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Caldwell on Hayek's "Consistent" Stories

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In a fascinating article on why Friedrich Hayek did not write a review of John Maynard Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Hayek expert Bruce Caldwell writes:

Perhaps most damning is the tendency of Hayek's stories to leave the reader with the feeling that his memories are just a bit too consistent. Look, for example, at three of Hayek's descriptions of his first meeting with Keynes in London (these descriptions may be compared to a pertinent quotation at the start of this article):

Caldwell then goes to to quote three different Hayek tellings of his first interactions with Keynes. In each of the three tellings, Hayek uses some of the same words: Keynes tried to "steamroller" Hayek; because Hayek stood up to Keynes, Keynes respected Hayek.

Caldwell then writes:

These remarkably similar accounts span three decades. Anyone who has viewed the requisite number of television courtroom dramas can immediately see the problem: rather than providing a spontaneous recollection of what actually happened, the suspect seems to have memorized a carefully constructed script. Is this what happened? At a minimum it would seem that, doubtless due to its frequent repetition, Hayek's account had taken on a life of its own.

I don't challenge the rest of Caldwell's article. Goodness knows that Caldwell knows more about Hayek than I ever will. But I do challenge Caldwell's claim that Hayek sounds "too consistent."

The reason we tend to be suspicious, when watching courtroom dramas, of people who are "too consistent" is that it sounds as if they have rehearsed their story and we tend to be suspicious of people who rehearse their stories. Quite reasonably, we wonder if they have rehearsed the story with a lawyer.

But when someone tells an important story about his life that is consistent from one telling to another, there is a similar reason but very different possible motives: he has rehearsed his stories too, but not as a conscious rehearsal. Each time he tells the story, he finds himself using many of the same words and the story gets better, not necessarily in the sense of more exaggerated, but in the sense of more interesting, over time.

My daughter has many times heard my story about how I was almost fired from my job in a mine in northern Canada but was too dense to realize that the foreman was giving me a crumby job as his way of getting me to quit. The moral of the story, and the reason I tell it, is that I want the listener, in this case, my daughter, to understand the important lesson I learned from this event, a lesson that applies to more than my life: namely, that you are free to judge a particular activity for yourself and you don't have to react by saying, "No one else was given this crumby job; this is beneath my dignity and I shouldn't be doing it." (The job, in case you're wondering, was to clean out the garbage in half of the mine. By noon, I had finished half and decided, even though I hadn't been asked, to clean the other half by day's end. Only a few days later, did I find out from the foreman-to-be that this was the older foreman's way of trying to get me to quit.)

When I tell the story, I use many of the same words each time. I can still picture the foreman, a sweet old guy named Emil, whom I ended up getting along with. I can still picture the foreman-to-be, Dick Timmins, a guy closer to my own age whom I came to respect and like.

That happens when you find a story that you tell well and that other people find at least moderately interesting.

So imagine how many people must have wondered out loud to Hayek about his relationship with Keynes. I guarantee that it was way more than have wondered about my job as an 18-year-old in a mine. So Hayek probably told that story at least a few dozen times. Yes, it will start sounding pretty consistent. But this hardly means that it is too consistent.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
magilson writes:

Perhaps Mr. Caldwell grew up with a different type of grandparent, or parents, or co-workers than myself. But it seems to be that it's fairly common to have heard the same exact story in the same order using the same vocabulary a hundred times.

That's why it's so popular a meme for the child or young protagonist to mimic, in a sarcastic tone, parts of the stories or catchphrases of a relative or boss or associate. Movies and television shows portray this constantly.

It almost seems like Mr. Caldwell is digging for a reason to doubt as opposed to actually having one.

Philo writes:

Frequent retellings are, indeed, a kind of rehearsal, but not a kind that makes the story especially doubtful. (One does suspect that in the later retellings Hayek is remembering his earlier tellings as much as the actual events; but maybe the earlier tellings were accurate.)

Roman Lombardi writes:

I think it is worth acknowledging that Hayek was not a native English speaker...and I'm sure he was pressed to tell that story A LOT, so he likely developed a "canned" recital of the event...an event that perhaps had far more intrigue for others than it did for him?

Lauren writes:

There is a little more discussion of this matter in Caldwell's 2011 EconTalk podcast episode:

Caldwell on Hayek

Yancey Ward writes:

"A spontaneous recollection of what actually happened" really only happens the first time someone tells a personal story. Subsequent tellings are surely going to borrow to some degree from the previous telling- how could it be othewise, unless one simply forgets about telling the story before.

Nick writes:

You also have to remember that Hayek was not a native english speaker. Non-native speakers often use the same few phrases in their stories so as not confuse or perhaps give subtly different impressions to their listeners. Those subtleties in different phrases are hard to pick up for non native speakers.

My great grandmother was from germany and despite being a good english speaker, would have to convert everything to German and then back to English. Her stories would heavily rely on previous tellings.

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