Hayek on Courage and Corruption

So you can see that we’ve published a large amount just in the last year or so, and put massive amounts on line for free. Progress! Special credit here goes to the Institute of Economic Affairs for cooperating with the Mises Institute to generate beautiful new editions of Hayek’s work on monetary reform.

In any case, among the tethered texts, there was the additional problem that the publisher of his collected works — the University of Chicago Press — pumped out its edition in very expensive hardbacks that were designed to sell to tax-funded libraries making purchases on an inelastic demand curve. This is not exactly a great plan for getting the word out!

Well, in time, the Liberty Fund managed to strike a deal with Chicago. Liberty Fund has been putting out uniform editions of the collected works of Hayek in a form that is actually affordable by you and me. This means an opening up of Hayek — not a complete opening but very good steps in this direction. (They are not yet online, and thus available to students, scholars, and libertarians the whole world over.)

The latest book in this series is The Trend of Economic Thinking. Of all the volumes in the collected works, this one contains material that is most rare, essays that have been published for the first time, translated for the first time, or appeared in places that were so obscure that it would have taken years of dedicated searching to snag a copy.

Here we find a Hayek that will completely dazzle you — an old world intellectual of high principle, broad reading, and rock-solid scholarly discipline. He writes essays on giants like Bastiat, Hume, Smith, Cantillon, Mandeville, and Thornton, among many others.

One essay at the beginning of the book intrigues me very much. It is a lecture that he gave students in Britain in 1944. They were studying economics. He effectively preached a sermon to them. He urged them not to look for success in their careers but rather to look at the task of an economist as a vocation. He warned that progress in economics is not like progress in the natural sciences. In the hard sciences, progress in praxis follows progress in research. In economics, however, truth is trampled by political trends, and has been for centuries.

He especially warned against seeking popularity, since that nearly always means seeking favor with political establishments — which, he says, necessarily compromises science. He is not urging that political establishments be more favorable to economics. In fact, he says that would be even worse. Economics is and must remain a monastic-style vocation in which research and advocacy be completely separated from the vicissitudes of public opinion. An economist who seeks popularity is dooming himself as an intellectual with integrity.

Now, this is an especially interesting essay coming from Hayek, who American libertarians tend to regard as being rather weak in some areas of policy. Countless radicals have picked up The Road to Serfdom to find themselves disappointed that Hayek seems to tolerate interventions that are actually very terrible for the cause of liberty. He was not Mises. He was Hayek. Having thought about why he went this direction for years — though I’m in no position to say — I would speculate that it had something to do with trying to draw on lessons he learned in Vienna from watching the career of Mises be so seriously hindered by Mises’s own radicalism. Hayek must have though many times that had Mises not been so darn dogmatic and intransigent, he might have had more influence. Hayek himself decided not to go this path, and he made this choice not because he was willing to sell out but because he was desperate to find some way to heighten to the prospects for the ideas of liberty.

At the same time, he must have been somewhat conflicted because Hayek himself was no softie. He paid a high price for his views. He was the lone capitalist in English intellectual circles in the 1940s, and he was surrounded on all sides by opponents. His writings are radical and far out of the mainstream by any standard then or now. One only needs to watch his interviews in the 1960s and 1970s to see that he never compromised an inch on the subject of macroeconomic planning, for example. His views on central banking are hard core: he wanted the complete denationalization of money and said so again and again. Even when he was given the Nobel Prize, he used the occasion to blast the corruption of science and to level a devastating indictment of the path that the economics establishment had then embraced.

There is a sense in which this book will cause you to have all new respect and love for this great thinker. Here I excerpt about as much of his lecture to students that “fair use” will permit:

There is at least one kind of happiness which the pursuit of most sciences promises but which is almost wholly denied to the economist. The progress of the natural sciences often leads to unbounded confidence in the future prospects of the human race, and provides the natural scientist with the certainly that any important contribution to knowledge which he makes will be used to improve the lot of men. The economist’s lot, however, is to study a field in which, almost more than any other, human folly displays itself.

The scientist has no doubt that the world is moving on to better and finer things, that the progress he makes today will tomorrow be recognised and used. There is a glamour about the natural sciences which express itself in the spirit and the atmosphere in which it is pursued and received, in the prizes that wait for the successful as in the satisfaction it can offer to most. What I want to say to you tonight is a warning that, if you want any of this, if to sustain you in the toil which the prolonged pursuit of any subject requires, you want these clear signs of success, you had better leave economics now and turn to one of the more fortunate other sciences.

Not only are there no glittering prizes, no Nobel prizes [1944], and — I should have said till recently — no fortunes and no peerages [Keynes was first], for the economist. But even to look for them, to aim at praise or public recognition, is almost certain to spoil your intellectual honesty in this field. The danger to the economist from any too strong desire to win public approval, and the reasons why I think it indeed fortunate that there are only few marks of distinction to corrupt him, I shall discuss later.

But before that I want to consider the more serious cause for sorrow to the economist, the fact that he cannot trust that the progress of his knowledge will necessarily be followed by a more intelligent handling of social affairs, or even that we shall advance in this field at all and there will not be retrograde movements. The economist knows that a single error in his field may do more harm than almost all the sciences taken together can do good — even more, that a mistake in the choice of a social order, quite apart from the immediate effect, may profoundly affect the prospects for generations. Even if he believes that he is himself in possession of the full truth — which he believes less the older he grows — he cannot be sure that it will be used. And he cannot even be sure that his own activities will not produce, because they are mishandled by others, the opposite of what he was aiming at.

…The reason why I think that too deliberate striving for immediate usefulness is so likely to corrupt the intellectual integrity of the economist is that immediate usefulness depends almost entirely on influence, and influence is gained most easily by concessions to popular prejudice and adherence to existing political grounds. I seriously believe that any such striving for popularity — at least till you have very definitely settled your own convictions, is fatal to the economist and that above anything he must have the courage to be unpopular.

…I think as economists we should at least always suspect ourselves if we find that we are on the popular side. It is so much easier to believe pleasant conclusions, or to trace doctrines which others like to believe, to concur in the views which are held by most people of good will, and not to disillusion enthusiasts, that the temptation to accept which would not stand cold examination is sometimes almost irresistible.

It is the desire to gain influence in order to be able to do good which is one of the main sources of intellectual concessions by the economist. …

…There are now, and probably always will be, any number of attractive jobs, such as various sorts of research or adult education, in which you will be welcome if you hold the right kind of ‘progressive’ views, and will have a better chance of getting on various committees or commissions if you represent any known political programme than if you are known to go your own way. … I don’t think that the work of the politician and the true student of society are compatible. Indeed it seems to me that in order to be successful as a politician, to become a political leader, it is almost essential that you have no original ideas on social matters but just express what the majority feel.

…I have never really regretted that I became an economist or really wish no change with anybody else.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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