In Memoriam: F.A. Hayek
Few individuals live lives that span a century. Fewer still leave work that reshapes it.
Born in 1899, Friedrich A. Hayek saw most of the 20th century—the life and death and life of Central Europe, the rise and fall of socialism. His death March 23 leaves an intellectual legacy unmatched in this century outside the sciences.
Hayek was not simply a "free-market economist," as The New York Times's obituary put it, nor even a mere Nobel Laureate. (He received the economics prize in 1974.) And though its historical significance can scarcely be overstated, The Road to Serfdom only begins to suggest the dimensions of his thought.
Hayek wrote economic theory and philosophy of science, books for the general public and books for his fellow scholars. He expounded on law and speculated on anthropology. He held Ph.D.s in three fields (economics, law, and political science) and brought all of social science, philsophy, and the history of the West to bear on the questions of the good society.
The sweep of his work, and its ambition, bespeak another age. Yet no one reading Hayek in centuries hence would fail to place him in his time.
He was, in this important sense, the last classical liberal and the first…what? He himself could not find the right term, settling in the end on the rather obscure "Old Whig."
"What I want," he wrote, "is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution."
In a century of fragments, Hayek saw life whole. Yet this wholeness did not carry with it uniformity. Indeed, unlike the "socialists of all parties" to whom he dedicated The Road to Serfdom, he placed complexity at the center of his vision. His world was one of fractals, of infinitely complex forms—the world of individual choices and particularized knowledge.
He defined a free society as one "in which all are allowed to use their knowledge for their purposes, restrained only by rules of just conduct of universal application."
Central planning is impossible, in Hayek's view, because no single person (or bureau) can possibly know enough about the details of economic and social choices. Only the individuals involved possess that knowledge, dispersing it throughout society. And only by robbing individuals of their individual plans can central planners hope to achieve any results, however inefficient.
Socialism, by which Hayek meant the centralized organization of society, leads therefore not only to poverty but to tyranny. It wipes away the complexity of society and the diversity of individuals.
And it exacts an unknown toll: "Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction on freedom."
Upon his death, many who long admired Hayek's work proclaimed his victory, pointing to the fall of communism and the discrediting of socialism. But Hayek's picture of a complex, evolving, dynamic world is far from accepted.
In a postscript to The Constitution of Liberty titled "Why I Am Not a Conservative," Hayek set his vision against that of conservatism. "One of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based upon courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead," he wrote.
"There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about.
"It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people's frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change 'orderly.'"
Socialism may be in retreat, but the world is full of such conservatives.
Open any newspaper, turn on any talk show, and you will find them, begging for a plan, begging to be led—or to lead. Left, right, and center, they share the same faith: that someone must take charge.
And here is the paradox: Would-be leaders usually promise change, often radical change. But the change they seek is in individuals and in those free institutions that permit individuals to make troublesome choices, whether about sex, schools, or Japanese cars. Once these "change agents" have altered society, they want it to stay put.
Hayek's vision was quite the opposite. And, as his century draws to a close, it is his vision we need.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "In Memoriam: F.A. Hayek".