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The Constitution Of Liberty

I recently finished reading F.A. Hayek's The Constitution Of Liberty. It is a defense of limited government, individual liberty and responsibility.

Hayek is an impressive political philosopher. He doesn't neatly fit into any of the political categories we have today. Of all the political terms we have today, "libertarian" would probably suit him best, although his thought is a lot more nuanced than that of most modern libertarians. He concedes the need for some sort of economic safety net (even though he is very explicitly against the modern welfare state) and the need to be concerned with "neighborhood effects" (things you do on your own property that effect your neighbors). He just wouldn't stretch these concerns as far as the modern statist would. The last chapter of the book, "Why I Am Not A Conservative" deals with the problem of political labels, especially when you try to slap them on him.

He lays out his case very meticulously. He begins by defining liberty. He defines it fairly narrowly, as the absence of coercion. He rejects "political freedom" and "metaphysical freedom" as adequate definitions of liberty. He spends a great deal of time making the case against freedom defined as power. He correctly points out that "once the identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word "liberty" can be used to ...destroy individual liberty."

He does an enormous service by insisting on a specific definition of liberty. Much damage can be or has been done to the cause of individual liberty by those who stretch the definition of freedom. For instance, many on the right argue "the greatest civil liberty is the liberty not to get killed." No. That's not a civil liberty. It might be more important than civil liberty, but don't say that's what it is. (Hayek concedes "we may well get one good thing in exchange for another" when we make tradeoffs, but he would insist the debate be more honest.)

After defining liberty, he goes on to explain why it's important. He speaks of "the creative powers of a free civilization" and points out that central authorities never have enough knowledge to produce what's best for society through planning and coercion. He cautions that "many utopian constructions are worthless because they follow the lead of the theorists in assuming that we have perfect knowledge." He speaks of "the creative power of a free society", pointing out that many intellectual and other advances are accidents resulting from individuals exercising their freedom.

There is much discussion of forms of government and various government approaches to problems. Some common themes emerge. On more than one occasion he complains of government action being taken to
correct problems that government has created. He deals artfully with the issue of legislating morality. He believes that moral rules are important, but that they should not be all be codified into law, for the very good reason that social mores can be modified and gradually changed, whereas laws can only be repealed or upheld.

I wish everyone holding public office could read this book. If Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke had heeded the warnings he gives in the chapter on inflation, we might not be having the economic problems we're having right now. This book is an excellent collection of first principles for anyone concerned with making public policy.