40 Years of Nobelity: What Hayek Means to Me
In this year's Nobel season we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Friedrich Hayek's Nobel Prize for Economics. So it's a good time, in the dog days of the Worst President Ever, to think about what Hayek means to us.
That's beyond the obvious point that if liberals had read and understood one word of Hayek they wouldn't be cowering in the utter meltdown that we know as the failed Obama presidency. Oh, the shame of it.
I can't remember exactly when I first heard of Hayek, but it must have been from reading the Wall Street Journal's edit page in the early to mid-1970s during its Golden Age under Bob Bartley. All I know is that in 1976 I got a copy of Mises' Human Action for my birthday.
We now know that the “amiable dunce” Ronald Reagan had also read his Hayek and his Mises, and it showed. We only know that he read them because after he died people discovered that his copies had been heavily annotated by Ronaldus Magnus himself.
Economist Mark Skousen celebrates Hayek as a macroeconomist of the Austrian business cycle, but I have always looked to him as a political philosopher.
As a political philosopher, Hayek had one Big Idea. It was that the socialist/Fabian/Progressive project would end in tears because, as he wrote, the man in Whitehall could never know anything close to the aggregate knowledge about the economy communicated in prices by millions of producers and consumers.
In its attempt to impose their will over the economy, Hayek wrote in 1944, the “socialists of all parties” would herd their nations down The Road to Serfdom.
In 1960, when he published The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek sharpened his analysis. He pointed out that the powers and responsibilities of the administrative state could never be defined and detailed by legislation. The task of the central planner was too complicated; he had to have the flexibility to issue administrative regulations to deal with the day to day contingencies of directing economic traffic. But administrative flexibility is the very definition of arbitrary political power, so the central administrator is bound to violate the rule of law and reduce human freedom. Fifty years later, the rollout of ObamaCare confirmed his view in every particular.
Hayek's Law Legislation and Liberty was a three-volume expansion of The Constitution of Liberty and was published between 1973 and 1979 when Hayek was in his seventies. It ends with chapters on “A Model Constitution” and “The Containment of Power and the Dethronement of Politics.”
But Hayek still wasn't finished. In 1978 (at the age of 79!) he wanted to stage a grand debate with the socialists, but in the end satisfied himself with The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism published in 1988. Here is the money paragraph in Chapter Five: “The Fatal Conceit.”
[I]t was found that decentralized control over resources, control through several property, leads to the generation and use of more information than is possible under central direction. Order and control extending beyond the immediate purview of any central authority could be attained by central direction only if, contrary to fact, these local managers who could gauge visible and potential resources were also currently informed of the constantly changing relative importance of such resources, and could communicate full and accurate details about this to some central planning authority in time for it to tell them what to do in the light of all the other, different, concrete information it has received from other regional and local managers...
And so on. And on. In other words: That super-centralized administrative monster ObamaCare will crash and burn. It was always going to crash and burn. Because Hayek.
You can see the problem with Hayek. He cannot, for all the world, condense his Big Idea into a catchphrase that could change the world. But we can honor his memory by doing his catchphrasing for him.
“Socialism cannot work because it cannot compute prices.” That was Ludwig von Mises in 1920.
“Central administration is a Road to Serfdom because it always violates the rule of law.”
“Human society is the product of human action, not of human design.”
“The market has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”
“Responsible individualism and free exchange create prosperity and freedom; administrative collectivism corrodes into poverty and domination.”
“The administrative state is a mechanism, but human society is an organism.”
Maybe you can do better.
And maybe there's a young liberal student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right now, that's furtively turning the pages of The Road to Serfdom at a local bookstore, and hoping that nobody will notice him.
Maybe in another 40 years we'll know him as the Democrat that saved liberalism from itself.