Sidney Hook’s 1960 review of Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty”

Michael Giberson

Francis Fukuyama’s review of the new edition of F. A. Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” has prompted a small eruption of commentary in the econoblogosphere.  (See here and here, for example.)

I thought there might be some interest in Sidney Hook’s review of the original edition of “The Constitution of Liberty,” published in the New York Times Book Review on February 12, 1960. Here is an extensive selection from the review:

Of Tradition and Change

by Sidney Hook

Even those who accept little of his argument will find Friedrich A. Hayek’s comprehensive analysis of the nature of freedom an interesting and provocative work. “The Constitution of Liberty” develops the basic assumptions from which he derived the views expressed fifteen years ago in his book “The Road to Serfdom.” They are applied in a free-ranging way to an impressive variety of themes and social disciplines. The result is a reflective, often biting, commentary on the nature of our society and its dominant thought by one who is passionately opposed to the coercion of human beings by the arbitrary will of others, who puts liberty above welfare, and is sanguine that greater welfare will thereby ensure.

Admitting that there are few who would openly oppose the value of liberty, Mr. Hayek, who is Professor of Social and Moral Science at the University of Chicago, contends that its traditions and safeguards are constantly being eroded in the democratic welfare states of Europe and America. Economic and other social controls have invaded what should be regarded as man’s private sphere. While the Communist threat to the survival of free society may be more immediate, the more formidable danger comes from within in the form of a poisonous ideology wrapped in a dough of flabby rhetoric about democracy, iced over with sugary formulae of goodwill and social justice.

The first two parts of the book concern themselves with the value of freedom and its relation to the rule of law; the third is devoted to showing how these are subverted by the measures of the welfare state all along the line. In a concluding eloquent postscript, “Why I am not a conservative,” the author indicts the Conservatives, especially in England, for being somewhat infected with socialist principles, as shown by their fear of uncontrolled social forces, and their efforts to discredit free enterprise, especially in agriculture. […]

There are two clear merits possessed by this book outside of the validity of its argument. It has a courage and honest not often avowed by those opposed to modern trends of social legislation. The author does not believe in mitigating social inequalities or even establishing equality of opportunity. He is opposed to any measures which would curtail the accidental advantages not only of being better endowed by nature but of being socially better born.

The law can protect mean only in their liberty to get as much property as the rules of the market permit; it should not be used to redistribute income and consequent privilege merely because it turns out that to those who hath shall be given and from those who hath not shall be taken away. Progressive taxation is discriminatory against the rich. A tax should consist of the same proportion of a man’s income whether he earns ten hundred or ten million dollars. That this would cut into one man’s food, but only into another’s number of yachts is irrelevant. The price of liberty, so conceived, is so high one wonders why anyone not well endowed would want it.

The second and greater merit of Mr. Hayek’s work is that it challenges the first principles of any view in which in the interest of human welfare and social justice seeks some control of the economy. This embraces not only Socialists, New and Fair Dealers but also Herbert Hoover. Every generation takes its first principles too much for granted. It is a salutary experience to rethink them in light of their alternatives.

Only a treatise as long as Mr. Hayek’s could do critical justice to it. One can challenge his failure to grasp the ways in which private property as well as public can be used to control the lives and freedom of those dependent upon it for their livelihood. One can challenge his assumption that a theory of market prices can take the place of a theory of social justice. More far reaching, however, in its practical implications is his notion that the original sin of the social reformer consists in the view that human intelligence can direct or control social change. According to the author wisdom must rely only on the slow non-rational processes of trial and error, on the traditions and customs of the past rather than on human plans and contrivance. […]

It is demonstrable that Hayek suffers from the defects of the very rationalism he condemns. His antitheses between tradition and reason, experience and experiment, are analytically untenable and historically unjustifiable. Intelligent social control always learns from experience and history. It no more need take the form of a Utopian blueprint than concern for history need make a fetish of the past. Revolutions have more often been the result of unendurable evils that intelligent reforms would have abolished … than of the imperialism of reason.

In the light of the evidence it is the author who appears doctrinaire, as one who refuses to learn from history. A generation ago he predicted that planning would lead to the eclipse of our freedoms. The state of liberty in England is healthier than when he made his dire prediction; and in this country, far better than in the heyday of unregulated capitalism. In countries where freedom has been lost, its destruction preceded the introduction of planning.

Planning need not be all or none. In a political democracy, it can take plural forms resulting in a mixed economy. That there are threats to freedom in some types of planning cannot by gainsaid. But there are also threats to freedom, even if more indirect, in a pure market economy. It is doubtful whether free cultures could survive severe depressions again. […]

The tendency of the author to think in terms of either-or instead of more-or-less vitiates the discussion of other basic themes. Although the essence of freedom for him is equality before the law, he ignores the extent to which social inequalities result in the imposition of unequal penalties under the law. His conception of the just law makes it compatible both with treating and mistreating everybody equally under the same rule. […]

As a cautionary voice Mr. Hayek is always worth listening to. He is an intellectual tonic. But in our present time of troubles, his economic philosophy points the road to disaster.

The review noted that the price of the original 570 page hardback from the University of Chicago Press was $7.50 in 1960, or about $54.59 in today’s dollars according to the inflation calculator. That compares to $81.22 for the hardback of the new “definitive edition” at Amazon today and $16.50 for the paperback version.

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