Why People Are Losing Their Minds
As the extended order of human cooperation breaks down, so do our powers of reason.
Recently, I saw a decal on a car window with the iconic Smoky the Bear image and the caption: “Only you can prevent communism.”
In humor, there is also truth. Prevent communism, how? The person with the decal, a close friend of my daughter’s, saw her role in preventing communism as continuing to educate herself on why it is an existential threat to humanity. Yet, she is dismayed at how many of her peers have adopted collectivist positions and are unwilling to consider alternatives.
Like her, I know many well-intentioned people who have adopted positions antithetical to liberty and yet are as concerned about human flourishing as you and me. They are not ideologues committed to overthrowing Western civilization, but their adopted mindsets are leading us down a dangerous path.
If it seems that your well-intentioned friends have lost their minds, they have, and you might be in danger of losing yours too.
F. A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit helps us understand why. Hayek explained we have confused cause and effect. Reason is not the cause of civilization; reason is a product of civilization.
What makes us human, our minds and our powers of reason, do not exist separately from our social environment. When others descend to madness, we might be complacent, believing we can retain our powers of reason; yet Hayek’s insights prompt us to reconsider our certainty.
If reason existed separately from one’s social environment, more people would resist tyranny. Instead, we witness people cheering and complying with collectivist orders issued by authorities.
If you’re sure you would have hidden Anne Frank or disobeyed orders to kill Jews in a concentration camp, you may be deceiving yourself. Famed author Primo Levi, in his account of his time in Auschwitz, wrote:
We must remember that these faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
Using Hayek’s ideas, we can ask why so many “faithful followers” lose their minds and their power of reason as civilization retreats.
In The Fatal Conceit, Hayek explained, “Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it.” Hayek built off David Hume, who observed, “The rules of morality.. are not the conclusions of our reason.”
Hayek broke it down for us. He argued, “The demands of socialism are not moral conclusions derived from the traditions that formed the extended order that made civilisation possible.” In other words, socialists are not merely tweaking the system to bring out the best of us.
“Rather,” Hayek saw clearly, “[socialists] endeavour to overthrow these traditions by a rationally designed moral system whose appeal depends on the instinctual appeal of its promised consequences.” In short, we are seduced by any promise to alleviate the human suffering we see.
Why are we seduced? Hayek writes, “[We] assume that, since people had been able to generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts, they must also be able to design an even better and more gratifying system.”
Yet, Hayek understood that civilization cannot be built on false premises just because they sound good: “If humankind owes its very existence to one particular rule-guided form of conduct of proven effectiveness, it simply does not have the option of choosing another merely for the sake of the apparent pleasantness of its immediately visible effects.”
Hayek continued with this powerful warning: “The dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival. To follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest.”
We can be a nasty, brutish bunch; but behind the scenes, without any conscious direction on our part, the worst in us can be corrected in the course of a social process. In Hayek’s words, “It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it.”
Take a moment to reflect on an uncoerced social or work interaction that brought out the best in you. Such interactions may permanently alter your gaze, how you see others, and yourself. Sitting at home merely attempting to reason to a “higher” state, you would have never made your leap or known the need to alter your gaze.
Those with a fatal conceit do not understand that “our reason is as much the result of an evolutionary selection process as is our morality.”
Humanity, Hayek explained, “achieved civilisation by developing and learning to follow rules…that often forbade him to do what his instincts demanded.” We had to be willing to replace “common concrete ends” with “end-independent abstract rules of conduct.” Obeying a decrepit “headman” is not freedom.
Full of hubris, we believe we are “able to shape the world around [us] according to [our] wishes.” Blinded by this fatal conceit, the miracle of the modern world goes unnoticed. Few wonder what is “responsible for having generated this extraordinary order.” Hayek’s insight is “the rules of human conduct that gradually evolved (especially those dealing with… property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy)” generated the order we take for granted.
Many bemoan the slightest inconvenience, such as a supermarket being out of stock of their favorite food yet exhibit a “curious lack of curiosity about how our extended order actually came into being, how it is maintained, and what the consequences might be of destroying those traditions that created and maintain it.” When brazen mobs loot upscale stores, their actions are a visible consequence of a social environment in which property rights are no longer valued.
Today, the extended order is breaking down. As order breaks down, so do our powers of reason. Many are willing to be taught to have disgust for those outside their tribe. Many have allowed the limits of their minds to be reduced to tribal identities; and with their decision to see people as “others,” they have lost their humanity.
We are witnessing the adoption of the fanatical belief that, as James Lindsay describes, “racism created by white people for their own benefit is the fundamental organizing principle of society.” Those who cling to this belief behave like cadres in Mao’s China, viciously punishing those who don’t bow.
What Lindsay describes today, Hayek warned of: “The aim of socialism is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the old order” which, contrary to evidence, socialists claim is responsible for “inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfilment, true freedom, and justice.”
Civilization and the capacity to reason will continue to evolve only through our voluntary participation in a social process embracing, in Hayek’s words, “the burdens of disciplined work, responsibility, risk-taking, saving, honesty, the honouring of promises, as well as… curbing by general rules one’s natural reactions of hostility to strangers and solidarity with those who are like oneself.”
“Deliberate design,” imposed by collectivists, won’t fix what we are destroying.
This essay was originally published at the American Institute for Economic Research.
Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein is a reader-supported publication. Free and paid subscribers receive the same content. Your paid subscription signals extra encouragement and support to expand this Substack work.