Happy Birthday to Friedrich Hayek

by Mario Rizzo

Friedrich Hayek is the single economist from whom I have learned the most. Last year I wrote an appreciation of him for ThinkMarkets. I repost  it here in full:

Hayek at the London School of Economics Hayek at the London School of Economics


Today is the birthday of Friedrich A. Hayek: born May 8, 1899.   

It would be difficult to imagine my intellectual life and career without Hayek. I have learned more from him than from any other single thinker. This is in the areas of economics, the philosophy of science and the philosophy of law. I remember discovering – thanks to Henry Hazlitt – Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in high school. It took me a long time to read the book; I didn’t understand everything in it but it left a deep impression upon me. I still have, somewhere, my carefully underlined paperback edition of the book from those high-school days.   

I met Hayek in New York City before he received the Nobel Prize. I think it was in 1967. Hayek did not pay me much attention. I did go up to him with a copy of Prices and Production and asked for his autograph. He had been talking to a group of “adults.” He turned around to look at this (then) college kid. He took the book, turned back to the group and said that “It gives me great pleasure to sign this book because it has been continually in print for over thirty years.” He signed it. Then he partially turned around and handed me the book. I was grateful.   

I met him several times later. After the Nobel Prize, he and I were at the 1976 Windsor Castle conference on Austrian economics. He was given the “president’s medal” at NYU at the suggestion of Fritz Machlup and Israel Kirzner. He spent some time at a summer seminar at the Institute for Humane Studies in 1977. I was fortunate enough to be there. But I don’t remember ever having a conversation with him either at the seminar or anywhere else.  I am sure that this cannot be accurate, but I do not remember any words he uttered to me personally. So everything I learned from him was through his writings. Hayek didn’t need to be the friendly, accessible professor. His ideas attracted the serious and left behind the unserious – as things should be, perhaps.   

Despite Hayek’s aloofness, he was so very influential in the intellectual lives of the first and second wave Austrian “revivalists.” I recall, however, that Murray Rothbard had problems with Hayek’s impure libertarianism and impure Misesianism. (Hayek never pretended to be a libertarian in the anarcho-capitalist sense nor a strict follower of Mises.) For a while, I was influenced by this criticism.  Ultimately, Rothbard was wrong in his assessment of Hayek’s importance, as I came to realize.   

It is a testament to the importance of Hayek that he and John Maynard Keynes have been the two great economists most invoked in contemporary efforts to understand our current financial and economic problems. In all of this, the monetarists unfortunately seem to have been sidelined. I suggest that this is because Hayek and Keynes represent the fundamental economic and philosophical challenges to each other. The question today is as it was in the thirties: Hayek or Keynes. All else is footnote.   


To see a photo of Hayek’s grave stone, go here. 

The photo of Hayek at the LSE accompanies the London Telegraph blog entry “Financial crisis shows why we should admire Friedrich Hayek” posted by Philip Booth. 

HT: Greg Ransom at Taking Hayek Seriously.

9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to Friedrich Hayek

  1. If I may, I would add to Mario’s recollections, that I spent the summers of 1975 and 1977 as a “fellow” at the Institute for Humane Studies, when they were headquartered out in Menlo Park, California.

    I was a bit more “aggressive” than Mario both of those summers, in that I went in to talk with Hayek as often as I could when he was around. He was in his mid-70s at the time, and I assumed he could die at any more moment and thought I needed to pick his brain for “the end.” (Of course, Hayek lived for practically another 20 years!)

    I found him gracious, patient, and generous with his time, and willing to share his memories and thoughts on everything from the old Vienna he grew up in, to his “battles” with Keynes and socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, and his views on modern trends in economics.

    He was always in good spirits, and constantly sniffing snuff, with it dribbling on his tie.

    I know that many have commented that he often seemed reserved and aloof. But I always found him cheerful, friendly, and happy — even when I “challenged” his “compromises” from a more consistent classical liberal/libertarian point-of-view. (Oh, the brashness of youth — I was in my mid-20s at the time.)

    But like Mario, I have been greatly influenced by Hayek’s writings, and I cannot think of one aspect of my political-philosophic and economic theory and policy views that has not been profoundly influenced by his ideas.

    At Northwood University, I and two other faculty members have been guiding a group of students through “The Road to Serfdom.” Even though it was written so many decades ago, it still rings so true and relevant through very much of the book.

    That is the mark of a truly great thinker, I would suggest. Many of that writer’s works preserve a timeless quality, no matter how much time may pass.

    Richard Ebeling

  2. Considering the fact that all of my publications of late have been on spontaneous orders or Hayek’s ideas more generally, it looks like I’ll be writing such a piece myself in another 10 years or so.

  3. On Hayek’s birthday, I was actualy prticipating in a Liberty Fund conference on monetary economics. His Nobel lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” was on the reading list. It is very insightful and radical restatement of his views on macroeconomics. Pete Boettke provided a spirited defense.

  4. As we have discussed here before, the macroeconomic knowledge problem is similar to the more familiar one in the micro context (as developed in Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”).

    But it is not quite the same. Prices in the macro-problem context have become corrupted and so the information they transmit is, during the boom, not reflective of sustainable agent-preferences. But in the recession they may also not be reliable because all sorts of secondary reactions may have set in. There is a period of “calculational-chaos” that is not easy to work out of.

  5. We certainly need Hayek’s thought more than ever. Here is a concise statement of what I take to be his key principle for government. From The Road to Serfdom:
    “The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications.”

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