Top positive review
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Generous, wise and humane. A book for our time
on 20 September 2016
I happen to regularly walk past the house in Cambridge where, I believe, Hayek wrote this book. I also happen to believe, to enlarge my conception of humanity, that I should read books I don't think I am going to agree with. So I confess I had thought this book would be a rant that was to be later eagerly gulped down by the mean-spirited politicians of the 1980s and the neoliberals of this century, for whom I imagine (in my own lazy way) the lofty ideal of 'freedom' elevates what is simply selfishness. Of course I may be doing such people an injustice – I certainly hope I am not being merely envious.
This book, however, was not at all as I expected. Yes, it is a polemic against collectivists, socialists and planners; yes, it is fiercely argued, but often in a most generous way to his opponents individually. Hayek is rarely dismissive or contemptuous of the objects of his criticism. His life experience in pre-war Austria helps him to notice when the left-wing intellectuals of his time (he writes in 1943/44) unknowingly repeat the rhetoric of Nazism, but this, for Hayek, is tragic and foolish and rarely malicious. He is of course critical of Marx, but he has clearly read him closely and sympathetically; most unusually but with refreshing fair-mindedness Hayek acknowledges Marx's moral and principled intentions. Hayek's discussion throughout anticipates the arguments of his objectors in a way that suggests the capacity to be empathic with those he disagrees with – his points are deeply considered; his targets are not of the usual 'straw man' type. If, George Orwell-style, the writing style is a book is a prefiguration of the polity the author wishes to bring into existence, I repeatedly had the feeling that a truly Hayekian state would be a more generous one than has, in our days – and we are surely living in a post-Hayek age – come to pass.
The emotional intensity of his analysis comes from his personal knowledge of the gradual agglomeration of collectivist or völkisch ideologies and state planning in Germany that led – inexorably, in Hayekian retrospect – to the barbarity of Nazism. Written in exile in Cambridge at the turning of the tide in the Allies' struggle for victory, but with the outcome still not beyond doubt, Hayek debates with urgency the nature of the peace to come, and the founding principles for a just and lasting settlement. This is NEVER facile quasi-deterministic economism, but a passionate plea for freedom and morality. Most strikingly it is a lyrical, loving appreciation, by someone from a very different culture, of the virtues of a *British* market system, not (solely) for the sake of economic efficiency but as a way of increasing individual freedom *and* responsibility.
In our post-Brexit age, we may all benefit from a reminder of some of the principles underlying a broader and deeper conception of Britishness. Readers may be also surprised and fascinated to read his arguments for a European federal system.