Bothering to actually read Hayek

March 29, 2008

It took me years to get there…. I just finished Friedrich von Hayek’s famous “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960). I decided I would publicly admit my shame at doing the job I am doing and not having come round to read this book directly, and not simply about it in secondary sources. But I decided that I am certainly not the only one (am I wrong, dear reader?), and it is always good to share information and ideas. So here a quick, short, spontaneous review, appropriately saved under the the “Always late in my readings” category in this blog….

This is one of those grand books everybody knows about, but probably not many actually bother to read. Hayek has a strong public image problem – at least in Western Continental Europe: he has been associated with Thatcherism and Reaganism. He is being hailed one of the fathers of “neoliberalism” (The more I read about liberalism, the more I lose the notion of what “neo-liberalism” actually is – it seems more like an elusive spectre raised by leftists, conservatives, and people who want to sell books to them, as the back cover of the book’s edition at Routledge I read leads me to think….). Thatcher did claim her endorsement of Hayekian ideals. But reading him leads me to the conclusion that this association is being done simplistically, mostly by people who have probably not read Hayek.

Of course, socialists and social democrats cannot but dislike him: he smashes with convincing arguments not only the planned economy, but also the attempt at a social-democratic compromise between socialism and capitalism with the welfare state and its policies of redistribution and egalitarianism. Yet the book’s post script is a magnificent piece entitled “Why I am not a conservative”. There Hayek rejects: “fondness for authority”, refusal of new ideas and argumentation, resistance to change, antidemocratic ideology, nationalism, protectionism, ills associated with “conservatism”. He knows he fits into no existing political party. His would be in his own words, “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution”, with an affiliation with the Old Whigs of Britain’s 17th Century (not later).

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a discussion of individual freedom and argues the case for a society based on individual liberty. “Nowhere is freedom more important where our ignorance is greatest”, is the main message. Only a free society can bring about the necessary capacity to adapt to changes and to progress. Planning and controlling is impossible, because we have limited knowledge. This, of course, involves economic freedom based on private property. The idea is one of overall liberty.

The second part is a piece of legal philosophy, and an exercise in constitutional law. The aim is to discuss means to bind excessive and arbitrary government, and safeguard the sacrosanct Rule of Law. He describes how it has been attempted in Western History.

The third part is a discussion of the main policy areas affected by the rising welfare state (the book was written in 1960). He talks of the handling of labour unions, social security, taxation and redistribution, monetary policies, housing, agriculture and education. Contrary to general perceptions: not everything must be in private hands. What needs to be tamed is expropriation, coercion, arbitrariness. “Indeed, no government in modern times has ever confined itself to the “individualist minimum” which has occasionally been described, nor has such confinement of governmental activity been advocated by the “orthodox” classical economists. (…) Our problem here is not so much the aims as the methods of government action”.

Almost 50 years after this book was published: the issues are as hot as ever! I loved the read, although it requires strong concentration: there is no way it can be read in the tube on the way to work, for example. In a book of 350 pages that has high ambitions and talks about almost everything that matters in politics, especially Part III, some shortcuts and sometimes outright dubious statements are inevitable. At times Hayek’s tone has too much pathos: it sometimes sounds like the End of Liberty is lurking around each and every corner. In this book, however, he no longer outrightly states that the welfare state leads to totalitarianism, as he had done in his “The Road to Serfdom” (yes, that one I had read-;)), written in London during the second world war, as a hot and dramatic reaction to the horrors of totalitarianism. The Constitution of Liberty, that was in 1960. In 2008, in many big Western European countries, faced with even greater welfare states that have undergone at best half-baked reforms, the result is rather the following: certain economic stagnation and decline, social rigidity, rising social problems and regular outbursts of political populism. Democracy remains alive – not least due to the kind of constitutional safeguards Hayek himself discusses in Part II of his book. But the capacity to adapt and to progress has, as predicted by Hayek, been considerably hampered.

Hayek definitely gives very rich food for thought. Research and writings on law and on the welfare state have evolved a lot since then. But the book provides a very powerful analytical framework for understanding what is going on in today’s politics. Another lesson: one should really bother to read more of the classical authors that shape contemporary debates: a good way of doing away with false preconceptions. And it is fun.


One Response to “Bothering to actually read Hayek”

  1. Steve Walsh Says:

    Liberty is the flame of the torch we pass.

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