Hayek became something of a hero to Libertarians for presenting the strongest possible arguments against government intervention in the free market and in particular against government redistribution of wealth. But even in The Road to Serfdom he advocates for a social safety net. Recently a few bloggers have tried to make sense of this apparent contradiction, including the estimable Matt Yglesias.
Kevin Vallier thinks that there’s a difference between welfare conducted by an administration or by law, but since laws are created by administrations, it’s hard to see the line between the two, and I haven’t noticed that Hayek himself drew it. On the other hand, Vallier does object to Hayek’s frequent slippery slope arguments as running together the conceptual with the empirical. “Slippery slope” understates the character of Hayek’s approach. He doesn’t object to a mere conceptual possibility opening a possible pathway, he argues that the slopes are necessarily slippery. At several points in the Road to Serfdom he provides compelling arguments that any least gesture towards government intervention in redistribution, for example, leads inevitably to totalitarianism. There is in his responses an element of defensive alarmism evident not only in his general concern but commensurately in the extremity of his argument.
A defensive call serves a useful purpose, even if it isn’t always a coherent program. That’s also consonant with his views on uncertainty, which undermine program. So I’m with Yglesias on this. Besides, it’s easy to accuse Hayek of inconsistency when he himself rejected consistency as a program.