Nietzsche von Hayek on Merit

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow:

The value of work.—If we wanted to determine the value of work by how much time, effort, good or ill will, compulsion, inventiveness or laziness, honesty or deception has been expended on it, then the valuation can never be just; for we would have to be able to place the entire person on the scales, and that is impossible. Here the rule must be “judge not!” But it is precisely to justice that they appeal who nowadays are dissatisfied with the evaluation of work. If we reflect further we find that no personality can be held accountable for what it produces, that is to say its work: so that no merit can be derived from it; all work is as good or bad as it must be given this or that constellation of strengths and weaknesses, knowledge and desires. The worker is not free to choose whether he works, nor how he works. It is only from the standpoint of utility, narrower and wider, that work can be evaluated. (§286)

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty:

In a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit…

The value that the performance or capacity of a person has to his fellows has no necessary connection with its ascertainable merit….

The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty. It is because we want people to use knowledge which we do not possess that we let them decide for themselves. But insofar as we want them to be free to use capacities and knowledge of facts which we do not have, we are not in a position to judge the merit of their achievements. To decide on merit presupposes that we can judge whether people have made such use of their opportunities as they ought to have made and how much effort of will or self-denial this has cost them; it presupposes also that we can distinguish between that part of their achievement which is due to circumstances within their control and that part which is not.” (157-159)


  1. Scott Preston April 17, 2013 at 8:34 pm | #

    Hollingdale was not, in my opinion, a very good translator, and an even worse interpreter of Nietzsche. In the context of this extract (here and earlier) from Der Wanderer, one should probably refer to the full context, in the German if possible, and then, as necessary, in the form of a “second opinion” in English from a different translation. For example, here is a different translation of that passage which I consider more sensitive to Nietzsche’s meaning, and you will note, perhaps, the nuances that the clumsy Hollingdale merely bulldozes over

    • Corey Robin April 17, 2013 at 8:39 pm | #

      This extract is the same as the earlier one. And for the purposes of this post, the change in translation doesn’t affect anything at all.

      • Scott Preston April 17, 2013 at 9:06 pm | #

        “This extract is the same as the earlier one.”

        Exactly the same one, yes.

        “And for the purposes of this post, the change in translation doesn’t affect anything at all.”

        Then, for the life of me, I don’t get the method. I guess I’ll have to await The Nation piece to see how it all comes together. But the forced conjunction of Nietzsche-Hayek-Schumpeter reminds me, presently, of (the otherwise brilliant) Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s head-scratching, befuddling, forced conjunction of Aldous Huxley-Stalin-Hitler merely because, it seems, he didn’t comprehend dystopian literature, and apparently believed Brave New World was just such another blueprint for world history.

        Nietzsche-Hayek-Schumpeter (or whoever) makes as much sense to me as Rosenstock’s triple conjunction or tripartite axis of Huxley-Stalin-Hitler (or whoever)

    • Arker April 18, 2013 at 12:34 am | #

      Without disagreeing with you on Hollingdale, I have to agree with Dr. Robin – I dont see any important nuances missing here. Nietszche and Hayek both come to essentially the same fundamental insight here, and even a clumsy translation doesnt seem to obscure that point too badly. Ultimately there is no better gauge of value than what a buyer is willing to pay, however dissatisfying and unfair that may at times seem.

      Whether any substantial criticism of that point will materialise or this note will remain a snide comment that only the pre-existing choir will appreciate remains to be seen.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 18, 2013 at 2:31 am | #

        1. “What a buyer is willing to pay” is in no way a gauge of value. Remember the parable of diamonds and water.

        If I’m willing to buy an item for $10, but someone comes into the market to sell the same item for $5, I will suddenly become unwilling to pay $10. My bid price will change. But it would be absurd to say my values had changed.

        2. Charitably interpreted, the _maximum_ one would be willing to pay (absent other offers) might indicate values. (This is called the “reserve price.”)

        This information is _not_ made available through the ordinary market mechanism.

        3. Negative and positive externalities are not something that can be neglected as some kind of complicated detail. Positive externalities are the primary driver of technological and therefore economic progress.

        Algebra, calculus, mathematics in general, the vast majority of science and physics — these produce value in the form of positive externalities.

        Nobody in a market system is willing to pay for the development of calculus, because they will not be able to privatize the benefits of developing calculus.

        If you think that, _therefore_, calculus has no value — you might just be a libertarian.

  2. OG April 17, 2013 at 9:09 pm | #

    The translation Scott posted may be the same but you cut off some crucial lines. In any case, your Nietzsche posts are pretty poor quality and this is no exception.

  3. Scott Preston April 17, 2013 at 9:52 pm | #

    Hollingdale: just as an example of his incomprehension of the meaning of the man’s words he translated — he once suggested that the “untermenschen” were those who watched BBC1, while the übermenschen were those who watched BBC2.

    And who or what were those who didn’t watch BBC or television at all?

    Moral of the story — avoid Hollingdale.

    • Jacob April 18, 2013 at 4:16 am | #

      I don’t think you misunderstood anything. You’re just running interference for Nietzsche, like most of the people who’ve been responding to these posts. There’s nothing in that other translation that complicates or undermines Corey Robin’s comparison.

  4. Alex K. April 18, 2013 at 4:34 am | #

    The parallel seems valid to me, but I don’t have a major problem with Nietzsche’s treatment of value as cited above. Or, rather, I haven’t yet come across a satisfactory labor-based theory of value.

    Blinkenlights: you’re shooting at strawmen when you’re saying, “Nobody in a market system is willing to pay for the development of calculus, because they will not be able to privatize the benefits of developing calculus.” This assumes a simplistic set of preferences for all agents, like a Soviet parody of capitalism.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm | #

      Alex, I’m not assuming anything. I’m describing a well-known market failure. Why do you think government funds so much basic research and R&D?

      How do you think pure math gets funded? It doesn’t matter whether agents are complex or “simplistic.” They _don’t_ fund pure math, as a matter of empirical fact.

      • Alex K. April 19, 2013 at 1:29 am | #

        But how did science manage to make enormous progress in the 19th and early 20th centuries when tax revenues of most states were a much lower share of GDR than now? Who funded Davy, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin and so on?

        Physics is more relevant to this discussion because it requires much greater funding than math.

        • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 19, 2013 at 7:27 am | #

          Alex, if you are going to ask a rhetorical question, you ought to know the answer.

          Newton was employed by the University of Cambridge, which had been established by King Henry III by a charter in 1231 and a bull in 1233 from Pope Gregory IX.

          Maxwell was also employed by Cambridge, but he first became established at Edinburgh University — which was established by a Royal Charter granted by James VI in 1582. Wikipedia relates an interesting trivium:

          “This was an unusual move at the time, as most universities were established through Papal bulls. The fact that its funding was granted by the Town Council makes it in many ways the first civic university.”

          Kelvin _attended_ Cambridge as a student, but was employed at The University of Glasgow — the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world.

          These are all publicly funded institutions. Besides receiving various grants from the state (including, these days, grants for specific research), they were funded by the church at the time when it had taxation power.

          (By the way, in order to find one Hilbert, it’s necessary to give professorships to tens of thousands of mathematicians. So mathematics research is not as cheap as you might think.)

          TL;DR: Physics research was definitely not privately funded in 19th century. You need to do your homework.

    • charliebucket April 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm | #

      Hmm. Don’t know. Is there a tacit assumption that a theoretical physicist or mathematician would be supported in a fully privatized society? As Blinkenlights points out, it’s not the case now. Private academia will take them under its wing, maybe? Or it would it be the playground of the idle rich? Human progress will sort it out on its own?

      Then there are the arts. In some cases we can see a clear lack of both selling and funding going on with things that are indeed marketable and arguably publicly valuable. The question for older forms ends up being if it’s like Latin – destined to death via time – but that death has been catalyzed already. Most American orchestras are dying, for instance, and would be dead in the water already if not for both private and gov’t subsidies. Long and complex story, but there was plenty of corporate malfeasance aiding this result. And lots of neglect too. According to Norman Lebrecht, the market determined at some point in the 1990s that windsurfing was to be more important in terms of both funding and exposure than orchestras in the US. Maybe it is more important. Probably is.

      Lots of expedited trend generation to make a buck off “the new” out there, at any rate – much bigger and faster than any grassroots process could account for on its own. It’s why I know so much about Gaga despite not trying to, and yet your average American couldn’t name a single piece by Ravel. One is shoved at the public constantly; the other is not just ignored but pretty literally unmentioned outside of academia. Interestingly, in 1980 Blake Edwards used Ravel’s Bolero in the 1980 sex comedy ’10’ and pegged it as “best music to f–k to” with sexpot Bo Derek as spokesperson for this idea, and lo and behold, people bought recordings of Bolero in droves for a while after that. 🙂

      The recording industry’s practices have been well chronicled by many in it, Frank Zappa rather eloquently on the pop/rock front, and that industry clearly emphasizes and pushes low-risk manufactured products that can be combined with fashion, youth, and sex appeal, all of which are readily available more than genius talent. It didn’t always do this – at least not as its primary raison d’etre. And these industries are very good at making pop stars out of thin air, overnight, simply through money transactions to all media and shopping outlets in exchange for outright spamming of the public with their new product. Instant cult of personality! Just add money, glamour, hot magazine covers, ads, and airtime. Grassroots schmassroots. Similar to our political process, really.

      • Alex K. April 19, 2013 at 2:44 am | #

        It’s a question of values to me more than government vs. private funding. Which brings us back to Nietzsche’s original text. And then there’s a question of whether voters agree that civil servants are indeed better qualified than the average Joe to make funding decisions. Zizek touches on this in his recent Thatcher piece.

        • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 19, 2013 at 7:34 am | #

          “there’s a question of whether voters agree that civil servants are indeed better qualified than the average Joe to make funding decisions”

          LOL!! This framing is a joke.

          The “average Joe” isn’t the one making the funding decisions in a market, because average Joe doesn’t have any disposable income.

          The only way for “Joe average” to make decisions about social allocation of resources is exactly to exercise his influence over public institutions — where his voice is small, but still much larger, proportionately, than in the market.

          The market grants decision-making power in proportion to income. Given the distribution of money we have today, a vote about resource allocation gives _more_ power to literally 99% of persons.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 19, 2013 at 8:02 am | #

        “Is there a tacit assumption that a theoretical physicist or mathematician would be supported in a fully privatized society? As Blinkenlights points out, it’s not the case now. ”

        You can’t talk to these guys, because they won’t even acknowledge that much.

        You’re right about the arts, but I don’t care for it much as an example. It’s too easily rebutted. People think: “if the public prefers reality TV to shakespeare, then that’s unfortunate, but they deserve to get what they want.” The same argument can’t be made about fundamental research that provides the basis of our very survival (even though the same economic system is in play). The public, after all, is quite willing to eat the fruit of that plant, even if they lack the foresight to replant the seeds.

      • charliebucket April 19, 2013 at 9:42 am | #

        Right, Blinkenlights. The art argument is a tough one.

        I try to look at how the market actually works more than I try to inject my opinion too much into it, and I’m really only deeply familiar with the music one, where all sorts of deliberate culture washing goes on.

        One opinion I will express is that the marketeers are going to have to work on their treatment of art before they ever convince me to support their point of view. Public spaces too. If strip malls and gigantic hideous billboards and glaring bright lights and cheap prefab everything are what we can expect of America’s meritorious elite, I’m not sure I’ll ever be in their camp.

  5. Roquentin April 18, 2013 at 10:32 am | #

    I’ve commented on these several times before and I have a hard time pinning down what is about these attempts to connect Nietzsche to the Austrian and Chicago School economists. Even while this seems technically correct and I certainly won’t try to claim the coincidence is merely the result of a bad translation, it still makes me cringe when I read it. I’m not even completely sure that impulse is just a gut revulsion at seeing Nietzsche and Hayek said in the same sentence or if I get that vibe because the project is so misguided. Maybe it’s because I want to read Nietzsche vs left-wing thinkers like Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida too much and that handing him over to the Randriods and Mises institute types is like waving a white flag in a battle that you’re already winning.

    Perhaps it’s that Nietzsche’s overall project had very little to do with labor, economic, work, etc and is much better understood as a radical reinterpretation of Christianity and an attempt to predict what would happen during it’s decline. I suppose you could say “neoliberal economics would arise” in response to this, but it still doesn’t sit right with me. Trying to turn Nietzsche into an economist of any kind goes way beyond the scope of what he indented to say. I think he would have little but disdain by people so beholden to mathematical models, who believed everything functioned in equilibrium naturally, etc. It just doesn’t fit.

    I thought the Reactionary Mind was great, by the way. I read the entire text in a and a half. A part of me is thinking “Come on, you’re better than this.”

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 18, 2013 at 11:27 am | #

      I had similar reservations. But Corey said something a few posts ago that, to me, suggests he’s onto something:

      I’m not saying that the neoliberals got their ideas from him or are self-consciously carrying out his project. I’m saying that he diagnosed a problem in the 19th century — the crisis of value, the crisis of aristocratic greatness — that was philosophical, political, and cultural. He had some idea that there might be a political solution to that problem (though he waffles on this). What he definitely did not think was that there could be an economic solution; in fact, he thought economics was part of the problem. The neoliberals, for lack of a better word, are grappling with a similar problem. What makes them interesting is that they think the problem can be resolved through economics. Reading them in tandem with Nietzsche we get a clearer sense of what they were up to — and how the politics they created, which is hierarchical and oligarchic, is not in spite of the theory, but is built into the theory. And that we’ve misunderstood the theory.

  6. ed scott April 18, 2013 at 3:03 pm | #

    Were the quotes intended to show similarities?
    They seem different to me. Neitz concludes utility is the only gage of value and Hayek concludes the value is only possible where there’s freedom, yet we still can’t gage value.
    The former says something concrete about the value of work while the latter plays around with the notion of determining work’s value to say something about liberty.

    • Corey Robin April 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm | #

      In both cases, N and H think that one cannot make an objective determination of the value of work and that the value of work, whatever it is, does not reside in the work itself or the worker and his needs. N says, “Judge not,” and H is basically saying you cannot make a judgment. The reference to freedom there (“The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty”) is that we live in a world of subjective values, a world in which we have no agreed upon scheme of moral merit. Indeed cannot have such a scheme at all. The reason we have liberty is due in part to that fact. If we had an agreed upon scheme of merit — that is, if we agreed upon our values as a society — we would not need liberty; we’d simply impose it upon our system of rewards. N’s conclusion that utility is the only gauge of value is precisely the argument that H comes to. I don’t have the text in front of me but in between those ellipses that is what he says.

  7. Arker April 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm | #


    “Reading them in tandem with Nietzsche we get a clearer sense of what they were up to — and how the politics they created, which is hierarchical and oligarchic, is not in spite of the theory, but is built into the theory. And that we’ve misunderstood the theory.”

    I do believe you are on the right track there, at least in terms of understanding where Professor Robin is going with his argument.

    “If I’m willing to buy an item for $10, but someone comes into the market to sell the same item for $5, I will suddenly become unwilling to pay $10. ”

    If you are willing to pay $10 and it is for sale for $5 you will buy it. If it is for sale for $15 you will decline it. Only if the value you place on an item is higher than the value the seller places on it will a sale take place. Notice that value here is relative – there is no universally valid objective value number in play, just a market that balances the subjective values of any number of buyers and sellers dynamically.

    Only an idiot would think calculus has no value. So that remark edges quite close to personal insult. Alex K. is correct.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm | #

      If you think calculus has value, then you have to explain why the market didn’t fund it — or any of the other pure math or theoretical physics revolutions of the last centuries.

      (Oh, let me guess: if only the government would get out of the way with all its public funding, the masters of the universe would suddenly become research philanthropists.)

      • Arker April 18, 2013 at 9:23 pm | #

        Your calculus comment appears to be a non sequitur. Calculus was developed over a period of millenia by various mathematicians who were funded in various ways at various times and places. I am no expert on calculus but I understand it was in essentially its modern form already in the 17th century, long before the evolution of the modern welfare state. So you just appear to be making no sense at all.

        • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 19, 2013 at 7:52 am | #

          “The modern welfare state” is the non sequitur. The public university funds that research.

          You’re right about the multiple-millenia of mathematical development, but it’s an indisputable (though sadly ignorable) fact that the private entities that have benefitted from mathematics research have funded a negligible portion of it.

          In the pre-modern history of mathematics there are two major periods of great mathematical progress — ancient Greece, and Persia during the Islamic Golden Age.

          I won’t get into details, but if you care to look, you will find that the major institutions supporting research were, besides slavery, large public endeavors with the support of emperors or Caliphs.

          In particular, the largest hubs of research were Alexandria in Greece and the House of Wisdom in Persia. These were the locations of the largest libraries in the world at their respective times. Those libraries were not privately funded.

  8. ed scott April 18, 2013 at 4:21 pm | #

    The quotes refer to the value of a person’s work, a philosophical discussion, not the value of items. Neitz thinks, from the quote, that you can’t ask that question (judge not) and Hayek avoids the question.

  9. Corey Robin April 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm | #

    Roquentin: Blinkenlights has already responded as I would; indeed, he quoted me! So I won’t go over that terrain again. But I want to pick up on something else you say here:

    “Perhaps it’s that Nietzsche’s overall project had very little to do with labor, economic, work, etc and is much better understood as a radical reinterpretation of Christianity and an attempt to predict what would happen during it’s decline.”

    I actually think you’re quite wrong in this. Labor and work are actually quite central to almost all of his major works, beginning with Birth of Tragedy. He has a long discussion there of the centrality of slavery and coerced labor the creation of culture, and his critique of Alexandrian culture — which he says is our modern culture — is that it divests society of the arguments that would justify slavery. This is a point he pursues again in his essay “The Greek State,” which was supposed to be included originally in Birth but ultimately wasn’t.

    In Human, All Too Human, which I just taught today, he has a chapter called “A Glance at the State,” the bulk of which is dedicated to critiquing socialism precisely for its effort to liberate the worker from his chains. As he writes there, “A higher culture can come into existence on where there are two different castes in society: that of the workers and that of the idle…the caste compelled to work and the caste that works if it wants to.” His entire conception of culture and cultural production is there, as it is in his earlier workers, premised upon the existence of a working class, and one of his fears is that modernity has no argument to justify that some work and some don’t. This is a point he will repeat in Beyond Good and Evil.

    In The Gay Science, you see again extended rumination on the relation between capital and labor, and the difficulties that conflict between them poses for a culture. And of course The Genealogy of Morals is all about the slave revolt in morality, and how it undercuts a different way of thinking of morality that comes out of the experience of the master class.

    I certainly would not reduce all of Nietzsche to these reflections and themes; but they are intrinsic to his project. One of the things he most worries about Christianity and its modern offshoots — of which he considers socialism the most prominent — is that it provides no argument for submission to higher men, indeed it undercuts that submission. And submission to the idle, the leisurely, is clearly the most important kind of submission he can imagine. As he says in Human, “Subordination…will soon become as unbelievable to us as the closed tactics of the Jesuits already are; and when this subordination is no longer possible a host of the most astonishing operations will no longer be capable of achievement and the world will be poorer. It is bound to disappear b/c its foundation is disappearing: belief in unconditional authority, in definitive truth.”

    • Montinari April 19, 2013 at 1:10 am | #

      I find “socialism” to be underspecified here. But this isn’t your fault, Corey. After all, Nietzsche had a very limited and thus skewed understanding of what “socialism” was.

      What kind of socialism was Nietzsche talking about here? Marx’s? Lassalle’s? Proudhon’s? Richard Wagner’s?

      • Corey Robin April 19, 2013 at 1:19 am | #

        I’m curious what you think of Brobjer’s two articles on Nietzsche’s reading of both political economy and his knowledge of Marxism. He says Nietzsche had quite extensive knowledge of the socialist tradition, that its emblem for him was mostly Lasalle, though also to a lesser degree Bebel (from whom he got his knowledge of feminism), and that Lange was the instrument of his knowledge. By the way, is there any of your stuff that’s been translated into English? Would love to read it.

      • Montinari April 19, 2013 at 5:45 pm | #

        Brobjer’s articles are fine as far as a thorough archival record of Nietzsche’s library goes. Ultimately it boils down to just a meticulous compilation of Nietzsche’s marginalia and underlining habits. Anything beyond that is pure conjecture, as Nietzsche nowhere writes about or mentions Marx/Marxism even in passing. It is difficult to emphasize enough just how marginal Marx’s influence on German socialist discourse was except through far less talented, self-aggrandizing intermediaries like Lassalle, up until about midway through the 1880s. The socialist theory laid out by Marx and Engels in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s barely existed at all outside of London.

        By all accounts, Nietzsche only gave Bebel’s Woman and Socialism a quick glance, scarcely digesting it before finally losing his mind three days into 1889. There’s really nothing in the record to give us an idea of what he thought of the book. He read other works on feminism, and as you say was generally unimpressed. Nietzsche’s attitude toward feminism wasn’t uniformly negative, however; his friend Meysenbug lent him her Memoires of an Idealist in the mid-1870s. He enjoyed the book immensely, recommended it highly to everyone in his circles, and found renewed appreciation for it upon rereading it as late as 1888.

        Most of what Nietzsche found so repulsive in the works written by the socialists of his day, Proudhon and Dühring and the like, was the same as what Marx and Engels also took issue with: their moralizing appeals, their nonsensical blather about social “equality” and “justice,” their philosophical impoverishment, and the rampant anti-Semitism they contained. This is all in the one book of mine that’s been translated, Reading Nietzsche. Of course, when I say it’s “mine,” it’s a little disingenuous, as I’m by now a wraith.

  10. ed scott April 19, 2013 at 10:10 am | #

    Thanks again for a great discussion.
    How do you think H and N, who I’m ill read to discuss, square with these other ideas inherited into contemporary thought that I’m more familiar with and paraphrase:
    Machiavelli – that theres two classes of people, the regular person who only wants not to be oppressed and the those who only want to oppress.
    Paine – that the notion of a ruling class whose emergence is as natural as evolution is a ridiculous notion, that talent, innovation and value emerges from every class, given the opportunity, as well as the less desirable qualities of human behavior.

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