F. A. Hayek, who died 25 years ago today, was one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time. He wrote not just about economics (for which he won a Nobel Prize), but also politics, psychology, and the history of ideas.
He was a good friend of the Adam Smith Institute, and spoke at many of our seminars, where his great wisdom was apparent. Often our participants would be discussing some difficult subject, getting tied in knots: whereupon Hayek would rise, cut straight to the heart of the matter, and provide the answer.
Hayek’s 1944 The Road To Serfdom, which showed how easily the ideas of social democracy could (and did) morph into totalitarianism, brought him popular fame. Soon after, he founded the Mont Pelerin Society, an international forum that kept liberal ideas alive during the bleak times after the Second World War. Its ideas influenced a whole generation of intellectuals and informed the policies of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and the new Eastern European leaders who emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
His life as an economist began when he was hired by Ludwig von Mises. In 1927 they set up an institute to explore business cycles. They concluded that these cycles were caused by central banks setting interest rates too low — encouraging excessive borrowing, investment and spending. But low rates also discouraged saving, and when funds dried up, investments had to be abandoned and people were thrown out of work. It explains much of our present predicament.
In the 1930s, Hayek came to Britain, becoming professionally famous through his disputes with Keynes, who wanted government spending to kick-start the economy. Hayek countered that this would bring only inflation, disruption and debt.
But Keynes won the day, and Hayek turned more to social and political philosophy. His key insight was the concept of spontaneous order. Human and animal societies, he observed, show obvious regularities. Yet nobody planned the society of bees or the rules of human language or the operations of markets. They evolved spontaneously, and endured simply because they were useful.
But they are also complex and devolved. We tamper with them at our peril — as evidenced by the dismal failure of economic ‘planning’ behind the Iron Curtain.
We did not design the market system. We stumbled upon it. When people traded, prices emerged: and prices contain all the information needed for the system to work. We do not need to know why people want more of something, or why not enough was being produced: a rising price says it all — and draws effort and capital into serving those wants.
Hayek saw freedom as critical to spontaneous orders. When we force people to act in preconceived ways, we disrupt the delicate workings of society. And if spontaneous social orders are to evolve and strengthen, they need new ideas, not preconceived ones.
Freedom, to Hayek, meant minimising coercion, including state coercion. The state should be limited to preventing people breaking the rules by which society survives and prospers. But to prevent state power being abused, we need a rule of law that restrains government officials just like the rest of us.
Hayek saw justice as the rules that enabled the social order to work. We could not invent justice: we had to discover it through trial and error. What people call ‘social justice’ was quite different — not a set of rules but a preconceived social outcome. Achieving that outcome meant treating people differently — and once we began to do that, there was no obvious stopping point on the road to serfdom.
Eamonn Butler is author of Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas And Influence Of The Libertarian Economist (Harriman House).