Caldwell on Hayek's "Consistent" Stories
By David Henderson
In a fascinating article on why Friedrich Hayek did not write a review of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Hayek expert Bruce Caldwell writes:
Perhaps most damning is the tendency of Hayek’s stories to leave the reader with the feeling that his memories are just a bit too consistent. Look, for example, at three of Hayek’s descriptions of his first meeting with Keynes in London (these descriptions may be compared to a pertinent quotation at the start of this article):
Caldwell then goes to to quote three different Hayek tellings of his first interactions with Keynes. In each of the three tellings, Hayek uses some of the same words: Keynes tried to “steamroller” Hayek; because Hayek stood up to Keynes, Keynes respected Hayek.
Caldwell then writes:
These remarkably similar accounts span three decades. Anyone who has viewed the requisite number of television courtroom dramas can immediately see the problem: rather than providing a spontaneous recollection of what actually happened, the suspect seems to have memorized a carefully constructed script. Is this what happened? At a minimum it would seem that, doubtless due to its frequent repetition, Hayek’s account had taken on a life of its own.
I don’t challenge the rest of Caldwell’s article. Goodness knows that Caldwell knows more about Hayek than I ever will. But I do challenge Caldwell’s claim that Hayek sounds “too consistent.”
The reason we tend to be suspicious, when watching courtroom dramas, of people who are “too consistent” is that it sounds as if they have rehearsed their story and we tend to be suspicious of people who rehearse their stories. Quite reasonably, we wonder if they have rehearsed the story with a lawyer.
But when someone tells an important story about his life that is consistent from one telling to another, there is a similar reason but very different possible motives: he has rehearsed his stories too, but not as a conscious rehearsal. Each time he tells the story, he finds himself using many of the same words and the story gets better, not necessarily in the sense of more exaggerated, but in the sense of more interesting, over time.
My daughter has many times heard my story about how I was almost fired from my job in a mine in northern Canada but was too dense to realize that the foreman was giving me a crumby job as his way of getting me to quit. The moral of the story, and the reason I tell it, is that I want the listener, in this case, my daughter, to understand the important lesson I learned from this event, a lesson that applies to more than my life: namely, that you are free to judge a particular activity for yourself and you don’t have to react by saying, “No one else was given this crumby job; this is beneath my dignity and I shouldn’t be doing it.” (The job, in case you’re wondering, was to clean out the garbage in half of the mine. By noon, I had finished half and decided, even though I hadn’t been asked, to clean the other half by day’s end. Only a few days later, did I find out from the foreman-to-be that this was the older foreman’s way of trying to get me to quit.)
When I tell the story, I use many of the same words each time. I can still picture the foreman, a sweet old guy named Emil, whom I ended up getting along with. I can still picture the foreman-to-be, Dick Timmins, a guy closer to my own age whom I came to respect and like.
That happens when you find a story that you tell well and that other people find at least moderately interesting.
So imagine how many people must have wondered out loud to Hayek about his relationship with Keynes. I guarantee that it was way more than have wondered about my job as an 18-year-old in a mine. So Hayek probably told that story at least a few dozen times. Yes, it will start sounding pretty consistent. But this hardly means that it is too consistent.