Question: How can we relate Hayek’s theory of Social Evolution with his understanding of freedom and progress?

A photo of Friedrich August von Hayek (N.D.). Source

Friedrich August von Hayek, Austrian economist who lived in the 20th century, was one of the most annotated intellectual wrote his ideas mainly related to the classical liberal school. He critiqued various thinkers, from range to contractarians to socialists. He had ideas not only about economics, but also philosophy. His ideas on is mainly about the importance of free market and private sphere. Individual must have a private sphere, which should not be limited by any structure. Unlike rationalists, Hayek favours free market, which can define the best option.

Social evolution, as Hayek defines, is a kind of evolutionary process in which social groups have important role (Marciano, 2007, p. 13). Hayek was inspired from Charles Darwin, biologist who theorised the biological evolution and essence of human life. According to Darwinian theory, by mutations and genetic differences, creatures adapts themselves to the nature. Hayek’s evolution differs in that point, as he said that ‘although biological theory now excludes the inheritance of acquired characteristics, all cultural development rests on such inheritance – characteristics in the form of rules guiding the mutual relations among individuals which are not innate but learnt’ (1991, p. 25). Hayek also says that there is no choice, which are only the limitation of freedom. From groups and social gatherings, people learn information, and imitate them. As Hayek says:

…the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. Though this operates also through the success of individuals and groups, what emerges is not an inheritable attribute of individuals, but ideas and skills— in short, the whole cultural inheritance which is passed on by learning and imitation. “

(2011, p. 118)

Hayek named that as misguided choice. Individual’s decisions must be existed solely, and they decide best option through free market, nobody, no group, or no grand idea must affect their decisions. For that, individual must have a private sphere. On this vein, Hayek accuses progress as a outcome of formation and modification of illusion, not human rationality, with contrasting French Enlightenment philosophers. Rationality is not a common thing, everyone thinks different, and the free market of individuals defines the best option. Man seeks useful knowledge and only way to find it rests upon through the principles of free market.

To conclude, Hayek defined Social Evolution as an imitation process, in which individual imitates ideas and skills defined by ‘universal’, ‘rationalistic’ enlightenment. This misguides individual and which limits individual freedom.


Hayek, F. A., & Hamowy, R. (2011). The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition. University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. von, & Bartley, W. W. (1991). The fatal conceit : the errors of socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marciano, A. (2007). Hayek’s Theory of Social Evolution in the Light of Darwin’s Descent of Man. SSRN Electronic Journal.