The Nobel Prize–winning economist F.A. Hayek was one of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of a free society. His most thorough explanation of how to build a free and option-filled world is The Constitution of Liberty, originally published in 1960. In March the University of Chicago issued The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition as part of its ongoing 19-volume series The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek. The latest version of the classic book was edited by Ronald Hamowy, a former student of Hayek’s at the University of Chicago. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Hamowy by phone in March.
Q: Where does Constitution of Liberty stand in Hayek’s body of work?
A: This is clearly his most important work, where he lays the basic foundation of what constitutes the free society. It’s an extremely difficult job, and although he doesn’t quite bring it off, he comes close. From his response to its reviews, he was depressed to get such a slight reaction from the academic world. He would have preferred to have greater impact. But in the end it has made a difference and will continue to make a difference.
Q: When the book came out, you critiqued his definition of coercion in the University of Chicago libertarian student journal, New Individualist Review. Why?
A: This is a flaw which is not in the first draft of some of the chapters, which he published in 1955 as The Political Ideal of the Rule of Law, based on lectures he’d given at the National Bank of Egypt.
Hayek states that liberty can be defined as the absence of coercion, and that coercion exists when “one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose” and can exist when “the alternatives before me have been so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose becomes for me the least painful one.” He uses as an example water belonging to an oasis owner in the desert, in which the traveler has no option but to pay whatever the oasis owner asks. My problem was that really doesn’t make any sense given Hayek’s own position on price formation, because in that you can’t tell what constitutes a “reasonable price.”
He also wrote that for laws not to be coercive they had to be generally applicable to everybody and predictable. But even then you could have a very coercive regime—like in Iran, where the mullah’s directives may apply to everybody, be predictable, and be put in general terms, but still greatly restrict liberty. In the previously published drafts he says those criteria—generality, applicability to all, predictability—are necessary conditions for a free society but not sufficient. He says that explicitly. Why he abandoned that in Constitution, I don’t know.
Q: How did he take the criticism?
A: Hayek took my criticisms seriously and replied to them in the same journal where they were published. He was extremely gentlemanly, since these criticisms came from an upstart student who had just started graduate work under him.
Q: What is changed in this edition compared to previous ones?
A: In the actual body of the text, nothing except for a couple of typos. The real changes are in the footnotes. At least half of the footnotes have been altered slightly. Hayek when he quotes somebody almost invariably quotes them correctly. The problem is in his citations he transposes pages or gets volume numbers of journals wrong or gets the full title of a book wrong. He kept his notes on little three by five cards, the accumulation of research over 30 years, so the errors are understandable, and never substantive. But I was glad to be able to correct them so the footnotes are now definitive.