September 19, 2020

Friedrich A. Hayek, Big-Government Skeptic

The new edition of “The Constitution of Liberty,” which was first published in 1960, differs from the original primarily insofar as the extensive endnotes in the original edition have now been placed at the bottom of the page and heavily annotated by the editor, Ronald Hamowy. The notes, often more extensive than the text itself, make clear the extraordinary breadth and depth of Hayek’s erudition, and his ability to wander far beyond economics into history, philosophy, biology and other fields.

Unlike Beck, Hayek was a very serious thinker, and it would be too bad if the current association between the two led us to dismiss his thought. Hayek always had problems getting the respect he deserved; even when he was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 1974, the awards committee paired him with the left-leaning economist Gunnar Myrdal. With the passage of time, however, many of the ideas expressed in “The Constitution of Liberty” have become broadly accepted by economists — e.g., that labor unions create a privileged labor sector at the expense of the nonunionized; that rent control reduces the supply of housing; or that agricultural subsidies lower the general welfare and create a bonanza for politicians. His view that ambitious ­government-sponsored programs often produce unintended consequences served as an intellectual underpinning of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the 1980s and ’90s. Now that the aspirations of that revolution are being revived by Tea Partiers and other conservatives, it is useful to review some of the intellectual foundations on which it rested.

Hayek’s skepticism about the effects of “big government” are rooted in an epistemological observation summarized in a 1945 article called “The Uses of Knowledge in Society.” There he argued that most of the knowledge in a modern economy was local in nature, and hence unavailable to central planners. The brilliance of a market economy was that it allocated resources through the decentralized decisions of a myriad of buyers and sellers who interacted on the basis of their own particular knowledge. The market was a form of “spontaneous order,” which was far superior to planned societies based on the hubris of Cartesian rationalism. He and his fellow Austrian Ludwig von Mises used this argument against Joseph Schumpeter in a famous debate in the 1930s and ’40s over whether socialism or capitalism offered a more efficient economic system. In hindsight, Hayek clearly emerged the winner.

“The Constitution of Liberty” builds on this view of the limits of human cognition to make the case that no government can know enough about a society to plan effectively. The government’s true role is more modest: to create laws that are general and equally applied; these laws constitute the matrix in which the spontaneous interactions of individuals can occur. (It may, however, surprise some of Hayek’s new followers to learn that “The Constitution of Liberty” argues that the government may need to provide health insurance and even make it ­compulsory.)

There have always been two major critiques of Hayek’s arguments, neither of which are fully answered by a re­reading of “The Constitution of Liberty.” The first comes from the left. Hayek provides a very minimalist definition of freedom as freedom from coercion, and particularly coercion by a central government. But as the economist Amartya Sen has argued, the ability to actually take advantage of freedom depends on other things like resources, health and education that many people in a typical society do not possess.

Francis Fukuyama is the author, most ­recently, of “The Origins of Political ­Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=b0c0a04d6a32628976103ec3ba7178be

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