Sign In

Group Identity: Friedrich Hayek’s Scary Warning

What threatens the future of America (and other Western societies) was forecasted in a 1988 book by Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. It is the return of tribalism. The Wall Street Journal writes (“Why Tribalism Took Over Our Politics,” August 26, 2023):

It was the latest example of the Republican former president employing a potent driver of America’s partisan divide: group identity. Decades of social science research show that our need for collective belonging is forceful enough to reshape how we view facts and affect our voting decisions. When our group is threatened, we rise to its defense.

The research helps explain why Trump has solidified his standing as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination despite facing four indictments since April. The former president has been especially adept at building loyalty by asserting that his supporters are threatened by outside forces. His false claims that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, which have triggered much of his legal peril, have been adopted by many of his supporters.

Democrats are using the tactic, too, if not as forcefully as Trump. …

Yet the research on the power of group identity suggests the push for a more respectful political culture faces a disquieting challenge. The human brain in many circumstances is more suited to tribalism and conflict than to civility and reasoned debate.

The journalist unfortunately does not mention Hayek, a 1974 laureate of the Nobel Prize in economics, who devoted much work to tribalism and its modern forms. For most people, it seems, “social science” does not include economics—while it is the social science par excellence, as Hayek’s work demonstrates.

Some 300,000 years have wired and coded the human brain for survival in the tribal environment where humans lived until about 12,000 years ago. The wiring was genetic but the coding, which is Hayek’s subject, was cultural. In The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins expressed a similar idea: “Man’s way of life is largely determined by culture rather than by genes.” With Hayek’s analysis, we can see more clearly that the hundreds of thousands of years of tribal evolution solidified group identity and collective action (if we may use a term that looks anachronic) for the purpose of survival.

The discovery of what Hayek calls the “Great Society” may have started with the first urban societies but only showed up with the Ancient Greeks circa 500 B.C. By the 18th century and the Enlightenment, the Great Society was clearly recognizable. (Hayek’s Great Society has nothing to do, quite the contrary, with Lyndon Johnson’s welfare-state slogan in the 1960s.) It continued with the Industrial Revolution, the explosion of trade, and a general escape from poverty for the first time in the history of mankind. (See my Regulation review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth and my short Regulation treatment of why the Great Enrichment started in the West.) In the West, the Great Society, which is the same as classical liberalism, started to decisively replace group identity and submission of individuals to political rulers. (For a different interpretation of Western history since the end of the first millennium of our era, see the beginning of Chapter 4 in Anthony de Jasay’s 1989 book Public Good, Free Ride.)

The Great Society is characterized by abstract social relationships based on general rules, as opposed to the stifling customs of the tribe,  obedience to the collective, or commands from political authority. Trade, contract, the rule of law, and individual liberty—all abstract institutions—replace tribal autarky and individual submission to political rulers. (Another major work of Hayek that develops these ideas is his trilogy Law, Legislation, and Liberty. See my Econlib review of Volume 1; links to my EconLib reviews of the two following volumes can be found on my personal website.)

The Great Society is still a work in progress as shown has been subject to attacks and steps back during the past century or so. Furthermore, most humans are still not living in the Great Society, even if many have tried to imperfectly imitate it so attractive is its model of wealth and independence for ordinary individuals.

The problem, argued Hayek, is that individual minds have been capable of adapting only partially to the new liberal world. Most people still instinctively long for primitive societies, group identity, or a strong political leader. Many if not most are attracted to social engineering and conscripting everybody toward collective goals. They wrongly believe that human reason is able to reconstruct society ab novo, an intellectual error that Hayek called “constructivism.” Therein lies mankind’s fatal conceit. These instincts and beliefs can undermine and destroy the abstract liberal civilization, which is the only one compatible with prosperity and individual liberty—a danger much more serious danger than an increase of three degrees Celsius in world temperatures. But identitarians of the left (woke) or the right (nationalists and such) don’t understand that.

Was Hayek’s warning prescient or unduly alarmist? Were he still alive, I think he would have seen in wokism an ultimate form of the social constructivism he blamed socialism for. I think he would also agree that we have learned something important during the last political decade in America: it is not inconceivable that civilized society would start unraveling under some ignorant and immoral demagogue for whom personal loyalty and the right tribe, not abstract rules, should govern. Too bad that conservatives, just like socialists, don’t (and perhaps cannot) understand Hayek.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor