A recent opinion poll by the Wall Street Journal reveals that 50% of Americans support President Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine requirements for private-sector employers, while 47% oppose them. Other opinion polls over the past few decades and perhaps especially over the past few years have suggested, although perhaps not unambiguously, that American opinion has been shifting away from individual liberty and towards more power to political authority (see also my Econlog post “Many Americans Don’t Like Free Speech”).

Are we observing bumps in fickle public opinion about politics or instead witnessing a shift in long-term “opinion” taken in the more abstract sense of what the general public considers just? Like many classical liberals, Friedrich Hayek considered opinion in this last sense to be the justification and limitation of political authority. In volume 1 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, published five decades ago, Hayek wrote (I am quoting from the University of Chicago Press new consolidated edition under the editorship of Jeremy Shearmur):

In this sense all power rests on, and is limited by, opinion, as was most clearly seen by David Hume. That all power rests on opinion in this sense is no less true of the powers of an absolute dictator than of those of any other authority. As dictators themselves have always known, even the most powerful dictatorship crumbles if the support of opinion is withdrawn. This is the reason dictators are so concerned to manipulate opinion through information which [it] is in their power to control.

Opinion is important for maintaining a free society:

And in a free society in which all power rests on opinion, this ultimate power will be a power which determines nothing directly yet controls all positive power by tolerating only certain kinds of exercise of that power.

One conclusion of Hayek’s economic-legal theory is that a free society cannot long survive outside a context of classical-liberal opinion. That it is worse in many other countries provides only a meager consolation.

Hayek’s more general thesis is that, in a free society, the only exercise of power allowed by opinion is the enforcement of abstract, impersonal, and non-discriminatory rules of conduct, as well as the administration of government subject to those rules (except for the special power of levying taxes). Note that justifying government intervention by omnipresent externalities is not consistent with this sort of society (see my “The Threat of Externalities,” Regulation, Fall 2021, pp. 18-24), even if Hayek’s explanations on that front may not be totally satisfactory (see pp. 130-133 and 137 ff. in the Shearmur edition). It is anyway worth reading Hayek, who was one of the most challenging thinkers of the 20th century, and not only challenging for conservatives and progressives.