Book Review: Eamonn Butler – Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist

Eamonn Butler –  Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist (Hampshire, UK: Harriman House, 2012)

Butler has written accessible intellectual biographies of several major classical liberal thinkers. His entry on Hayek does exactly what it intends to. While it does not offer the same depth as Bruce Caldwell’s lengthy Hayek’s Challenge, that isn’t Butler’s goal. Instead, in about 150 pages, students and lay readers can get high-level yet accessible explanations of spontaneous order, the importance of using bottom-up processes rather than top-down planning, and other key Hayekian concepts, plus a tour of Hayek’s major works.

His native Vienna was at its cultural and intellectual peak during his childhood, and most of his family were natural scientists, as were both of his children. This sparked his interest in evolutionary processes, in which intricate designs require no designer. He fought in World War I, earned two doctorates, was a members of Ludwig von Mises’ famous seminars, then joined the London School of Economics faculty and became a friend and rival to Keynes.

He moved permanently when the Nazis made their intentions clear, and wrote his most famous book, 1944’s The Road to Serfdom, from a barn well outside London, which was still under the Blitz. This period marked the end of Hayek’s technical economics work on business cycles and monetary theory. Hayek instead turned to a multidisciplinary approach that contributed to political philosophy, law, history, and science, as well as economics. Serfdom, one of Hayek’s first works from this new approach, is commonly misunderstood as a slippery-slope argument, in which any move away from liberalism will send a country on a one-way street to totalitarianism.

Hayek instead makes a package-deal argument. A planned economy requires getting rid of liberal institutions such as private property, equality before the law, and all the other common rights. Similarly, a society that respects human rights must also have a free economy. For Hayek, economic freedom and personal freedom are a package deal. These two liberalisms cannot be chosen a la carte; it’s both or neither.

Butler goes over the highlights of Hayek’s major early papers, collected in Individualism and Economic Order, though he gives too little attention to Hayek’s larger “Abuse of Reason” project, which was never completed, but include The Counter-Revolution of Science, and influenced much of his later work. Also under-served here is Hayek’s major psychological work, The Sensory Order. One of Hayek’s main arguments in this book is that a mind cannot fully understand something more complicated than itself. A policy implication is that a central planner can never fully understand how millions of individual minds think, interact, and make their own evolving plans.

Butler also tours the Constitution of Liberty, which is Hayek’s positive vision of what a free society’s institutional and legal structures would look like.

Hayek’s later Law, Legislation, and Liberty trilogy also gets a close inspection, with a chapter on Hayek’s views on social justice—which in this reviewer’s opinion, don’t entirely hold up. More important is Hayek’s distinction between higher principles of natural law, and the flawed man-made legislation that attempts to capture its essence—or, just as often, attempts to overrule it. Butler also goes into the usually-overlooked third volume, in which Hayek take a cue from Plato’s Republic and builds his own utopian institutional system. It’s a bit out there, and one of Hayek’s least essential works.

Hayek’s final book was The Fatal Conceit, which haunts every aspiring planner who thinks he can overcome the knowledge problems that have attempted to impose their own top-down philosophy on a bottom-up world.

Butler concludes with a look at Hayek’s legacy and what the future of liberalism might hold.

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