David R. Henderson  

More Highlights from Hayek

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As I promised, here are some more highlights from Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty.

The Role of Accidents:

Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen.

The endnote at the end of this quote is great. Hayek quotes J.A. Wheeler from an article in American Scientist, 1956: "Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible."

The Gain to Unfree Societies from Relatively Free Societies

There can be no doubt that in history unfree majorities have benefited from the existence of free minorities and that today unfree societies benefit from what they obtain and learn from free societies.

On this latter, I thought of China and Iran.

A Subtle Implication of the Above Quote

The significant point is that the importance of freedom to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the number of people who want to do it; it might almost be in inverse proportion. One consequence of this is that a society may be hamstrung by controls, although the great majority may not be aware that their freedom has been significantly curtailed.

Think, for example, of the developer in coastal California who has great difficulty getting permission to build a residential development. Many people are not aware of this, but it certainly hurts them if they are renters. Also, homeowners might not be aware but when they go to add that extra bedroom or bathroom and learn that they can't do it without permission and that permission isn't always straightforward, they learn something about the importance of this freedom to build.

Hayek's Overly Pessimistic (I think) Conclusion

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest successes in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control social life [DRH note: that is, the lives of others.] His continued advance may well depend on his deliberately refraining from exercising controls which are now in his power. In the past, the spontaneous forces of growth, however much restricted, could usually still assert themselves against the organized coercion of the state. With the technological means of control now at the disposal of government, it is not certain that such assertion is still possible; at any rate, it may soon become impossible. We are not far from the point where the deliberately organized forces of society may destroy those spontaneous forces which have made advance possible.

Certainly the government's ability to exercise control and surveillance over us has increased. And yet we still see spontaneous forces all around us. It's a race.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Tom writes:

Pithier version of first quote from, I think, Poul Anderson:

A free society is a dangerous society.

Hayek provides great shoulders upon which we can stand and see farther.

Thaomas writes:


I agree that the Hayecian perspective is useful for seeing where we are going and avoiding abysses. My concern is that it does not help very much in knowing where to place the next foot.

Take building regulations and zoning. Yes they have drawbacks in making housing more expensive, possibly harming the poor disproportionately. But does that mean there should be no building regulation or zoning at all or that zoning and building regulations should themselves be guided by some mediating principle? For example Liberals might suggest cost benefit analysis possibly supplemented with redistribution when costs are borne disproportionately by relatively less well off people. What mediating principle if any should Libertarians use?

@ Thaomas
I wonder if you would find this paper of mine comprehensible, Gateway to an Altered Landscape: Law in a Free Nation.

You might understand it in your way, which is probably not near my way. One thing that separates people is our ambitions. We seek different ends. Consequently we speak somewhat different languages. And that would be good according to my more recent work.

David Seltzer writes:

Thucydides' pessimistic view of human nature in "Histories" suggests there will be tension between freedom and states fearful of free people.
Hayek, from my reading, understood this and suggests there will also be a countervailing Newtonian reaction to government restriction or oppression.

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