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Friedrich Hayek’s individualism is not the Rousseauian individualism of the person stripped naked of all his relations and his history, but rather that of Edmund Burke, with each person both encumbered and liberated by the little platoons to which we all belong…

hayekSometime during the early to mid-1980s, I encountered the work of Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992). Most likely, I first read something by him due to the influence of that Master of High School Debate and Forensic Thought, Greg Rehmke. Yet, it would have been hard to have come of age during the Reagan-Thatcher years without having heard of Hayek. The news made reference to the Nobel-prize winning economist repeatedly during that decade.

However I came to him, I do very much remember I was rather smitten from the first. He struck me not only as a grand Catholic and European gentleman, but—from the perspective of a teenager, at least—also as the ideal scholar. Having grown up in Austria, he had fought (at least intellectually) against the Nazis, had hung out with some amazing folks, and had taught at one of the most prestigious universities in America (through a privately-funded position, thus adding to my view of his integrity). What was not to like? He became an integral part of my pantheon of demigods and heroes, along with Robert J. Ringer, Neil Peart, Gary Gygax, Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, Leon Uris, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, Ursula LeGuin, and Ray Bradbury.

It was not until my senior year of college, 1989-1990, that I came to understand what a powerful mind Hayek possessed, though, well beyond that of mere public intellectual. That understanding came mostly from Walter Grinder and Leonard Liggio of the Institute for Humane Studies and several younger scholars, such as Chandran Kukathas, David Schmidtz, David Hart, David Beito, and Pete Boettke. I admire(d) all these men profoundly, and I was rather stunned that they took me as seriously as they did. I’m not at all sure what I did to earn their favor and attention, but I thank the God Lord they noticed me, for they gave me not only intellectual nourishment, but also strength of character and a confidence that I had something worth saying and contributing. Whatever hell I went through while earning my Ph.D. (and, it could be dreadful), I had the confidence of great men.

Through these mentors, I found out rather quickly that Hayek wrote not only about economics, but also about law, constitutionalism, culture, history, individualism, associationalism, psychology, the social sciences, and the Greats of Western Civilization. He was, I realized, a true Renaissance man, in the very best sense of this term. As a history major, though, I tried very hard to apply all that I’d learned of Hayek to my own chosen craft. Sometime around 1992, it hit me that all real history came down to biography. Whether or not the generous mentors listed above or Friedrich Hayek would recognize my statement as true, I must attribute this insight to them and their influence. Indeed, if I have had any success at contributing anything to the fields of history or biography, it is this extremely Hayekian insight.

It was Hayek’s article on “The Knowledge Problem” that first grabbed my academic attention. In that wise and influential piece, the great Austrian reiterated the statement of his friend and mentor, Ludwig Von Mises, from his 1920 book, Socialism. Socialism—and all planned economies—fails precisely because it can never gather enough “knowledge” to regulate prices properly. There are, simply put, too many variables, especially when one takes into account the free decisions made by millions, if not billions, of actors. Though Hayek and Mises put this in serious economic language, I tried my best to put this into historical language. Here was my first attempt:

If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is that reality (and, consequently, history) is incredibly complex. Every minute of every day, the five billion plus individuals of the world make numerous decisions based on whim, emotion, faith, and logic. Their choices, of course, are not unlimited. All live in polities and cultures constrained by authority and power and in economies marked by regulations and scarce resources. The sum of these billions of decisions makes local, regional, national, continental, and global history. As individuals we, ourselves, are often unsure of our actions. We are less certain of others’ actions. Though it may be overwhelming, by recognizing the intricacies of life, we will be better able to study the world in all its wonder and perplexity.

Though I wrote and published this paragraph in 1999, I think it still represents the essence of everything I have tried to argue—here at The Imaginative Conservative and elsewhere—over the last two decades. For anyone who has read Hayek, you’ll readily recognize that I could have been “none more Hayekian,” to paraphrase the comedian and actor, Lord Christopher Guest.

Yet, it’s much more than an application of the “knowledge problem” to historical thinking. Two other Hayekian concepts matter for history and biography as well. First, there’s Hayek’s eighteenth-century conception of spontaneous order, a concept that is as much Burkean as it is Smithian. Frankly, it’s much older than Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and is, in fact, inherently Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, rooted in the development of the common law, beyond the memory of man. Law and language each reveal that true “systems” come not from the mind of man, but from the experience of men. No one created the jury system or habeas corpus. They were already written in the depths of nature and creation. Men, through conflict and experience, merely discovered them.

Second, and finally, there’s Hayek’s rather Burkean and Tocquevillian notion of “methodological individualism.” While the employment of the term “individual” might easily frustrate or even anger conservatives, Hayek meant it in the sense that a conservative means personalism. His individualism is not the Rousseauian individualism of the person stripped naked of all his relations and his history, but rather that of Burke, with each person both encumbered and liberated by the little platoons to which we all belong.

Hayek has also a mixed reputation among conservatives because of his relationship—sometimes tumultuous—with Russell Kirk. Had the neoterism existed in the 1950s, one might very well have labeled the two men “frenemies.” Certainly, the relationship the two shared was not only critical for each in their own personal intellectual development, but also critical for the movement against all ideologies in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only had Hayek attempted to get Kirk a position at the University of Chicago, but he had also directed his famous 1957 speech, “Why I am Not a Conservative” against Kirk and T.S. Eliot and their European allies. A friendly argument, Kirk immediately took the stage and debated Hayek on the issue. Each was a Whig, a Burkean, a lover of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a Tocquevillian. Each cherished spontaneous order and common law.

It is not for nothing that Pope John Paul II recognized Friedrich Hayek as one of the greatest and most important Catholic scholars of the twentieth century, though the grand Austrian had long ceased to practice his faith.

Whether or not Hayek, Grinder, Liggio, or of their students would recognize what I’ve done to the great man’s thought, I am rather proud to wear the badge and label of “Hayekian.” All of us who are a part of Winston Elliott’s little platoon, The Imaginative Conservative, would do well to take Friedrich August von Hayek very seriously, especially as we venture toward the middle third of the twenty-first century.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thank you for this article. Coming from an “Ayn Rand” libertarian mindset to the Catholic faith I’ve struggled to reconcile my understanding of “individualism” with the faith. The distinction you made between Rousseau’s individualism and Hayek’l personalism was enlightening. I also didn’t realize Pope John Paul II held Hayek in such high regard which gives me more peace yet.

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