F. Hayek, Freedom needs individual responsibility

Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable. A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered. Since the individual is to be given the opportunity to make use of circumstances that may be known only to him and since, as a rule, nobody else can know whether he has made the best use of them or not, the presumption is that the outcome of his actions is determined by them, unless the contrary is quite obvious.

This belief in individual responsibility, which has always been strong when people firmly believed in individual freedom, has markedly declined, together with the esteem for freedom. Responsibility has become an unpopular concept, a word that experienced speakers or writers avoid because of the obvious boredom or animosity with which it is received by a generation that dislikes all moralizing. It often evokes the outright hostility of men who have been taught that it is nothing but circumstances over which they have no control that has determined their position in life or even their actions. This denial of responsibility is, however, commonly due to a fear of responsibility, a fear that necessarily becomes also a fear of freedom…

Surely, those who deny the freedom of the will deprive the word “free” of all its ordinary meaning, which describes action according to one’s own will instead of another’s; in order not to make a meaningless statement, they should offer some other definition, which, indeed, they never do. Furthermore, the whole suggestion that “free” in any relevant or meaningful sense precludes the idea that action is necessarily determined by some factors proves on examination to be entirely unfounded…

A free society probably demands more than any other that people be guided in their action by a sense of responsibility which extends beyond the duties exacted by the law and that general opinion approve of the individuals’ being held responsible for both the success and the failure of their endeavors. When men are allowed to act as they see fi t, they must also be held responsible for the results of their efforts…

There can be little question that, from the point of view of society, the art of turning one’s capacity to good account, the skill of discovering the most effective use of one’s gift, is perhaps the most useful of all; but too much resourcefulness of this kind is not uncommonly frowned upon, and an advantage gained over those of equal general capacity by a more successful exploitation of concrete circumstances is regarded as unfair. In many societies an “aristocratic” tradition that stems from the conditions of action in an organizational hierarchy with assigned tasks and duties, a tradition that has often been developed by people whose privileges have freed them from the necessity of giving others what they want, represents it as nobler to wait until one’s gifts are discovered by others, while only religious or ethnic minorities in a hard struggle to rise have deliberately cultivated this kind of resourcefulness (best described by the German term Findigkeit)—and are generally disliked for that reason.

Yet there can be no doubt that the discovery of a better use of things or of one’s own capacities is one of the greatest contributions that an individual can make in our society to the welfare of his fellows and that it is by providing the maximum opportunity for this that a free society can become so much more prosperous than others. The successful use of this entrepreneurial capacity (and, in discovering the best use of our abilities, we are all entrepreneurs) is the most highly rewarded activity in a free society, while whoever leaves to others the task of finding some useful means of employing his capacities must be content with a smaller reward.

It is important to realize that we are not educating people for a free society if we train technicians who expect to be “used,” who are incapable of finding their proper niche themselves, and who regard it as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure the appropriate use of their ability or skill. However able a man may be in a particular field, the value of his services is necessarily low in a free society unless he also possesses the capacity of making his ability known to those who can derive the greatest benefit from it. Though it may offend our sense of justice to find that of two men who by equal effort have acquired the same specialized skill and knowledge, one may be a success and the other a failure, we must recognize that in a free society it is the use of particular opportunities that determines usefulness and must adjust our education and ethos accordingly.

In a free society we are remunerated not for our skill but for using it rightly; and this must be so as long as we are free to choose our particular occupation and are not to be directed to it. True, it is almost never possible to determine what part of a successful career has been due to superior knowledge, ability, or effort and what part to fortunate accidents; but this in no way detracts from the importance of making it worthwhile for everybody to make the right choice.

How little this basic fact is understood is shown by such assertions, made not only by socialists, as that “every child has a natural ‘right,’ as citizen, not merely to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ but to that position in the social scale to which his talents entitle him.”11 In a free society a man’s talents do not “entitle” him to any particular position. To claim that they do would mean that some agency has the right and power to place men in particular positions according to its judgment. All that a free society has to offer is an opportunity of searching for a suitable position, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty which such a search for a market for one’s gifts must involve.

There is no denying that in this respect a free society puts most individuals under a pressure which is often resented. But it is an illusion to think that one would be rid of such pressure in some other type of society; for the alternative to the pressure that responsibility for one’s own fate brings is the far more invidious pressure of personal orders that one must obey…

Though a man’s conviction that all he achieves is due solely to his exertions, skill, and intelligence may be largely false, it is apt to have the most beneficial effects on his energy and circumspection. And if the smug pride of the successful is often intolerable and offensive, the belief that success depends wholly on him is probably the pragmatically most effective incentive to successful action; whereas the more a man indulges in the propensity to blame others or circumstances for his failures, the more disgruntled and ineffective he tends to become…

However moved we may be by accounts of their misery, we cannot make the abstract knowledge of the numbers of suffering people guide our everyday action. If what we do is to be useful and effective, our objectives must be limited, adapted to the capacities of our mind and our compassions.

To be constantly reminded of our “social” responsibilities to all the needy or unfortunate in our community, in our country, or in the world, must have the effect of attenuating our feelings until the distinctions between those responsibilities which call for our action and those which do not disappear. In order to be effective, then, responsibility must be so confined as to enable the individual to rely on his own concrete knowledge in deciding on the importance of the different tasks, to apply his moral principles to circumstances he knows, and to help to mitigate evils voluntarily.

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