How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism Can Rescue Hayek’s Economics

by | Jun 11, 2019 | Economics

In economics Hayek is a radical; but in philosophy, unlike Ayn Rand, Hayek is a conservative.

In discussing Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, we must begin by distinguishing philosophy from economics. In economics, Hayek makes great contributions, because he is a radical. “Radical” in the sense of getting to the root, the fundamental. In economics proper, Hayek rejects conventional wisdom,” and grasps the fundamental role of production (not Keynesian “demand”) and that the task of production is, at root, intellectual–with primacy going not to Marxian “labor” but to “creative discovery” and economic calculation based on the information content of market prices.

But in philosophy, the story is different: Hayek is more conservative than radical. He doesn’t check the deepest premises of traditional philosophy and works within its limiting and ultimately self-defeating framework. Thus, he gets trapped in the set of false alternatives that has dominated philosophy over the centuries: Rationalism, as in Plato, vs. Empiricism, as in David Hume; mysticism vs. skepticism; contextless absolutes vs. arbitrary, subjective conventions; “instinct” vs. tradition.

For instance, Hayek writes:

The objective physical world is different from that perceived by the senses.1

That’s Plato’s metaphysics, via Kant. The entire Platonic-Kantian philosophy is based on the claim that the world we see, hear, touch, etc. is not objective–not “things as they are in themselves” (Kant), not “the really real reality” (Plato).

Similarly, Hayek writes:

In opposition to the naive rationalist which treats our present reason as absolute, we must continue the efforts which David Hume commenced when he ‘turned against the enlightenment its own weapons’ and undertook ‘to whittle down the claims of reason’ by the use of rational analysis.2

And: “The human brain can never fully explain its own operation.”3

In fact, confidence in reason’s ability to guide action is “The Fatal Conceit.”

Most knowledge . . . is obtained not from immediate experience or observation, but in the continuous process of sifting a learnt tradition, which requires individual recognition and following of moral traditions that are not justifiable in terms of the canons of traditional theories of rationality.4

Why does Hayek proclaim reason’s impotence? Because he’s operating under the assumption that reason has to mean Rationalism. He’s working within a Platonic framework, a Platonic view of logic and of abstractions. He does not know a solution to the problem of universals–the age-old problem of identifying what concepts refer to in reality. E.g., what does “man” refer to? The Ancient Greek Sophist Antisthenes said, “I’ve seen many men, but never have I seen man.”

In the whole history of philosophy, only two answers to Antisthenes’ challenge have been offered. 1. The Platonic answer: “You can’t see man with your physical eyes, but if you use your intellectual eye to apprehend the world of Forms, you can intuit the Form of Man. The Form of Man exists in another, non-perceivable dimension. 2. The Humean answer: “There is no such thing as man. There’s only men. They resemble each other, and we use their rough similarities as a basis for calling each individual “a man.” When we assume that what’s true of one man will be true of another, we are making a leap of faith, Humeans hold. There’s no rational basis for inductive generalizations, because there is no identical attribute running throughout the roughly resembling things that we use the same word for. There’s no logic to generalizations–only accidental associations that have become habitual.

So, traditionally, the epistemological alternative was: intuitions of an invisible world, or baseless social conventions. In ethics, that translated into: commandments from on high, or subjective whims. In Freud’s language, the alternative is the superego or the id.

This is the set of false alternatives Hayek accepts in philosophy. And it undercuts his economics, which rightly emphasizes the process of economic calculation, how prices convey information, and competition as a process of “creative discovery”–all of which involve confidence in the power of the intellect.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy offers a way out of the philosophic dilemma. Objectivism upholds a position that is neither Platonic nor Humean, neither Rationalist nor Empiricist, neither dogmatic nor skeptical, neither mystical nor subjective. This new alternative is: objectivity–objectivity understood in a new and deeper way. For Rand, objectivity means, as Leonard Peikoff formulates it, “volitional adherence to reality by the method of logic.”5

Platonists hold that knowledge requires neither method nor choice–we just open our minds to The Truth. Humeans, observing that one man’s “intuition” contradicts another, conclude that we’re doomed intellectually. Only an automatic knowledge would be reliable, they assume, but we have a choice of how to proceed, and there’s no rational standard to judge alternative ways of proceeding.

Both sides of the false alternative agree, in spirit, with Dostoyevsky’s line: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Mystics and skeptics agree that God or some mystical realm is required, if there is to be knowledge of truth and of value. (Skeptics conclude such knowledge is unobtainable.)

Rand rejects the premise. Knowledge does not have to be automatic to be valid and certain. A rational method of forming and using abstractions can be defined; that method is logic, “the art of non-contradictory identification.”6 But Objectivism expands Aristotelian logic to include an awareness of the requirements imposed by the nature of our cognitive equipment; logic is more than syllogistic reasoning (as even Aristotle knew)–it includes concept-formation, definition, and induction.

A rational theory of concept-formation is the root of all the rest. For Rand to develop her concept of objectivity, the crucial first step was grasping the relation of concepts to percepts–i.e., of abstractions to concretes–i.e., solving the problem of universals. Rand accomplished that singular feat by analyzing what underlies similarity. “Similarity,” she writes, “is the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree.”7 I won’t go into the technical part of Rand’s theory of “measurement-omission,” referring only to her clear exposition in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Chapter 2.

Consider now the application of reason to the issue of value-judgments. There, Hayek is also working with received notions, rather than questioning fundamental assumptions. Like most economists, Hayek (properly) rejects the notion of intrinsic value–the belief that the value of a good or service is inherent in it, independent of men’s ideas, values, and needs. It is an error to think there’s a “just price” against which one can judge the market price. But Hayek embraces the other side of the false alternative: if value is not intrinsic, it must be subjective. It exists only in the people’s minds.

Ayn Rand offers the third alternative: value is objective. Value is neither an intrinsic feature of an object, apart from man’s evaluations, nor is value something that exists only in our minds, independent of the facts. Rather, value is a relationship–a relationship between our minds and the facts, based upon applying a rational standard of value to the facts. This she calls the “objective theory” of value. We evaluate the worth to us of a good or service based on our ideas about a whole raft of facts–facts regarding the thing’s attributes, its causal properties, how difficult it is to produce, and much more economic data.

More widely:

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of “things in themselves” nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man.8

Rand bases her defense of the economic functioning of capitalism on its objectivity in regard to value. “The objective view of values permeates the entire structure of a capitalist society.”9


Hayek is famous for the idea of “spontaneous order.” Property rights, respect for the autonomy of persons, and all the capitalist institutions are not things that anyone planned from some political headquarters or some throne. They just evolved.

Why does Hayek hold this? What is the advantage of saying that the capitalist system wasn’t imposed from above but emerged from below? Why does it have to be “spontaneous”–the biggest theme in Hayekian meta-economics? The answer is: if there’s no rational way to decide how society ought to be organized, as Hayek believes, then he can at least argue: “Let’s leave the selection to what evolved naturally. Don’t tamper with nature. We got capitalism as a result of trial and error to find what works. So don’t come in with some Rationalistic, deductive system of ideas and mess with that.

Now this is a terrible argument. This is the same as environmentalism: don’t attempt to improve on what nature provided–who are we to play God? Likewise, Hayek’s argument is who are we to play God in setting up laws, rules, and institutions?

But he only takes this (hopeless) line of argument because he doesn’t understand that one can establish a rational ethics and a rational politics based on that ethics. That is very different from “central planning.” It is true that you cannot rationally impose your ideas on other people, forcing them to obey, in economics (or in any other sphere of life). But the evil of initiating physical force against others is not due to its being “unnatural”; as Rand identified, coercion is evil because “To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival.”10

Thus, contra Hayek, the issue is not the planner’s ignorance. Even if someone does know what another person should be doing, one cannot achieve that person’s well being by forcing him to do it.

A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone; the forcibly mindless can neither judge nor choose nor value. An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.11

It is a person’s own mind that he has to rely on. Force is destructive because “the anti-mind is the anti-life.”12

The moral and political principles on which capitalism is based did not arise spontaneously. The principles underlying capitalism were consciously, carefully worked out by Enlightenment Era thinkers, such as John Locke. Locke, in turn, called on the metaphysical and epistemological principles established by Aristotle (transmitted to the modern world by Thomas Aquinas). Thinkers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke developed the principle that made capitalism possible: individual rights.

Incidentally, vs. the idea of “spontaneously developed order”: the Constitution of the Carolinas was drafted by John Locke! The Declaration of Independence borrowed some of the very language of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. The American Founding Fathers got the idea of individual rights and set up our Constitution consciously, based upon their careful study of philosophy and history. Reading The Federalist Papers reveals how erudite they were, and how much they knew not only of Locke but of Cicero, Montesquieu, and other great thinkers in political theory.

Hayek, with some justification, talks about “cultural evolution,” but where do the variants for the selective process come from? In biological evolution, the variations come from random mutation and sexual recombination of genetic elements. Where do the ethical-political variations come from? They come from philosophers. And when the required philosophical basis for “what works” loses acceptance, the society retrogresses–as in the fall of Rome and the collapse into the Dark Ages. Hayek’s “cultural evolution” is entirely unable to explain how such a phenomenon as the Dark Ages could occur, if institutions rise or fall based on what works in practice.

Hayek’s philosophy is what stops him from recognizing the cultural impact of philosophy. Hayek’s skepticism about abstract reason is married to his skepticism about morality. Abstract reason is “The Fatal Conceit.” And the frontispiece quote of that work is this quote from the arch-skeptic, David Hume: “The rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.” Anyone who believes that is, of course, at a total loss when it comes to justifying individual rights, and its consequence: the rule of law and the free market. “Spontaneous order” is what Hayek seeks refuge in, given his belief that no rational, objective moral code can exist.

What Hayek needs is Ayn Rand’s explanation of how concepts can be objective, how reason, no matter how abstract, reflects strict adherence to logic, and how that can be applied to defining a rational, objective, scientific code of morality (see, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).

The overview is that Hayek’s immensely valuable economic points need the philosophic base that Ayn Rand has developed. And let me emphasize that this base is not a few slogans strung together (“Be logical,” “Man is an end in himself”), but a voluminous, rich, detailed corpus of systematic principles, precisely defined. (See Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, and my own How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.)


The above article is an expanded version of opening remarks made at the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE) convention, April 12, 2016, for a panel titled: Hayek and Rand on the (Ab)Use of Reason.”


1. The Sensory Order, 8.37.

2. The Constitution of Liberty

3. The Sensory Order, 8.69.

4. The Fatal Conceit, p. 75.

5.   Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 116.

6. Atlas Shrugged, p. 934.

7. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 13.

8. “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 22.

9. Ibid., p. 23.

10. Atlas Shrugged, p. 940.

11. What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 23.

12. Atlas Shrugged, p. 930.

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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