Happy Birthday, Friedrich August von Hayek

Friedrich August von Hayek was born 123 years ago on March 8th, 1899 in Vienna. His profile at Mises.org says that “Born to a distinguished family of Viennese intellectuals, Hayek attended the University of Vienna, earning doctorates in 1921 and 1923. Hayek came to the University at age 19 just after World War I, when it was one of the three best places in the world to study economics (the others being Stockholm and Cambridge).

“Like many students of economics then and since, Hayek chose the subject not for its own sake, but because he wanted to improve social conditions—the poverty of postwar Vienna serving as a daily reminder of such a need. Socialism seemed to provide a solution.”

He went on to become one of the greatest classical liberals of the 20th century and a fierce critic of collectivism in all its forms — Nazism, Fascism and Communism. He was an opponent of the ideas of his friend John Maynard Keynes at the London School of Economics.

It’s a curious fact that many distinguished economists began their intellectual journeys attracted by some variety of socialism — and then recognized it was a bad ideology.

Hayek’s bibliography is immense. An accessible introduction to his work is at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Quote:

Hayek worked in the areas of philosophy of science, political philosophy, the free will problem, and epistemology. For all that, Hayek was more hedgehog than fox. His life’s work, for which he won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, illuminated the nature and significance of spontaneous order. The concept seems simple, yet Hayek spent six decades refining his idea, evidently finding elusive the goal of being as clear about it as he aspired to be.

This essay concentrates on this enduring theme of Hayek’s work, and a question: why would the scholar who did more than anyone in the twentieth century to advance our understanding of price signals and the emergence of spontaneous orders also be driven to claim “that social justice is a mirage”?

Hayek was one a towering intellect although he was not an “intellectual” in the sense he defined that term: secondhand dealers of ideas. I recommend this essay, “The Intellectual and Socialism,” published in 1949 in The University of Chicago Law Review.

Hayek passed into the great beyond in 1992.

Belated happy birthday to you, Herr Professor Doktor Friedrich August von Hayek.

And now, a video of a conversation between two of my most favorite economists, Buchanan and Hayek, recorded in 1978 in San Jose, CA (a city I called home for decades.) Enjoy!

Post script: I just read the 2020 tribute I wrote on Hayek’s birthday. Worth a look.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Friedrich August von Hayek”

  1. I can’t express my home address with the level of clarity and conciseness with which Hayek expressed much complex ideas.

    Here is a quote by Hayek :

    “To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behaviour as individuals within the group.”

    It takes few seconds to read the sentences but several minutes to understand what he is sayin.

    Rawls wrote about “veil of ignorance” in 1971. Hayek instinctively wrote in his Constitution of Liberty in 1960 :

    “Law in its ideal form might be described as a ‘once-and-for-all’ command that is directed to unknown people and that is abstracted from all particular circumstances of time and place and refers only to such conditions as may occur anywhere and at any time.”

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    1. Prabhudesai, while I am convinced of Hayek’s mastery of complex ideas, I find Hayek’s writing a hard slog. I appreciate the fact that he investigated extremely important social phenomena and was very careful in writing but his style is scholarly and academic (with all sorts of caveats and hedging) which requires focused attention. The same goes for Buchanan’s writing as well: he’s hard but the effort pays off handsomely.

      Since you mention Rawls, I have to confess that it took me several years to plod through his Theory of Justice. In contrast to Rawls, Nozick is easy because his style was almost conversational. It’s as if Nozick is speaking you. Consider this sentence from the preface to his Anarchy, State and Utopia: “There is room for words on subjects other than last words.” He was willing to put out tentative propositions, and did not believe that one has to dot all i’s and cross all t’s before stating his position.

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