutiny (Hayek 1988:20).

But, if 'human survival-value' is indeed the basis for selection, one may 
well wonder, on what basis this scrutiny is to be carried out? The 
assumption is that the basic process is a human-favourable one. One can 
only criticise it on the basis of details, not the fundamental processes 
involved. Whitman's gloss on this passage is that,

Hayek believes that the cultural selection process selects for survival 
and reproduction of groups ... yet even by that criterion of efficiency, 
the resulting rules cannot be assumed to be efficient. It would be 
particularly odd, then, for those rules to be efficient according to some 
other standard, such as neoclassical economic efficiency or classical 
liberal value judgements (48).

[Well, of course, they are not "efficient" in any sort of "long run" 
static equilibrium sense. They are merely tendencies to bring individuals 
and groups into harmony. Indeed, some societies go from bad to worse!]

Hence, again, the claim is that Hayek's standpoint is not Panglossian. But 
Hayek here is clearly saying that cultural rules tend to be selected for 
human survival-value-- the outcome in each case, however, may for 
extraneous reasons be suboptimal on this score, and hence subject to 
critical scrutiny. Nevertheless, the tendency for selection according to 
human survival-value is in place and hence the critical scrutiny he 
alludes to can only be a matter of details, not of substance. The process 
itself is immune from such scrutiny. This is shown clearly if we look in 
more detail at the passage in The Fatal Conceit from which Whitman's 
extract is taken:

It would however be wrong to conclude, strictly from such evolutionary 
premises, that whatever rules have evolved are always or necessarily 
conducive to the survival and increase of the populations following them. 
We need to show, with the help of economic analysis ... how rules that 
emerge spontaneously tend to promote human survival. Recognizing that 
rules generally tend to be selected, via competition, on the basis of 
their human survival-value certainly does not protect those rules from 
critical scrutiny. This is so, if for no other reason, because there has 
so often been coercive interference in the process of cultural evolution 
(Hayek 1988:20. Italics highlight the parts elided in Whitman's extract.).

Contrary to Whitman's interpretation, Hayek is clearly saying, that we can 
assume that spontaneous evolutionary forces will tend to lead to desirable 

[Well they do, sometimes and often very slowly at that.]

He is saying that we cannot assume desirable social outcomes from 'such 
evolutionary premises', that is, those he had just been talking about, 
where vested interests often 'blocked the next step of evolution' (Hayek 
1988:20) by the use of state power.

[Now, I do have a problem here. Public Choice theory aims to incorporate 
state power *within* the overall system. But privleging voluntary 
behavior, within limits, is not such a bad thing. Buchanan reviewed a book 
for the Times Literary Supplement that tried to show, effectively, that 
Panglossian forces made it sure that the government almost always did 
right, and by using the same kind of metaphorical reasoning to regard 
market forces as being always forces for the good. Touche! For the book, 
that is. I don't have Buchanan's review at hand, but I recall he 
effectively trashed the argument on the grounds, familiar to all who have 
read Buchanan's writings that actual government must be compared to actual 
market, not ideal government to actual market.]

Instead, he says, we must use economic analysis to show how spontaneous 
rules lead to desirable social outcomes-- not, we should note, to enquire 
whether they do this, but to show that they do so. That spontaneous 
processes lead to human-favourable outcomes is taken for granted. It is 
what 'we need to show'. That is Panglossianism.

[This charge is a valid one.]

Whitman is keen to point out that, in Hayek's view, the rules resulting 
from the evolutionary process are not exempt from critical scrutiny. This 
is supposed to show that spontaneous evolutionary processes are not 
assumed to lead to Panglossian results. But it actually shows the 
opposite, since the reason Hayek wants critical scrutiny of those rules is 
that they may be corrupted by an admixture of state influence ('coercive 
interference'). The spontaneous processes themselves are automatically 
benign, it is state intervention which spoils things.

Whitman's third example is from The Constitution of Liberty:

These considerations, of course, do not prove that all sets of moral 
beliefs which have grown up in a society will be beneficial. Just as a 
group may owe its rise to the morals which its members obey, ... so may a 
group or nation destroy itself by the moral beliefs to which it adheres 
(Hayek 1960:67).

Again, the point of the citation is to show that Hayek, far from embracing 
Panglossianism, is well aware of the possibility of suboptimal outcomes of 
the social evolutionary process. But to see the full meaning of the 
passage cited, we once again need to look at somewhat more of the passage 
in Hayek, from which Whitman's extract has been taken, than Whitman does. 
In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek allows that the points he has 
previously made

do not prove that all the sets of moral beliefs which have grown up in a 
society will be beneficial .... [A] group or nation [may] destroy itself 
by the moral beliefs to which it adheres. Only the eventual results can 
show whether the ideals which guide a group are beneficial or destructive 
.... It may well be that a nation may destroy itself by following the 
teaching of what it regards as its best men .... There would be little 
danger of this in a society whose members were still free to choose their 
way of practical life, because in such a society such tendencies would be 
self- corrective: only groups guided by "impractical" ideals would 
decline, and others, less moral by current standards, would take their 
place. But this will happen only in a free society in which such ideals 
are not enforced on all (Hayek 1960:67).

So, although Hayek admits that suboptimal systems may evolve, firstly, 
this can only be judged by 'eventual results': there is thus a presumption 
that it is impermissible for governments rationalistically to step in 
beforehand to avert the catastrophe. Secondly, he is able to assert that 
there would be 'little danger' of suboptimal results in a 'free society' 
-- by appeal to an argument which assumes optimality: 'groups guided by 
''impractical" ideas would decline, and others ... would take their 
place'. The assumption is that what is good for individuals is good for 
their group and what is good for the group is good for the nation. But of 
course the behaviour which is Nash for agents within a society (whether 
those agents themselves be individuals or groups), the behaviour, that is, 
which issues from the evolutionarily stable strategies which emerge from 
the evolutionary process (Smith 1982:10), cannot be assumed to be optimal 
for the society as a whole. Individuals and groups do not achieve 
pre-eminence in a nation by following rules which it would be in the 
interest of the nation for everyone to follow, but by following rules 
which are well adapted for gaining power and influence within a nation's 
establishment. So, again, passages in Hayek which Whitman thinks point 
away from the charge of Panglossianism actually point towards it.

Whitman's own response to the passage he cites from The Constitution of 
Liberty is as follows:

Of course, this statement could be interpreted as merely a view of 
selection-inprogress, in that ''bad" moral views are characterized as 
leading inevitably to their own demise. The point, however, is that Hayek 
does not perceive the process as finished: at any point in time including 
the present day, we may find undesirable rules and customs that have not 
been weeded out by selective forces, at least not yet (48).

But it makes a very big difference to policy response to perceived 
sub-optimalities, whether they are believed to be (a) the intermediate 
result of a fundamentally humanfavourable process which has not yet run 
its course, or (b) the result of a fundamentally human-indifferent 
process. The former conviction will tend to lead to a policy prescription 
of procrastination, gradualism and minor adjustment; the latter to one of 
more prompt and, potentially, radical reform. The passage is in keeping 
with the overall tenor of Hayek's work: spontaneous processes are optimal 
and are best left alone. Whitman seems unwilling to accept the simple 
message of Hayek's life work, that the policy prescription is one of 

Hayek never eschews the modification and reform of rules; he simply points 
out that any such revision of particular rules must necessarily take place 
in the context of a complex of other rules that are taken as given for the 
time being (48).

Of course Hayek doesn't object to the of modification of rules: but he 
wants them to be modified to give greater play to spontaneous processes, 
not less. Whitman seems to misunderstand Hayek's desire to modify the 
policy framework, in order to bring it more into line with laissez-faire, 
as a step away from laissez-faire. Later in the paper, Whitman argues that 
Hayek's standpoint cannot be Panglossian because he argues for 'the 
occasional corrective reform, which would be unnecessary in a perfectly 
self-correcting (or instantaneously optimal) evolutionary system' (55). 
However, it is not the spontaneous evolutionary process which is 
imperfectly self-correcting, in Hayek's view, but interference with it on 
the part of authority. And it is not necessary for Hayek to regard his 
evolutionary system as 'instantaneously optimal' for us to see that it is 
Panglossian-- what is required is that it tends to generate results which 
serve human purposes, not that it achieves those results perfectly and 
instantaneously. The essence of Pangloss's world view was that we live in 
the best of all possible worlds, not of all worlds whether possible or 
not: belief in 'instantaneous optimality' is not a sensible criterion for 
judging alleged instances of Panglossianism.

This theme, concerning whether perceived sub-optimalities are believed to 
be the intermediate result of a fundamentally human-favourable process 
which has not yet run its course, or, on the contrary, the result of a 
fundamentally human-indifferent process, also arises in connection with 
Whitman's fourth example of Hayek rejecting Panglossianism:

The fact that law that has evolved in this way has certain desirable 
properties does not prove that it will always be good law or even that 
some of its rules may not be very bad. It therefore does not mean that we 
can altogether dispense with legislation (Hayek 1973:88).

Again, we should do well to situate this passage in the context within 
which it appears in Hayek's writing. Hayek says that

The fact that all [spontaneously grown] law ... will of necessity possess 
some desirable properties not necessarily possessed by the commands of a 
legislator does not mean that in other respects such law may not develop 
in very undesirable directions, and that when this happens correction by 
deliberate legislation may not be the only practicable way out. For a 
variety of reasons the spontaneous process of growth may lead into an 
impasse from which it cannot extricate itself by its own forces or which 
it will at least not correct quickly enough ... The fact that law that has 
evolved in this way has certain desirable properties does not prove that 
it will always be good law or even that some of its rules may not be very 
bad. It therefore does not mean that we can altogether dispense with 
legislation ... the most frequent cause is probably that the development 
of the law has lain in the hands of members of a particular class (Hayek 

We may note that the passage continues the theme we have already noted of 
focusing on the exceptional, bad outcomes of an essentially good process: 
law evolves in a desirable way, but some laws may be undesirable. As just 
mentioned, it also touches on the theme of undesirable outcomes resulting 
from an essentially benign process not yet having run its course. We 
should also note the last sentence of the passage cited by Whitman: 'It 
therefore does not mean that we can altogether dispense with legislation'. 
In the previous section Hayek had so praised the evolutionary process of 
common law that one might think legislation itself superfluous. Here he 
needs to step back from a position on legislation which many might regard 
as beyond the pale of extremity. The role of the passage cited is to take 
the extremist edge off an argument which might otherwise deny any scope at 
all for legislation. The context is a massive pre-supposition that 
spontaneous processes lead to optimal results. The major and 'most 
frequent' cause for radical change requiring legislation is the 
recognition that existing law was biased in favour of some group 
over-represented in the state. Again, the assumption is that spontaneous 
processes are essentially benign, and that it is state encroachments which 
induce suboptimality of outcomes.4 So this passage, too, gives very little 
support to the notion that Hayek's attitude towards social evolutionary 
processes was not Panglossian.

4. Conclusion

This article has argued that, contrary to Whitman's defence, Hayek is 
indeed a Panglossian evolutionary theorist.

[It would have been better to say that Hayek was *more* Panglossian, with 
respect to voluntary actions that the author thinks warranted. This charge 
may or may not be correct: Denis advances no criteria to decide what the 
correct amount of Panglossian respect for voluntary actions should be. (It 
will vary across time and circumstance and depend on one's own preferences 
as well as on the objective facts of the situation, which are hard to get.

[I think it fair to charge Hayek with being a "conservative," though he 
famously appended an essay, "Why I Am not a Conservative," to _The 
Constitution of Liberty_. Others have argued this, too. Basically, the 
"conservative" temperament is to search high and wide for the functional 
aspects of the status quo before chucking them as embodying "the dead hand 
of the past" (Mr. Jefferson) or "the accumulation of centuries of 
imbecilities" (Mr. Mencken). As always, moderation is in order.

[I await Buchanan's new short book, _Why I, Too, Am not a Conservative_, 
with great eagerness.]

Hayek's policy stance is a prescription of laissezfaire, and his economic 
and evolutionary theory underpins that policy prescription. His 
evolutionary theory says that spontaneous processes tend towards optimal 
social outcomes. To the extent that they issue from such spontaneous 
processes, the institutions which we inherit are those which have been 
selected according to the benefits they have conferred on the societies 
adopting them. This is Panglossian in the social sense: the institutional 
structure we inherit tends strongly to be desirable and attempts to 
improve it by conscious collective action are very much to be avoided.

[Hayek did, of course, propose any number of radical changes in the status 
quo, in order to restore the "simple system of natural liberty" (Smith). I 
am not sure he was aware of the contradictions here. Leftists notice this 
valorization (a favorite meme) of the status quo all the time, and seek to 
put themselves in charge. The meme, "you can't change just one thing," 
should be generously invoked here.

[As always, I have no answer to what the best combination of conservatism 
and change is and only urge a relentless Checking of Premises. The biggest 
Premise to Check is one that Hayek invokes, and praise him for doing so, 
namely that everything results from human design, when he quotes Ferguson 
on "the results of human action but not of human design" repeatedly.

[The biggest change in the last decade is, of course, the Internet. It was 
not developed with the social changes it wrought in mind, indeed without 
any awareness of their impact, except on the part of a very few 

[What will be coming in the decades ahead--humans may very well be 
displaced as the predominant form of organized matter in the centuries 
ahead--will not be the result of deliberations by Central Planners. I will 
keep this very much in mind as I read and write a review of Joel Garreau's 
_Radical Evolution_ for the _Journal of Evolution and Technology_, which 
task I remind you is keeping me away from most of my Internet activity.

And it is Panglossian in the technical, evolutionary sense of 
Wynne-Edwards's erroneous theory of group selection, a theory that Hayek 
explicitly endorses. In his consideration of biological evolutionary 
theory, Whitman fails to identify Panglossianism with Wynne-Edwards group 
selection. In the passage from biological to cultural evolution, Whitman 
fails to realise that the distinction between the individual and group 
retains its significance in full. Once we look closely at the passages in 
Hayek to which Whitman directs our attention, our verdict on Hayek's 
evolutionary theory can only be: 'Panglossian, as charged'.


1. I should like to thank Pete Clarke, Mary Denis, William Dixon and 
Geoffrey Kay for their encouragement and their most helpful comments on my 
earlier paper on Hayek, on which this one draws. I thank Douglas Whitman, 
Alan Isaac, Erik Angner and two referees for this Journal for comments on 
an earlier version of the present paper, and Alain Albert for prompting me 
to write it. Versions of the paper have been presented at the European 
Society for the History of Economic Thought conference, Graz, Austria, 
2000, the City University Department of Economics research seminar, and 
the Association for Heterodox Economics conference, London, 2001-I should 
like to thank session participants, particularly Stephan Bo¨hm, Jack 
Vromen, Simon Price, John Cubbin and Harold Chorney for their comments. 
Finally, I should like to thank BSc students on my Part III option in 
History of Economic Thought for their questions and comments on the paper, 
and their enthusiasm. The usual caveat applies.

2. Note that the issue is not whether Hayek is guilty of Panglossianism in 
the sense of believing that all is for the best in the world we inhabit, 
but whether his theory of cultural evolutionary processes is Panglossian. 
As the title of Whitman's article shows, and as we would expect of an 
Austrian economist, what is at issue is process not end state.

3. Unqualified page numbers refer to Whitman (1998).

4. It is also the case that there is a technical reason why legislation 
may be necessary: when changes in the law are required, this cannot be 
achieved by case law-- it would be unjust to do so, as case law can only 
determine what was the law in the past, not what it will be in the future.


Dawkins, R. (1989a) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1989b) The Extended Phenotype: the Long Reach of the Gene. 
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1995) River out of Eden. London: Phoenix.

Dennett, D.C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Evolution and the Meanings 
of Life. London: Penguin Books.

Flew, A.G.N. (1967) Evolutionary Ethics. London: Macmillan.

Gould, S.J., and Lewontin, R. (1979) ''The Spandrels of San Marco and the 
Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme." 
Proceedings of the Royal Society B205: 581-98.

Hayek, F. A. (1942) Scientism and the Study of Society Economica, vol. 91. 
pp. 127 -152.

Hayek, F.A. (1960) The Constitution of Liberty. London: Routledge & Kegan 

Hayek, F.A. (1967) Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: 
Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hayek, F.A. (1973) Law, Legislation and Liberty. A new statement of the 
liberal principles of justice and political economy. Rules and Order, vol. 
1. London: Routledge.

Hayek, F.A. (1988) The Fatal Conceit: The errors of socialism. London: 

Hodgson, G.M. (1993) Economics and Evolution. Bringing Life Back into 
Economics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ransom, G. (1996) ''The Significance of Myth and Misunderstanding in 
Social Science Narrative: Opening Access to Hayek's Copernican Revolution 
in Economics." Paper presented at the 1996 annual meetings of the History 
of Economics Society and the Southern Economics Association; 

Smith, J.M. (1982) Evolution and the Theory of Games. Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press.

Whitman, D.G. (1998) ''Hayek contra Pangloss on Evolutionary Systems." 
Constitutional Political Economy 9: 45-66.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list