More Highlights from Hayek
By David Henderson
As I promised, here are some more highlights from Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty.
The Role of Accidents:
Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen.
The endnote at the end of this quote is great. Hayek quotes J.A. Wheeler from an article in American Scientist, 1956: “Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.”
The Gain to Unfree Societies from Relatively Free Societies
There can be no doubt that in history unfree majorities have benefited from the existence of free minorities and that today unfree societies benefit from what they obtain and learn from free societies.
On this latter, I thought of China and Iran.
A Subtle Implication of the Above Quote
The significant point is that the importance of freedom to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the number of people who want to do it; it might almost be in inverse proportion. One consequence of this is that a society may be hamstrung by controls, although the great majority may not be aware that their freedom has been significantly curtailed.
Think, for example, of the developer in coastal California who has great difficulty getting permission to build a residential development. Many people are not aware of this, but it certainly hurts them if they are renters. Also, homeowners might not be aware but when they go to add that extra bedroom or bathroom and learn that they can’t do it without permission and that permission isn’t always straightforward, they learn something about the importance of this freedom to build.
Hayek’s Overly Pessimistic (I think) Conclusion
There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest successes in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control social life [DRH note: that is, the lives of others.] His continued advance may well depend on his deliberately refraining from exercising controls which are now in his power. In the past, the spontaneous forces of growth, however much restricted, could usually still assert themselves against the organized coercion of the state. With the technological means of control now at the disposal of government, it is not certain that such assertion is still possible; at any rate, it may soon become impossible. We are not far from the point where the deliberately organized forces of society may destroy those spontaneous forces which have made advance possible.
Certainly the government’s ability to exercise control and surveillance over us has increased. And yet we still see spontaneous forces all around us. It’s a race.