on 6 May 2012
Hayek undertook a vitally important task when he set out to write the The Constitution of Liberty. He aimed at finding the proper limits between public and private life. How far should the authority of the state extend? What areas of life should be beyond the reach of the government? Hayek is stating his version of the general principles of classical liberalism, based on utilitarian ethics. Since his arguments are utilitarian, this book has economic overtones.
Hayek's purpose in restating the principles of liberal society is to defend these principles against the opposing intellectual movement of collectivism. Western Civilization succeeded largely because of its individualism. Collectivism is undermining the basis of modern civilization in the West. Individualism is important because we each lack the knowledge needed to rationally direct the affairs of others. Some people believe that they can plan out society because they are `experts' or because they are educated. Hayek saw that nobody can posses the knowledge needed to design a rational order for society. As Hayek put it, "it is largely because civilization enables us constantly to profit from knowledge which we individually do not posses that men can pursue their individual ends more successfully than they could alone".
In writing this book, Hayek shifted his attention away from full-blown socialism and towards the modern welfare state. Hayek seems to have felt that the case for socialism had been sufficiently weakened so as to allow him to critique welfare states. Hayek accepted some types of government intervention that libertarians typically oppose. Rather than opposing each program point by point, Hayek sought out some `lynchpin issues' that would limit state growth. Hayek argued strenuously against state control of the money supply, and suggested ways of limiting taxation. Hayek's libertarian critics typically cringe at some of his concessions, but we would all be in a much better position now if his constitution had been adopted.
The Constitution of Liberty is more than well reasoned, it is subtle and profound. This book reveals Hayek's deep understanding of economics, politics, and history. While I do not agree with everything in this book, it is a must read for any serious student of political economy.
on 16 January 2003
The Constitution of Liberty can in many ways be regarded as Hayek's most important work. It centres around a highly nuanced defence of the free market based upon the concept of spontaneous order. But in articulating this defence Hayek skilfully interweaves philosophical and historical insights, at all times displaying tremendous erudition and learning.
The result is not a comprehensive treatise like von Mises's Human Action, or the Wealth of Nations. Hayek always regarded himself as an intellectual 'muddler' (albeit a brilliant one). And his work reflects this. I prefer him when he is focused upon a particular issue at hand, like in The Road to Serfdom, or in the essays that comprise Individualism and the Economic Order.
This is not to detract from the value of this work. Hayek's defence of negative verses freedom, his description of the rule of law, the chapter on Responsibility and Freedom, and the post-script 'Why I am not a Conservative,' deserve to be treasured. Hayek's intellectual integrity shines through here. He was never a polemist or an extremist, and this has compromised his stature amongst libertarians. But Hayek's particular position on any single issue should not be of concern here. A reiteration of classical liberalism will always be of value, but this work stands out for the subtlety of its insights, and the range and depth of its arguments. Hayek's ideas should be recognised as providing, along with those of Mises and Milton Friedman, the best twentieth century defence of a free and spontaneously ordered society; a defence which should be distinguished from the limited and compromised one provided by many neo-classical economists, by social democrats or conservatives, and the dogma provided by Aynn Rand and her disciples.
on 24 November 2010
Economist and political philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek wrote The Constitution of Liberty for publication in 1960, but his timeless insights still have currency. His reasoned advocacy of economic freedom and personal liberty applies to modern debates on controversial subjects ranging from price inflation and progressive taxation to public education. The book contrasts the benefits of limited government with the costs of central economic planning. Restricting government is more likely to produce the individual spontaneity and creativity that is vital to the advance of knowledge and civilization. Hayek demonstrates how liberty takes sustenance from the rule of law, the concept of due process and the constitutional form of government. He identifies serious but subtle threats to individual freedom. For example, he criticizes Social Security and progressive taxation as regrettable forms of income redistribution. getAbstract recommends this scholarly tome to readers seeking a detailed philosophical foundation for limited government and to anyone who wants to be familiar with the classic canon of modern economic thought.
I've read Hayek's polemics against socialism like The Fatal Conceit and The Road to Serfdom and found them very disappointing, he is a great writer and I find his style and content in some ways similar to another english writer, the socialist, George Orwell but these books seemed very negative.
This book is divided into three sections and post script, the first The Value of Freedom outlines Hayek's views on liberty, reason, responsibility and progress and politics, the second section on Freedom and The Law outlines Hayek's views on the relationship between individual freedom and the state, the final section is on Freedom and The Welfare State and begins with an essay on the decline of socialism and the rise of the welfare state.
This book is a lot more complete and holistic, you get a much clearer idea of what Hayek's proposing aswell as opposing, even if you dont necessarily agree.
In reading it Hayek does appear to be a lot less dogmatic than many of his supporters or popularisers and he's a great writer besides, the very simple introduction which seeks to link Hayek with contemporary wars of religion with the islamic world and the rise of neo-conservatism in America is over shadowed by the main work (infact it reads a lot like Trotsky paying homage to Marx or any other political pundit who tries to bask in reflected glory).
I would seriously recommend the chapter on the decline of socialism and the rise of the welfare state to anyone but to socialists in particular.
This chapter accurately forecasts many of the developments within socialist or left parties, like the rise of new labour, the attempts to conjour a political third way, there's fair comment making the distinction between socialism and the welfare state that is seldom made by anyone left or right, apart from forgotten books from American socialists writting in the seventies.
Market libertarians have been among the few people to really grapple with the issues of appartniks and the unintended consequences of growth of state machinery.
Hayek's "The Constitution of Liberty" is a comprehensive work of political philosophy. It sets forth, defends, and applies an important view of the nature of human liberty, government, and economics that is worth considering, at the least, and that has much to commend it. The book is carefully written and argued with extensive and substantive footnotes and with an "analytical table of contents" that is useful in following the details of the argument. The book is highly erudite. It is also passionately argued. Hayek believed he had an important message to convey.
Hayek states his theory in part I of this book, titled "The Value of Freedom". He seeks to explore the nature of the ideal of freedom (liberty) and to explain why this ideal is valuable and worth pursuing. He finds the nature of freedom in the absence of coercion on a person by another person or group. He argues that in giving the broadest scope of action to each individual, society will benefit in ways that cannot be foreseen in advance or planned and each person will be allowed to develop his or her capacities. Hayek summarizes his views near the end of his book (p. 394):
" [T]he ultimate aim of freedom is the enlargement of those capacities in which man surpasses his ancestors and to which each generation must endeavor to add its share -- its share in the growth of knowledge and the gradual advance of moral and aesthetic beliefs, where no superior must be allowed to enforce one set of views of what is right or good and where only further experience can decide what should prevail."
The book focuses on issues of economic freedom and on the value of the competitive market. Hayek has been influenced by writers such as David Hume, Edmund Burke, and John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty."
Part II of the book discusses the role of the State in preserving liberty. It develops a view of law which sees its value in promoting the exercise of individual liberty. The approach is historic. Hayek discusses with great sympathy the development of the common law and of American constitutionalism -- particularly as exemplified by James Madison.
In Part III of the book, Hayek applies his ideas about the proper role of government in allowing the exercise of individual liberty to various components of the modern welfare state. Each of the chapters is short and suggestive, rather than comprehensive. Hayek relies on technical economic analysis, and on his understanding of economic theory, as well as on his philosophical commitments, in his discussion. What is striking about Hayek's approach is his openness (sometimes to the point of possible inconsistency with his philosophical arguments). He tries in several of his chapters to show how various aspects of the modern welfare state present threats to liberty in the manner in which he has defined liberty. But he is much more favorably inclined to some aspects of these programs than are some people, and on occasion he waffles. This is the sign of a thoughtful mind, principled but undoctrinaire.
I think there is much to be learned from Hayek. He probably deserves more of a hearing than he gets. For a nonspecialist returning to a book such as this after a long time off, it is good to think of other positions which differ from Hayek's in order to consider what he has to say and to place it in context. For example, in an essay called "Liberty and Liberalism" in his "Taking Rights Seriously" (1977) the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin discusses Mill's "On Liberty" with a reference to Hayek. Dworkin argues that for Mill, liberty meant not the absence of coercion but rather personal independence. Mill was distinguishing between personal rights and economic rights, according to Dworkin. Thus Dworkin would claim that Hayek overemphasizes the value of competitiveness and lack of state economic regulation in the development of Hayek's concept of liberty.
The British political thinker Isaiah Berlin seems to suggest to me, as I read Hayek's argument, that there are other human goods in addition to liberty, as Hayek defines liberty. Further, Hayek does not establish that liberty, as he understands it, is always the ultimate human good to which others must give place. It may often be that good, but there may also be circumstances in which other goods should be given a more preeminent role when human well-being is at issue. In thinking about Hayek, it would also be useful to understand and to assess his concept of liberty by comparing and contrasting his approach to that of John Rawls in his "A Theory of Justice."
Hayek's book is important, thought-provoking and valuable. Probably no writer of a book of political philosophy can be asked for more. It deserves to be read and pondered. It has much to teach, both where it may persuade the reader and where it encourages the reader to explore competing ideas.