by Chidem Kurdas
Reading a volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters – Enlightening Letters 1946-1960, edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009) – I came across a puzzling comment on Friedrich Hayek.
It is not obvious that Berlin and Hayek, both of them critics of communism and in particular of the Soviet Union, belong to diametrically opposite political camps. But apparently Berlin thought so. Then he read Hayek’s 1952 book, The Counter-Revolution of Science.
Here is what he wrote: “There is a curious book I am reading now by Hayek, who is accounted reactionary by everybody and indeed to some extent is and yet the strictures he has to pass on the indiscriminate application of scientific analogies beyond their proper sphere seem to me to be exaggerated but just, that is to say just in principle, exaggerated in his particular application of it.”
What does Berlin mean by reactionary? Presumably that Hayek wanted to turn back the clock to the era before the modern welfare state. But in fact, a safety net that applies equally to everybody fits Hayek’s framework—-like the negative income tax Milton Friedman advocated as a better alternative for existing entitlement programs.
Such distinctions were probably lost on Berlin, who had little or no understanding of economic topics, as he himself owns in his letters. Perhaps he’s merely repeating others’ attacks on Hayek. He saw Karl Popper in the same light: “Hayek and Popper were the two, as it were, reactionary liberals who have somehow put on sheep’s clothing.”
But he goes on to say that he sympathizes with people who deviate from the standard of their “camp”, both “crypto-reactionary progressives and crypto-progressive reactionaries.” But Hayek was not crypto anything; his arguments are consistent with his politics.
Berlin is the one who’s between and betwixt. Or simply confused. Murray Rothbard argued that Berlin’s famous argument about two types of liberty was muddled.
Where Berlin shines is in summing up the Marxist project. Thus he wrote to Joan Robinson, who followed Keynes but had a soft spot for Marx: “I think the old boy really did pour a lot of light on dark places up to about 1910 say,” but after that people who stick to him have unpleasant reasons for doing so.
For instance, they want to be in a “wild and impenetrable jungle where … nobody can get at you at all and you can shout and snap to your heart’s content.”
The letter collection includes intriguing tidbits but 844 pages mostly of Berlin’s travels, publishing decisions, career moves and cattiness to people who are now forgotten get tedious.