The Daily Hayek

Not to worry, I don’t propose actually to do daily posts on Hayek, but since I’m doing a close reading of Hayek with my Ashland students, and since there is so much in his work that is hard to get your head around all at once, it might be useful to digest small chunks from time to time—especially when their relevance to current issues is so clear.

So in chapter 2 of The Constitution of Liberty (“The Creative Powers of a Free Society”), Hayek takes aim at the important distinction modern liberals make that turns out to be a contradiction—namely, that freedom of thought should be absolute, but freedom of action (i.e., economic freedom) should be tightly regulated by the state:

Because we are more aware that our advances in the intellectual sphere often spring from the unforeseen and undesigned, we tend to overstress the importance of freedom in this field and to ignore the importance of the freedom of doing things.  But the freedom of research and belief and the freedom of speech and discussion, the importance of which is widely understood, are significant only in the last stage of the process in which new truths are discovered.  To extol the value of intellectual liberty at the expense of the value of the liberty of doing things would be like treating the crowning part of an edifice as the whole.  We have new ideas to discuss, different views to adjust, because those ideas and views arise from the efforts of individuals in ever new circumstances, who avail themselves in their concrete tasks of the new tools and forms of action they have learned.

Two pages later (p. 87 if you have the new University of Chicago edition) Hayek makes plain the most important implication of this:

It has become a common practice to disparage freedom of action by calling it “economic liberty.”  But the concept of freedom of action is much wider than that of economic liberty, which it includes; and, what is more important, it is very questionable whether there are any actions which can be called merely “economic” and whether any restrictions on liberty can be confined to what are merely called “economic” aspects.

If you really want to have fun and play around with this analysis, by all means find the essay by another Nobel Prize winning economist, Ronald Coase, from the May 1974 American Economic Review, “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas.”  Coase mischievously picks up from Hayek and says, essentially, why shouldn’t the logic of why we regulate the market for goods be applied to the market for ideas, since ideas can be as dangerous to people as many tangible products in the marketplace?  After spinning out the case for this at length, Coase comes around to his ironic point:

We have to decide whether the government is as incompetent as is generally assumed in the market for ideas, in which case we would want to decrease government intervention in the market for goods, or whether it is as efficient as it is generally assumed to be in the market for goods, in which case we would want to increase government regulation in the market for ideas.

Great argument, except that liberals will never get it.  Case in point: the Federal Election Commission, and the Left’s reaction to the Citizens United decision.  Recall that Coase wrote his piece in 1974.  Hence the ultimate irony is this sentence:

Yet a proposal to set up a Federal Press Commission or a Federal Political Commission modeled on the Federal Trade Commission would be dismissed out of hand.

Um. . .