I am now in my 70s. No longer a spring chicken but not a dead duck yet either, with, I hope, a few good years left. When I was in my mid 20s, I had the opportunity and good fortune to meet and interact for most of two summers with the noted Austrian economist and Nobel Prize winner Friedrich A. Hayek (1899–1992). He was in his mid 70s at the time, and he seemed ancient to me.
Over the summers of 1975 and 1977, I had research fellowships at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. In residence, also, during those two summers at IHS was Hayek as a senior research scholar. I viewed it as a great honor to meet a man whose writings had heavily influenced my own views on economics and politics, and for both of those summers I had an office only one or two doors down from his. Hayek appeared and acted healthy and spry enough for someone who seemed to me to be at an age that suggested he could die at any moment. How could I know that, in fact, he would live to be 92?
I knew what to ask him.
I therefore made a determined effort to go into his office as often as I could whenever he was around and pick his brain. After all, he had known and been a close friend and colleague of Ludwig von Mises in the Vienna of the 1920s and early 1930s, before he accepted a position at the London School of Economics in the autumn of 1931.
Then, after arriving in Great Britain, he soon established himself as one of the leading and well-known critics of John Maynard Keynes and the emerging Keynesian economics by presenting his own version of the Austrian theory of money and the business cycle as an explanation of the causes of the Great Depression and cures for it. Moreover, in the 1930s and 1940s Hayek became one of the internationally recognized critics of socialism, especially because of his book The Road to Serfdom (1944) but also by creatively building on Mises’s earlier critique of socialism and the impossibility for economic calculation under a comprehensive system of central planning.
Knowing all that, I was determined to have those conversations with Hayek to get as much information and as many stories out of him about the “old Vienna days” and his years at the London School of Economics when he was doing battle with both the emerging Keynesians and the socialists. I had to get it while the getting was good. Remember, I thought he could die the next day.
I have mentioned in other places that I found Hayek gracious and patient with his time and willing to answer my many questions about the events through which he had lived and about the ideas and arguments he made against his intellectual opponents. He was humorously self-deprecating. More than once he said, while recounting some exchange he had with someone on the political “other side,” that it once again turned into “one of my many ‘defeats.’”
Over the years, I also had the chance to meet and interact with a number of other Austrian economists who also began their professional careers in the Vienna of the 1920s and 1930s, including Fritz Machlup, Gottfried Haberler, and Oskar Morgenstern, along with German-born Ludwig Lachmann and the British Austrian, Lionel Robbins. But how did I know what to ask all of those illustrious scholars? Even though only in my mid and late 20s when I interacted with most of them, I had by that time read a good many of their writings and had been interested in their biographies as well. More generally, I had discovered and read many of the noted classical-liberal and free-market authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I started doing that when I was about 16 years old.
Learning about liberty
When I began to run into other libertarians and free-market–oriented people, I admit that most of them were not as “crazy” as I in wanting to read everything. Nonetheless, what I found was that most of them were fairly well read in the past and present ideas of liberty. Most had read the more popular books of Ludwig von Mises, as well as some of the writings of Henry Hazlitt and Milton Friedman. Virtually all of them were familiar with Frédéric Bastiat’s book The Law. Some had read Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Practically all had gone through and been influenced by Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), whether or not they fully accepted all of her philosophical arguments.
Who were those people? They were students, or people who worked in or owned businesses, or professionals, that is, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like. Their lives were full with all the things of everyday, daily life that consume so much of our time. But a good number, I had observed, had taken the time, and considered it time well spent, to be knowledgeable and conversant with the ideas and the arguments for liberty, as they were to be found in the writings of past and present authors. In other words, many of them intelligently knew what they were talking about and understood why they believed what they did about the case for individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.
Whether or not they had read Leonard Read’s Elements of Libertarian Leadership (1962) and Anything That’s Peaceful (1964), they intuitively appreciated that the only hope that liberty would win in an ideologically hostile world was for as many people as possible to become what Read had called “lights of liberty” that might persuasively attract others. The “brightness” of our light was related to how much we knew and understood about freedom and its implications and the extent to which we had developed personal skills in making that case to others, whether they were family members, friends, co-workers, or just people with whom we found ourselves in a conversation about politics.
If you went into their homes, whatever else may have been on their bookshelves, you invariably found copies of many of the classic and important books on liberty and free-market economics. As I said, given their personal time constraints and other obligations, they had made the effort to be more or less familiar with what Leonard Read, the founder and long-time first president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), liked to call “the freedom philosophy.”
Today’s younger libertarians
As you get older, the good old days never seem as bad as they, no doubt, really were. So it is likely the case that my fading recollections of those days of my youth seem more like a golden age than they really were. How I would roll my eyes when I was a teenager or in my 20s, when some old geezer would say, “Well, when I was a lad …” and proceed to wax nostalgic for a time long gone that was always portrayed as better than the present in crucial ways.
There is the saying, “Just because I am paranoid does not mean that I am not being followed.” Well, just because I catch myself thinking and talking like those old geezers doesn’t mean that some things weren’t better in that youthful past that I recall, in comparison with the present.
When I talk to “the young folks” who declare their belief in liberty nowadays, I find that their interest and appreciation of the history, content, and significance of ideas of individual freedom and the institutions of a free society rarely match what I had found in people a couple of generations before. Over the last ten or so years, when I have asked young people how they first became aware of ideas on liberty and what they read, they have often told me that it was all through the Internet and discovering a prominent libertarian politician whose arguments appealed to them. They had read online writings of this politician and two or three others whom he had mentioned.
But when I have asked whether they have read Mises or Hayek, or Hazlitt or Friedman, only a rather small number have answered yes. In fact, it seems that very few have read cover to cover any books on liberty by any author. They have, in general, it seems, absorbed snippets of the arguments for liberty by searching here and there on the Internet.
This is, of course, a general criticism that is frequently made about the effect of the Internet on the last generation or two. Many things seem to be intellectual “cuts and pastes,” with little coherent and systematic reasoning and thought. As a professor who has been teaching for a long time, I see this phenomenon among a large majority of students passing through college or university on their way to a degree. The interest in and the art of methodical reading has been losing ground in the learning process.
Liberty literature at everyone’s fingertips
The frustration that someone of my generation feels about this comes from the amazing and free availability of practically all the great and small works on liberty and the free society to be found and downloaded by the click of the mouse. (Yes, I know I’m dating myself, again: Who even uses a computer mouse anymore?) I have downloaded literally hundreds of such works to my iPhone to have them with me all the time to re-read and refer to, or just to enjoy my favorites among those writers at any time and anywhere I may be. An entire library literally on my smartphone in my pocket!
It is easy for me to despair of the failure of the “young whippersnappers” to have as much of an interest in economics as I did, since I chose that as my profession. But I find the same thing in other subjects, including history, for instance. How can anyone know how he has gotten to where he is if he doesn’t know where he came from? And how can anyone have a sense of where we may be going as a society, if he does not know why the future seems to be headed in the direction suggested by the events of the past and of the present? That may sound a bit like a cliché, but it does not make it any less true.
How is it possible to understand and appreciate the meaning of liberty and its essential institutions, if you don’t know where the ideas of freedom have come from, what battles had to be fought to achieve liberty in the past, or the historical origins of the angry and increasingly intolerant arguments that are made today by opponents of individual liberty and the free society?
Understanding why collectivism grows
One of the baffling aspects of the current drift in the direction of more government control, regulation, redistribution, and planning is why these trends seem to develop and take on an irresistible life of their own. How to reverse such a trend is, clearly, no easy task, since we keep moving more in the collectivist direction. But knowing how and why this has been happening, surely, is essential if any successful reverse trend toward liberty is to come about. History helps us to understand such things.
For instance, crises and wars frequently open the doors to growths in government. One guide for understanding that is historian William H. Greenleaf (1927–2008), in his multi-volume work, The British Political Tradition (1983), especially, volume one, “The Rise of Collectivism.” Trying to explain the reasons for the growth in government, Greenleaf says,
Yet the enduring impact of war on collectivist development is clearly indicated because the reversion is never to the status quo ante bellum; [with] departments which have grown during the war inevitably wishing to [maintain] their enlarged staffs … when peace returns…. Although there is at the end of hostilities a decline from the extreme heights of government expenditure reached during the war itself, the fall stops at a level higher than that prevailing during the prewar period. A substantial residue of the increased wartime activity remains.
What are the factors making for this situation? Greenleaf goes on to say,
First, there is the obvious and continuing impact in respect to the debt commitments, payments of war pensions, and the like. Secondly, there are the important fiscal effects of war concerning the level of taxation which is [now] acceptable. And thirdly, there is a general loosening of restrictions hitherto imposed on government activity…. If tanks and bombs can be produced in many respects regardless of expense, why should not this later be the case for schools, hospitals, and houses…?
The state had come to control directly or indirectly a great part of the economic process; the wealth and taxable capacity of modern industrial society now stood revealed. Why should these possibilities not be exploited to abolish poverty? The wartime extension of state regulation of economic activity seemed to suggest that for crucial purposes public ownership or supervision was more effective than unalloyed capitalism…. The general view was that in the steps taken to wage effective war there lay the vindication of Socialism.
Crises and the growth of government
In other words, political and other crises suddenly lead people to expect and accept responsibilities taken on by the government that previously might not have even been considered to be in the purview of political involvement and interventions. Greenleaf points out that when the British government began conscripting large numbers of people into the military to fight in the First World War, the physical and intelligence exams of recruits suddenly made people aware that a good number of them seemed to be poorly fed, or lacking in medical care for health deficiencies, or were more deficient in reading and writing than had been believed.
On this latter point, Greenleaf quotes British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Second World War: “I feel ashamed of having been so ignorant of my neighbors. For the rest of my life I mean to try to make amends by helping such people to live cleaner and healthier lives.” Such attitudes made it that much easier for the Labour Party members in the joint wartime cabinet with the Conservatives to push for socialized medicine and income-redistributive schemes with the support of their “guilty-feeling” colleagues who were supposed to be the proponents of free enterprise and limited government.
But even without national crises, Greenleaf explained there was a constant danger of creeping or incremental growth in the size and scope of government by people’s discovering social ills and asking why “someone” doesn’t do something. Greenleaf saw several stages to this political process:
First of all, there was commonly the public exposure of a social evil or problem…. Then there was a demand that the preventable or intolerable circumstances thus revealed be dealt with [resulting in compromise legislation, and] a precedent for government action … being established and responsibility assumed….
The second stage ensued with the realization that existing legislation was ineffective, perhaps almost wholly so….
[Third], the obvious remedy was to appoint enforcement officers especially charged with carrying the existing statutes into effect….
Fourthly, further experience would show that the occasional Parliamentary legislation would never be enough to deal with the matters at issue, that what was needed was a continuing process of regulation in the light of growing and changing experience. So that, finally, executive officers would demand and receive a discretionary initiative to deal with the complex problems arising in practice….
Inherent in this whole process there is a strong and cumulative trend towards a much more dynamic role for government than had usually been envisaged…. For if a body of able and sedulous men is put in charge of a branch of the public service, it is (as one commentator has observed) “certain that they will magnify the office, take a disproportionate view of its claims, and increasingly strive to increase its functions and its staff.”
In addition to crises and the institutional dynamics of growth and intrusiveness of government, Green- leaf also emphasized that a “need” for government solutions to asserted “social problems,” leads to the idea of a body of policy “experts” who could and should “scientifically” deal with them through the reduction of human life, relationships, and circumstances to quantitative dimensions useable for measurements of what had to be fixed and degrees of success by those in the bureaucracies.
The hubris of experts
Greenleaf used the example of a disease. “First there exists a social problem, in this case the major scourge of smallpox. A prophylactic treatment is discovered by scientific research. The government intervenes to make that treatment in turn available, compulsory, and more effective. Clearly more and more intervention and powers of coercion are involved.”
In other words, a presumption of merely “following the science” can open the wedge for more and more government and the cooping of individual choice or voluntary avenues of cooperation in handling societal problems. “In sum, therefore, scientific knowledge could aid or even produce pressure for government action by seeming to give this pressure intellectual justification and provide practical means
But what was the science saying and in whose view and interpretation? Greenleaf quotes one British government official at the end of the nineteenth century who wondered outloud, “I do not know who is to check the assertions of experts when the government once has undertaken a class of duties which none but such persons understand.”
Greenleaf discusses and details far, far more, and in many different and interesting directions, on the historical paths by which government has grown in a country such as Great Britain, than can be mentioned and summarized here. Some who have read this brief and very abridged summary of Greenleaf’s historical interpretation of the rise of collectivism may have noticed similarities with that of the libertarian economic historian Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan, which was published in 1987, a few years after Greenleaf’s work.
But how many of the younger generation of those interested in classical liberal and libertarian ideas have read or even heard of Higgs’s analysis of the “ratchet effect,” that when government grows during a crisis, it rarely returns in size and scope, as Greenleaf also explained, to the pre-crisis status quo? Understanding this process and the frequency with which it happens needs to be appreciated, because without it the friend of freedom may too easily fail to see that it is the reason that any and all increases in government activities have to be challenged before they are implemented and take effect, even when the cry is made that there is an emergency and government has to “do something.”
Once the ideologists of power and paternalism establish a new domain of social engineering, individuals and groups develop a vested interest in retaining and expanding the new government area of control, and reversing it becomes that much more difficult. Obamacare is a very recent example of that.
That is why those interested in liberty in all its facets — philosophical, personal, political, economic, social — must realize the importance of taking seriously the study of the ideas and history of freedom, and the challenges that have brought about the counterrevolution against a free society that we are once again confronting.
That is the message that one old geezer has for all the young whippersnappers who say they care about liberty.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.