Two Takes on Hayek's Flabbiness
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve long since lost all patience with Hayek. His original, true ideas could have been five good blog posts, his errors and bizarre obsessions are numerous, and his writing style insults every person who ever tried to write a decent sentence. On the latest Cato Unbound, Dan Klein tries to meet me halfway. He grants many of these complaints, but excuses Hayek’s failings as a strategic response to his statist intellectual climate:
I’m a sucker for Hayek, however, and tend to forgive the shortcomings. I can’t help seeing him as an historic figure, struggling desperately after the collapse and vanquishing of liberalism, the professionalization of scholarship, and the fierce advance of modernism. The voluntary-coercive distinction — The Distinction — was anathema to contemporary intellectuals, and today remains a matter of deep pervasive taboo. Hayek was aristocratic in upbringing and genteel in temperament, destined to make his thinking palatable, acceptable. In The Constitution of Liberty he defined liberty not properly, as others not messing with one’s stuff, but vaguely and inconsistently, mostly in terms of some of its appealing correlates. Had he, like Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Mises, worked plainly and explicitly from The Distinction in developing his ideas, his fate would have been very different — well, very much like that of Spencer, Sumner, and Mises. Strategic or not, Hayek’s circumlocutions may have been for the best.
To some extent Hayek wrote in code. When he wrote of “custom” being between instinct and reason, he mainly or often meant liberal principles; of “competition as a discovery procedure,” freedom as a discovery procedure; of “the market,” freedom; of noncentral versus central decisionmaking, freer versus less free. All liberals still practice such code when circumstances warrant it. Between the lines, then, is focus on The Distinction.
Dan’s defense was especially striking to me because I just read Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, which contains a self-described “confidential memo” on Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. The Volker Fund, which had given Hayek a grant to write CoL, asked Rothbard for his opinion of a draft of the first fourteen chapters. Here’s what Mr. Libertarian wrote in 1958:
Since Hayek is universally regarded, by Right and Left alike, as the leading right-wing intellectual, this will also be an extremely dangerous book. The feeling one gets from reading it is the same sort of feeling I would have gotten if I had been a U.S. senator when Taft got up to support the Wagner public housing bill, or any of his other compromises: i.e., that this tears it. For when the supposed leader of one’s movement takes compromising and untenable positions, the opposition can always say: “but even Taft (Hayek) admits…” Hayek is the philosophic counterpart. The only tenable conclusion is that any Volker Fund or any other support for this book will be self-destructive in the highest degree.
Since Rothbard lived in the same statist intellectual climate that Hayek did, it’s hard to dismiss his strategic analysis. If I were Dan, though, I’d respond that, “Nothing succeeds like success.” Ex ante, maybe it was reasonable for Rothbard to expect support for the book to be self-destructive. Ex post, Hayek won a Nobel prize and inspired classical liberal reformers behind the Iron Curtain.
If I were me, however – and I am – I would remind Dan that another great libertarian economist won a Nobel prize and inspired great reforms without talking nonsense: Milton Friedman. Friedman was influential in part because, like Hayek, he was a moderate “libertarian bargainer.” Unlike Hayek, however, he was full of original true ideas, had few outright errors or bizarre obsessions, and wrote respectable sentences. In a world with Friedman, I frankly can’t understand why my dear friend Dan Klein or anyone else would choose to be Hayek’s sucker.