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Hayekian Courage

Mises Daily: Thursday, May 19, 2011 by

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[From Investor's Business Daily (1999). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Steven Ng, is available for download.]

FA Hayek, WWI pilot

Friedrich Hayek faced every challenge with the same attitude: never let fear get a toehold. A native of Austria and a member of the Austro-Hungarian military in World War I, Hayek scouted enemy artillery from the air. It was hazardous duty. Spotters' biplanes were often shot down.

''Once the Italians practically caught us, one in front, firing through the propeller,'' Hayek recounted years later. ''When they started firing, my pilot … started spiraling down.''

Rather than cowering, Hayek took action. ''I unbelted myself, climbed on the rail. My pilot succeeded in correcting the spin just above the ground.''[1]

Hayek (1899–1992), perhaps the 20th century's most influential defender of free markets and liberty, carried that same daring into the academic field.

''Clearly, he had no intellectual fear,'' said Greg Ransom, a Hayek scholar and philosophy professor at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California. ''He just did what he thought was right.''

Hayek, who at first favored socialist thought, became one of its fiercest critics. A free-market advocate in the '30s, when socialists controlled many of the world's capitalist countries, Hayek wouldn't be dissuaded.

No Compromise

Despite the jeers that greeted him in the universities where he taught and the forums where he lectured, Hayek was stoic in the face of criticism. In fact, his belief in his theories was so unshakable he never softened his stance.

''He wasn't afraid to speak out and lead [even though it] inevitably would trash his career and reputation in the leftist atmosphere of the '30s through the '60s,'' Ransom said.

But knowing he'd be vindicated, he held his ground during a career that included teaching posts in London, Chicago, and Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.

By the early '70s, he was proved right. The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes had become suspect. Inflation was rampant while unemployment remained high, a combination Keynesian doctrine could not explain.

Solutions would be found in Hayek's ideas. He gained the ultimate recognition when he was corecipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in '74.

Throughout his career, Hayek was as kind to his critics — he was viciously and personally criticized for his landmark work, The Road to Serfdom — as he was to friends.

He befriended his intellectual rivals, including Keynes. Hayek's gentlemanly approach helped him gain influence among — and eventually convert — those who once opposed him.

''In the long run, I think he made a bigger impact on people because of it,'' said Tom Palmer of the Cato Institute.

Unafraid of different viewpoints, he'd hold open seminars at the London School of Economics. Hayek used those opportunities to gather as much information from others as he could.

''He always had his antenna up,'' Ransom said.

The free discourse was sometimes hostile, the rancor often directed at Hayek.

But that didn't faze him. Hayek refused to accept such criticism as anything other than an opportunity. The seminars ''taught me more economics than anything else,'' Hayek said.

''It created a dynamic intellectual environment,'' said Ransom, who maintains a website dedicated to Hayek. ''His own view was wider because he took into consideration so much.''

In fact, it was his willingness to learn from others that led Hayek to his free-market views. As a young student, he was a ''mild'' socialist, believing that ''sharing the wealth'' was an intelligent solution to the world's problems.

But he changed his point of view after reading Ludwig von Mises's economic critique of socialist thought. The more he learned about economics, the more Hayek realized that socialism promised more than it could deliver. It was impossible to centrally control a wide range of people and interests.

Recalling the difficulties the Austro-Hungarian army had in coordinating soldiers speaking 11 different languages, he understood that socialism was not the answer.

Well-Rounded

Hayek always sought stimulating opinions. The son of a physician-botanist father and an intellectual mother, Hayek and his three brothers were encouraged to read and discuss ideas instead of playing with other children. The siblings often talked with their parents' scholarly friends.

Hayek carried his curiosity to all areas of his life. He could learn from a joke as well as a colleague. He read the London Times Literary Supplement for tips on what books would keep him well-rounded.

When reading, Hayek would sit in an easy chair, his books piled around him. He'd write notes on five-by-eight-inch cards, using his knees as a writing surface.

Mises Academy: Tom DiLorenzo teaches The Road to Serfdom: Then and Now

He'd type his notes only after he'd mentally digested the reading material.

''He believed [you] should learn your field inside and out,'' said Stephen Kresge, editor of Hayek's collected works.

Hayek remained extremely disciplined about his work. During most of his life, he worked ''all morning and then again in the evening,'' Hayek recalled. He'd read the newspaper, then read or write for two solid hours; he followed a similar evening routine.

He made a point of separating his reading and writing periods so he could focus completely on one or the other. Sometimes, he would go up to three months at a time reading and not writing, or vice versa.

Notes

[1] Editor's Note: The rail Hayek is referring to is likely the rail on which the observer's machine gun was mounted. Hayek was probably getting ready to jump just before the plane hit the ground. Many thanks to Steve Suddaby and Theodore Huscher of Over the Front for their expertise.