An Interview with F.A. Hayek: Economics, Politics, & Freedom

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REASON: Concerning your own development, it’s been quite evident that in recent years you’ve dealt more and more with philosophy, law, even sociology instead of technical economics. What are the reasons for this change of your focus of attention?

HAYEK: The main reason is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the actual differences on solution of practical problems are much less due to differences in technical economics than in basic philosophy. In fact, even with people with whom I agree on technical economics I find that I often disagree on practical issues of policy. So the issues need to be considered at different levels.

REASON: As you know there is in America a small faction of Austrian economists who do disagree with most other economists on technical issues. Do you think the Austrian approach in economics will be renewed?

HAYEK: One would have to define “Austrian” in a very wide sense to regard that as a possibility: But in a way when people defend microeconomics against macroeconomics, this could be called Austrian economics. In this wide sense, revival or renewal of the influence of the quasi-Austrian school would be very desirable and I hope will be forthcoming. In the narrow sense, the specific Austrian tradition has on the whole merged with the Laussanne and the Cambridge tradition to become part of what is called neoclassical economics. What we can hope for is just that this neoclassical tradition again becomes influential, not its specific Austrian branch which constitutes a particular phase in the neoclassical development.

REASON: I am curious what you might think about something Milton Friedman told us in a recent interview. Dr. Friedman maintains that economics is as much a science as any other, even hard or natural science. Would you comment?

HAYEK: I agree with him to some extent. I shall qualify this by pointing out that as the degree of complexity of the phenomena increases, what science can do is more and more limited. In economics, and the social sciences generally, you deal with a field where on the one hand we cannot apply the method of physics and the mechanical sciences because the number of determining factors is too large, and on the other hand the numbers are not yet large enough to rely on statistics and probabilities. The intermediate field, between where we can master all the individual events and where we can deal with the probabilities of large numbers, is a field where the capacity to predict is necessarily limited. This is not because our theories are inadequate but because it becomes practically impossible to ascertain all the factual data which would have to be introduced into the theory to arrive at specific predictions. That's one reason I was led to the study of the problems of scientific methods and philosophy generally. I have done an essay on the theory of complex phenomenon which deals with that very problem. But it would not be possible to treat these issues here, of course.

REASON: That's true, but I would like to take up one point. Your answer has the underlying premise that the difference is only one of complexity and not one of type. There is now a resurgence of an argument to the effect that when we reach the social sciences we have a type difference of the sort that renders science itself inadequate or inapplicable in this area. Perhaps the subject matter of economics is such that by its very nature it defies treatment scientifically. Have you come across this type of view?

HAYEK: Yes, of course. But it's an exceedingly confused discussion which is going on about this problem. It depends on what is meant by a type difference. I would admit and even emphasize that the nature of observation is different when we deal with human action from what it is when dealing with phenomena not human. We constantly interpret what constitutes human action on the basis of our knowledge of how the human mind works, which makes our whole perception of man acting different in character from our perception of physical events. In that sense the data from which we have to start in the social sciences are different from the data from which we start in the physical sciences. But the next step becomes the same. Once we have assembled the data, I don't think the construction of theories is essentially different from the physical sciences. It's a point on which I am now almost entirely accepting the recent argument of Karl Popper. I agree entirely with him particularly since he has taught me that what earlier physical scientists claimed to be their method really was in fact not what they did.

REASON: It has been held that Popper is more relativistic than even he admits. That is, he is charged with holding that scientific theories have philosophical presuppositions built into them and that the emerging scientific conclusions have a "coloration" that is more philosophical than scientific. At least there are passages in Popper where he is very close to Thomas Kuhn. I was wondering whether you go so far as to say that the sciences, especially the social sciences, are so philosophically tainted that eventually we may have to give them all up in favor of a newer perspective once the dominant philosophical theories change?

HAYEK: Not at all, but there is a conclusion that I would draw. I think it is quite possible that we may recognize that the utility and power of the social sciences is more limited than we had thought. But they would still remain the best we have. I don‘t think it means we can abandon them for something else. We haven’t got anything else.

REASON: Would you contend that when a social scientist, say the best there can be right now, maintains that something is a fact of human life, of human social life, that there is an objective status to this fact, independent of our present point of view, our beliefs, about ourselves? Are there such facts that could have an integrity for all time?

HAYEK: I am sure there are some facts in this sense which must tie facts for all human beings with whom we can communicate, whose structure of mind is sufficiently similar to our own so that some intercommunication is possible. It may well be that there are other things which appear as facts or are only that subjectively, for a more limited circle who have more in common than merely that minimum which is required in order to be able to communicate at all. And it may well be that there are certain things which are facts only to people who make very specific presuppositions which you can actually point out. But there is an irreducible basis of facts which must be facts for all the people with whom we can communicate at all. This seems to be certain.

REASON: There are a number of philosophical inquiries in the 20th Century for which this topic is central. Post-Kantian philosophy has been tremendously concerned with this issue. One of the major influences in America has been Ludwig Wittgenstein who of course himself is an Austrian. Have you had any thoughtl on Wittgenstein, to whom there are some references in your book?

HAYEK: You probably know that Wittgenstein was a distant cousin of mine. I never knew him well, but probably knew him over a longer period than any other person now living. He was ten years my senior.  My earliest recollection of him was in 1917 and I had since seen him off and on on various occasions and have read his two main works very closely. All the other material which has been published from his manuscripts I haven’t. I don‘t think, frankly, that Wittgenstein’s work is very relevant to the social sciences. I’m not even sure whether the work produced during a certain phase of his life is anything as important as his present disciples make out. They’re very suggestive, deal with interesting problems, but I at least didn‘t derive much benefit from studying them.

REASON: I would like to ask you about your critique of rationalism. In your critique you seem to have opted for a Humian alternative, rather than an Aristotelian version of reason. Is this because of Hume’s politics or is it much more fundamental?

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  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Anarchism does not exist and never will. It's a floating abstraction.

  • Tak Kak||

    Do you have a pet definition of anarchy?

    As, under many definitions at least, has existed. Whether it was a good thing is a different matter.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Oh yay! An anarchism thread! Almost as good as an abortion thread.

  • RBS||

    Or an Ole Timey farm nostalgia thread...

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    I sort of look forward to anarchism threads if only because I think we've made some real progress on the subject. For me, as soon as someone initiates force and you get together with your buddies to figure out how you are going to either punish or at least seek recompense against the offender, you have a government.

  • sarcasmic||

    A government is nothing more than a group of people with the last word in violence. Anything that involves government boils down to violence, and those who worship government and see it as the solution to everything in fact worship violence. Whether they see it themselves or not, they believe that the initiation or threat of violence is a moral and just way to accomplish, well, anything.

  • SIV||

    No. A government is a permanent institution which claims a right to represent and rule over people.It usually pretends to do so with their "consent"

  • MJGreen||

    So is a vigilante group a government? Or, perhaps the more relevant term: a state?

    It's easy to get bogged down in semantics. So, sure, say any association that uses force to punish rule-breaking is a government. There are still substantive differences between what 'anarchists' and 'minarchists' advocate. For instance, can a person peacefully revoke their association with one 'government' and join another?

  • sarcasmic||

    For instance, can a person peacefully revoke their association with one 'government' and join another?

    All they have to do is relocate to a geographical area where a different group of men have the last word in violence. As far as it being peaceful or not, well that depends on the people with the last word in violence in the geographical area you are trying to leave.

  • Brandybuck||

    If you have institutionalized coercion, you have a state. A one time vigilante action is not government, merely a crime. But a vigilance committee if a government.

  • SIV||

    A vigilance committee is much more likely to disband or go inactive.

  • ||

    Jesus titty fucking Christ it never fails. Someone mentions the work anarchy, and you people come out of the fucking woodwork to make sure the word 'government' gets redefined as anything that will help you prove your point, no matter how ridiculous.
    Those kids on the corner selling lemonade? Yep, they're a government!
    Those Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on your door? Another government!
    Those two or three people grouped around the water cooler at work? Government!

  • ||

    If someone breaks into your house, and tries to kill you, and you and your wife fight him back and kill him in self defense....

    then you and your wife are a government, operating on a majority rules contingency.

    Damnit, just can't get rid of the government. Apparently, any act of organization or self defense automatically creates one.

  • ||

    You'll never have a government, and you never will. Government is just an absraction.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Hayek vs. Hayek--you make the call!

  • RBS||

    Didn't she get topless in Desperado?

  • Pro Libertate||

    She got all-less, if I remember correctly. Friedrich? Not so much. Advantage Hayek.

  • ||

    "a natural evolution towards a free society, in the absence of government action to prevent it"

    Huh? The natural part is for government action to prevent it.

  • Solidus||

    I can only image what it must have been like to interview Friedrich A. von Hayek. What I wouldn't give to have been a fly on Tibor's shoulder. Hayek was so accurate in his vision of the logical outcome of statism and welfarism. Here we are...


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