May 8 marks the 1899 birth of Friedrich Hayek. Though best known as an economist, he was acclaimed for contributions in many fields. Nobel Prize winners and others have lauded him as the 20th century's outstanding economist, social scientist, and political philosopher. Peter Boettke named him "probably the most prodigious classical liberal scholar of the 20th century."
Hayek's critical influence may have been best reflected by Michael Lessnoff: "Friedrich Hayek is the twentieth century social theorist, who, probably more than any other, found himself vindicated by events," and Milton Friedman: "Over the years, I have again and again asked fellow believers in a free society how they managed to escape the contagion of their collectivist intellectual environment. No name has been mentioned more often as the source of enlightenment than Friedrich Hayek's."
Celebrating Hayek's influence is important for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, since he, along with Murray Rothbard, are Mises' best-known students. As Daniel Klein described it, "Some of the most basic furniture of modern libertarianism comes from the great figures Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard [following] their mentor Ludwig von Mises." Peter Boettke described Hayek's life work as "an attempt to make explicit what Mises had left implicit, to refine what Mises had outlined, and to answer questions Mises had left unanswered. Of Mises, Hayek stated: 'There is no single man to whom I owe more intellectually.'"
There is no possible way to compactly summarize Hayek's contributions in 130 articles and 25 books. However, as one of his main contributions has been arguing for "that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society," some of the most important things he had to say about liberty merit our attention, in the hopes of stimulating further study and reflection.
"A society that does not recognize that each individual has values of his own which he is entitled to follow can have no respect for the dignity of the individual and cannot really know freedom."
"...if we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion."
"Coercion is evil precisely because it...eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another."
"...the argument for liberty is...an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better."
"Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom."
"Liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is only so when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong. "
"...if the result of individual liberty did not demonstrate that some manners of living are more successful than others, much of the case for it would vanish."
"It is always from a minority acting in ways different from what the majority would prescribe that the majority in the end learns to do better."
"Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions...Liberty and responsibility are inseparable."
"...freedom is inseparable from rewards which often have no connection with merit..."
"...liberty is not merely one particular value...it is the source and condition of most moral values. What a free society offers to the individual is much more than what he would be able to do if only he were free. We can therefore not fully appreciate the value of freedom until we know how a society of free men as a whole differs from one in which unfreedom prevails."
"The system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.."
"The more the state plans the more difficult planning becomes for the individual."
"...the capitalist system...of free markets and the private ownership of the means of production, [is] an essential condition of the very survival of mankind."
"...the case for individual freedom rests largely upon the recognition of the inevitable and universal ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievements of our ends and welfare depend."
"All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest."
"...it is the individualist who recognized the limitations of the powers of individual reason and consequently advocates freedom as a means for the fullest development of the powers of the interindividual process."
"The great aim of the struggle for liberty has been equality before the law."
"Equality of the general rules of law and conduct...is the only kind of equality conducive to liberty and the only equality which we can secure without destroying liberty."
"...under the Rule of Law...the individual is free to pursue his personal ends and desires, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts."
"...to choose one's government is not necessarily to secure freedom."
"There is no justification for the belief that, so long as power is conferred by democratic procedure, it cannot be arbitrary...it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary."
"Once wide coercive powers are given to governmental agencies for particular purposes, such powers cannot be effectively controlled..."
"Once wide coercive powers are given to governmental agencies for particular purposes, such powers cannot be effectively controlled by democratic assemblies."
"We must face the fact that the preservation of individual freedom is incompatible with a full satisfaction of our views of distributive justice."
""It is probably one of the essential conditions for the preservation of [a free society] that we do not countenance envy, nor sanction its demands as social justice, but treat it, in the words of John Stuart Mill, as 'the most anti-social and evil of all passions.'"
"Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower, in short, what men should believe and strive for."
"To be controlled in our economic pursuit means to be...controlled in everything."
"The greatest danger to liberty today comes from...expert administrators exclusively concerned with what they regard as the public good." "The power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the petit functionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state..."
"The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power."
In one way, Hayek's importance to the cause of liberty was from his insistence that "We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish." In another, it was his recognition that "It used to be the boast of free men that, so long as they kept within the bounds of the known law, there was no need to ask anybody's permission or to obey anybody's orders. It is doubtful whether any of us can make this claim today." In still another, it was his often lonely fight to recognize and reverse the declining belief in freedom, and therefore the possibility of living under it. In all of these ways, Hayek built on the seminal importance of his teacher, Ludwig von Mises.
Perhaps Hayek's most important contributions, however, were in building on Mises' insights and transmitting the importance of freedom as the most important problem the next generation will face. We are now that next generation. And as Hayek summarized it:
"...unless we can make the philosophic foundation of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and it implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark."