Commentary Magazine


The Constitution of Liberty, by F. A. Hayek

Last of the Whigs
The Constitution of Liberty.
by F. A. Hayek.
University of Chicago Press. 570 pp. $7.50.

It is generally forgotten that Edmund Burke and Adam Smith were both Whigs. In our textbooks of political theory, they are segregated from, and opposed to, one another: the romantic exponent of tradition, authority, and the organic community, as against the individualist liberal who believed in laisser-faire. The antithesis is anachronistic : it reflects the later dissolution of Whiggery into “conservative” and “liberal” ideologies. In their own day, despite their markedly different casts of mind, Burke and Smith were united in affirming the two major propositions of the original Whig synthesis: (1) liberty is the most precious of political goods, and (2) civilization is the result of human action but not of human design. Burke never called himself a “conservative,” and Smith never used the phrase laisser-faire.

Professor Friederich Hayek, who is usually thought of as a conservative and laisser-fairist, can be more accurately regarded (and clearly defines himself) as the last surviving Whig. As is generally the case, the last of the line is not its most perfect or most vigorous representative. Professor Hayek’s Whiggery has too much the shrillness of doctrine, too little the calm assuredness of a living faith. In political theory, it is much easier to be right than to be relevant; and the greatest temptation for the critic is to rest in self-righteousness. This temptation Professor Hayek is not immune to; he too often gives the impression that he considers reality to be one immense deviation from true doctrine. Nevertheless, The Constitution of Liberty is a book that is noble in its proportions, often profound in its insight, learned in its commentary, and usefully provocative in its argument.

Professor Hayek may be doctrinaire, but he is not a dogmatist. The particular charm of this volume is not that he attempts to answer the objections of his critics (he doesn’t, really), but that he takes it upon himself to state the limitations inherent in his own position. It is, intellectually, that rare thing: a modest book. Unlike certain other thinkers, Professor Hayek does not claim that a reliance on free enterprise will deliver unto us all the goods of this world and the next. He does not assert that, if we all submit ourselves to the rigors of a free market economy, we shall in the end get our just desserts. Indeed he specifically denies it:

There is perhaps no more poignant grief than that arising from a sense of how useful one might have been to one’s fellow men and of one’s gifts having been wasted. That in a free society nobody has a claim to an opportunity to use his special gifts, and that, unless he himself finds such opportunity, they are likely to be wasted, is perhaps the gravest reproach directed against a free system and the source of the bitterest resentment.

To this reproach, Professor Hayek makes a twin rejoinder. First, it is by no means certain that people would be happier if they knew their condition in life to correspond to their true capacities—life might be intolerable if one had to assume full responsibility (and blame) for one’s fate. Second, no human being, or class of human beings, has the ability to make a fair or comprehensive judgment of a man’s potentialities—or even to define them.

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This last point is the crucial one. The Constitution of Liberty is one long (570 pages) argument from ignorance. “Human reason,” Professor Hayek insists, “can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist in finding out where it has been wrong.” Here, too, the influence of Professor Hayek’s vocation as an economist is visible. For the single premise of all modern economic thought is that philosophical wisdom (or what used to be considered as such) is impossible: no one can know better than a man himself what he most truly wants, and therefore a market economy is the most reasonable of economic arrangements. (It is interesting to observe that Professor Hayek’s “liberal” critics do not openly reject this premise; they simply deny that the free market any longer exists, or that it can be reconstituted.)

Again and again, the book reiterates the thesis that our ignorance is far greater than our knowledge; that the more we know, the more we know we do not know; that all our actions have unforeseeable consequences; that the senselessness of coercing men to “build a better world” lies in the certainty that our children will detest this world. Professor Hayek no longer insists (as he once did) that economic planning is impossible. He now insists only that it is incompatible with a progressive society. We can, by organizing knowledge and mobilizing men, achieve fixed goals more effectively than by encouraging individual initiative and liberty. But we shall then have made it far more difficult to discover new goals, new wants, new knowledge of goals and wants. If we attempt to make society adequate to our present knowledge of it, we run the risk of freezing our knowledge at the point where it is merely adequate to the present state of our society.

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This kind of reasoning will have little appeal to those who are so passionately indignant at the specific inequities (and iniquities) of the world we live in that they blindly identify liberty with power—the power to dominate and revise the status quo. It is not intended to. Professor Hayek is concerned to establish so firmly the rule of law, of the self-limiting State as this has been defined by traditional liberalism (and in this he is liberal rather than Whig), as to render such passion impotent:

Not only is liberty a system under which all government action is guided by principles, but it is an ideal that will not be preserved unless it is itself accepted as an overriding principle governing all particular acts of legislation. Where no such fundamental rule is stubbornly adhered to as an ultimate ideal about which there must be no compromise for the sake of material advantages—as an ideal which, even though it may have to be temporarily infringed during a passing emergency, must form the basis of all permanent arrangements—freedom is almost certain to be destroyed by piecemeal encroachments. For in each particular instance it will be possible to promise concrete and tangible advantages as the result of a curtailment of freedom, while the benefits sacrificed will in their nature always be unknown and uncertain. If freedom were not treated as the supreme principle, the fact that the promises which a free society has to offer can always be only chances and not certainties, only opportunities and not definite gifts to particular individuals, would inevitably prove a fatal weakness and lead to its slow erosion.

Even for those of us who do believe that there is much in American life that stands in need of reformation, who are not persuaded that traditional liberalism is the very epitome of civilization itself, who are as much worried by the present impact of scientific knowledge as by its hypothetical future sterility, such a warning may yet be worth listening to. Moreover, in his shrewd analyses of taxation, education, social security, city planning, and the administrative bureaucracy of the welfare state, Professor Hayek makes us realize how thoughtless (literally thoughtless) has been much of our activity in these fields; how grossly insensitive we have been, in our haste and enthusiasm, to possibilities excluded and opportunities foreclosed. Above all, his book encourages us to take another look at our welfare state, which—lacking any general idea of “welfare”—is coming more and more to resemble a monstrous pork-barrel.

About the Author

Irving Kristol is well known to our readers. He was at one time an associate editor of this magazine and, more recently, the editor of The Reporter.