So today finds me in Ohio, where I’ll be every Monday for the next 15 weeks, where I am a “distinguished visiting professor” at Ashland University, teaching a special new course on political economy for the Ashbrook Center’s honors program in politics and history. (By the way, driving in to Ashland this morning I spotted a billboard that read, “Discover Ashland—World Headquarters of Nice People,” and my first thought was that this must a violation of Minnesota’s copyright on the phrase.)
I’m using as my main text in this course F.A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, which, as I mentioned briefly in my post about ten books for a midlife reading list a while ago, I think is Hayek’s best book—better than the more famous and more frequently assigned Road to Serfdom. Although Road is still very much worth reading, it is a period piece in some ways, more closely related to some historical and intellectual circumstances unique to the time period in which Hayek was passing. (Recall that Road was published in 1944.) The postwar world, with its decisive defeat of fascism but with the more moderate statist impulse of Keynesian advancing rapidly, presented a different and more subtle challenge to the principles of a free economy, and required a more supple defense. The Constitution of Liberty, which was published in 1961, is better for these new circumstances, and is also a better fit for the kind of challenges we still face today, such as recrudescent Keynesianism, and Obamacare.
Above all, while we think of Hayek as an accomplished economist (indeed, he won the Nobel Prize for it), The Constitution of Liberty reveals him foremost as a political and legal philosopher, and a pretty good one at that. In the introduction he notes:
Yet, though I still regard myself mainly as an economist, I have come to feel more and more that the answers to many of the pressing social questions of our time are to be found ultimately in the recognition of principles that lie outside the scope of technical economics or of any other single discipline.
Translation: arguments about cost-benefit analysis, utility, or even “incentives” will not suffice to win the political battle against statism. As Hayek goes on to say, “I do not think the cause of liberty will prevail unless our emotions are aroused. . . We must show that liberty is not merely one particular value but that it is the source and condition of most moral values.
I’ll try to post more thoughts and observations here as the class unfolds (especially from tonight’s assignment, Chapter 12, which is Hayek’s very astute reflections on the American Constitution).