Why Hayek Matters

The gold content is worth about £5,000. But Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel medal has just sold at Sotheby’s for £1,155,000. That’s not a record, but it is way higher than most Nobel awards achieve when they go under the auctioneer’s hammer. And that says something about the importance of the man himself.

The sale coincided with the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Road To Serfdom, the book which transformed Hayek from a rather dry economist into a controversial—and famous—public intellectual. He wrote it, as his friend Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies, as a ‘war book’, not something to be particularly proud of. In Hayek’s case, he said he wrote it out of frustration that he could not do anything to stop the bombs falling in London. All he could do was make an intellectual case against totalitarianism in general and national socialism in particular.

His publisher did a modest print run of 2,000, not expecting any great fireworks from it. But the book became an instant sensation and those copies sold out in weeks. For it challenged the soft ‘democratic’ socialism that prevailed among intellectuals and the commentariat. Hayek explained that, while it is nice to think that we can plan society better than individuals and markets do it, we really lack the knowledge to make such a complex system work. And while the idea of everyone pulling together for common purposes sounds attractive, there will never be agreement on what those purposes actually are. The idea that some universally accepted vision of society will just emerge is fantasy.

Instead, it is rather like a group of people trying to find a restaurant. They are all committed to go out to dinner somewhere nice. But one rejects the first place, another the second, and then so on until they eventually end up at somewhere none of them wanted. 

Faced with disagreements about what the social goals should be and how to reach them, Hayek explained that it is no surprise that ‘the worst get on top’. A strong leader with a strong vision suddenly starts to look attractive. But that socialist vision can only be achieved by forcing people to conform to it. And that is an end that nobody really wanted to get to. The decent citizens of Germany would never have voted for Hitler if they could have foreseen what his militarism would lead to.

The typewriter that Hayek wrote all this on has just sold for over £18,000. (I have some letters from Hayek: he was a very bad typist.) His beaten up 1930s desk went for almost as much. And the scattering of items he kept on top of it went for four times that.

And so on. Even a collection of books including my own biography of Hayek and the commemorative photo biography that I edited went well into four figures.

Indeed, I last saw all these things in cardboard boxes when I was working on Hayek: A Commemorative Album. They have all been through my hands. I did not realise the financial value of what I was holding. But the real value is its connection with one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, and one of the greatest liberal thinkers of all time.