In anticipation of Bruce Caldwell’s and Hansjoerg Klausinger’s Hayek: A Life 1899 – 1950the first of a two volume biography of Hayek to come out this October, I decided to read Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue* to refresh my memory about F.A. Hayek’s life. This book, which has been underappreciated by many Hayek fans, is a great overview of his life in his own words. 

The book consists of fragments of interviews that Hayek gave to different people and they are tied together to present his life from his very early years in Austria to his later fame. There is also a radio broadcast he gave at the University of Chicago. There are two things that make this a compelling book for the reader: a) It is small- less than 200 pages which make this very quick to read, and b) It is Hayek speaking and you can see how he experienced the different events in his life. In many cases it feels like how an old relative would tell you stories about the past. The language is plain and simple and often even comical. The reader gets to know both Hayek the man and Hayek the economist.

Writing my thoughts about such a book is a hard task, because I really do not know where to start. Should I write about Hayek’s life? Absolutely not, there are better biographies. David Henderson has a nice biography of Hayek in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics here at Econlib. Should I review it like any other book and point out its strengths and weaknesses? No, it is a very good autobiography and there is really very little to object to. Instead, I would like to offer my sincere thoughts about the book. 

There are two things that really drew me to read this book and pushed me to finish it quickly. The first is Hayek’s account of himself. It is very common to see people who excel in their field as individuals who were perfect their entire lives. They were born smart, were great students in school, were recognised by their professors in university for their unusual intelligence and, last, pioneered their field. I believe one aim of biographies and autobiographies should be to dispel such myths.

Hayek describes himself in a very humble and down to earth manner. In school he was a terrible student and read very little outside of biology, which was a long passion of his. He inherited this love from his father August who was a botanist. He could barely pass his classes in school; he neglected homework and relied on what he could remember from class to help him. Initially, Hayek wanted to become a diplomat, but after the fall of the Austro Hungarian Empire post WW1 such a path was not available. His interest in political and economic matters was sharpened during his time in the military fighting in the Italian front. Being part of a multinational and multilingual army he said, “I served in a battle in which eleven different languages were spoken. It’s bound to draw your attention to the problems of political organization”. Hayek looks back on his life appreciating his successes and pointing out where he was wrong or should have done more, such as with his criticisms of Friedman’s methodology and Keynes’ economics

I was also struck by how Hayek talks about his fellow economist and the intellectual atmosphere around him. It is  exciting to “listen” to such great figures as Keynes, Schumpeter, Wittgenstein (who was also Hayek’s cousin) and Schrodinger through someone who knew them first hand. Pre-WW1 and interwar Vienna was a vibrant city where some of the greatest scientists and economists of the last century lived.  Hayek’s reminiscences of the University of Vienna are probably the most interesting. The way Viennese economists and philosophers did their work was very different from how their American colleagues operated. It was very usual for economists to meet also outside of universities at the different coffee houses or in one another’s houses and discuss the matters that interested them. There was the Mises Kreis for example which included many brilliant minds like Alfred Schutz, Gottfried von Haberler, Fritz Machlup, Karl Menger( Carl Menger’s son), Felix Kaufmann and of course Mises. They, although this was not mentioned in the book, even had their own collection of songs which was published by Kaufmann. In the introduction to this collection of songs it is mentioned:

The formal meetings would begin at 7:30 p.m. and last as late as 10:00 p.m. Most of the members would then gather for dinner at the restaurant Anchora Verde, where the discussion would grow lighter. Afterwards, they would continue to the Café Künstler, opposite the University of Vienna, for coffee until 1:00 a.m., when Mises usually left. Fritz Machlup reports, however, that when he left at 3:00 a.m., he usually had to say goodnight to philosopher Alfred Schütz!

 This was just one of the many circles that existed in the city, the were other groups like the Austro Marxist, the Wiener Kreis, the Mathematical Colloquium and the Geist Kreis for which I sadly don’t have the space to talk about. If anyone wants to learn more about the intellectual environment of interwar Vienna and how the Austrian economists operated in it I wholeheartedly suggest the excellent book by Erwin Dekker’s The Viennese Students of Civilization.

I am now even more eagerly waiting for Professor Caldwell’s next book to come out.


* I would like to thank the University of Chicago Press for a review copy of the book.

Chris Loukas was born in Greece and is an economic journalist and recipient of a bronze medal in the 2022 International Economics Olympiad. His articles have been featured by the Foundation for Economic Education, the Mises Institute and Adam Smith Works.