The Courage of Friedrich Hayek

Sunday, July 30, 2000

As we look back on the excitement caused by the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, we wonder how it could have happened. It is a tribute to him, and to his small book, that we should be able to say this. The principal theses of the book are by now so very well known, even if they are not by any means universally accepted, that they appear almost self-evident.

Mr. Hayek has always taken scrupulous care to give credit, if it is faintly plausible to do so, to others who articulated ideas before he did. But Hayek cannot shrug off the credit for having brought much of it together: the integrated perception of the relation between law and justice and liberty. And, in an age swooning with passion for a centralized direction of social happiness and economic plenitude, it is a squirt of ice water, presaged by the quotation he selected as epigraph to his book, the wry observation of David Hume that "it is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once." Rather, Hayek explained, it is lost gradually; and it is lost by assigning vague, extralawful mandates to men of political authority who take on tasks that they could not be expected to perform without absorbing all the knowledge, values, preferences, and passions of all their fellow men; and this no political authority—indeed no animate or inanimate body—can do. Accordingly, the political authority has no alternative but to usurp. The necessary result of that usurpation is the corresponding loss in the freedom of the body politic. Over a period of time, that kind of movement must lead us down the road to serfdom, into that amnesiac void toward which, Orwell intuited, evil men were for evil purposes expressly bent on taking us.

Hayek brought to his thesis the great prestige of an economist unblemished by the tattoo of ideology. Indeed, during the 1930s his reputation was almost exclusively technical, and we are informed that historians will in due course remark that the great technical debate of that decade was between Hayek and Keynes. One can only hope that by the time they get around to saying this, they will get around to saying that Hayek won.

One can leave it at this, that the Nobel Prize Committee took pains to honor Professor Hayek’s technical contributions to economic science, alongside Gunnar Myrdal’s contributions to something or another. One is reminded of a sentence from Hayek’s essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism":

It is especially significant for our problem that every scholar can probably name several instances from his field of men who have undeservedly achieved a popular reputation as great scientists solely because they hold what the intellectuals regard as "progressive" political views; but I have yet to come across a single instance where such a scientific pseudo-reputation has been bestowed for political reasons on a scholar of more conservative leanings.