All Commentary
Monday, August 1, 1960

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1960/8

It is as an “Old Whig,” not as a New Conservative, that Friedrich A. Hayek addresses his public in his monumental essay on the na­ture and principles of a free so­ciety, The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 570 pp., $7.50).

By “old Whiggery,” Hayek means to imply the philosophy that animated Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, Tocqueville, and Macaulay, all of whom believed that true freedom consisted of a constitutional dispensation that guaranteed to every man his legal “independence of the arbitrary will of another.” Since the word “liberal” has been conscripted by Fabian socialists and many shades of interventionists to describe their own brands of Statism, and since the word “conservative” might indicate a willingness to use the powers of the State to protect certain favored groups against change, Hayek’s label for himself will probably do as well as any. (He rejects the word “libertarian” as a clumsy fabrica­tion.) But Americans who have learned to associate the word Whig with the names of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who supported the “American System” of using the tariff to pay for “in­ternal improvements” that did not necessarily benefit the various citizens or sections of the nation equally, should be careful to make no mistake about what Hayek be­lieves. He is not a tariff man, nor does he advocate arbitrary rejig­gering of personal incomes by way of the selective subsidies that seem inseparable from federal sponsorship of “internal improve­ments.”

So much for clearing the nature of Hayek’s self-chosen party label. Inasmuch as the book is about principles and their application, the question of “what-should-the­-true-liberal-call-himself” is not too important. What is important is that Hayek, an Austrian, has thought longer and harder about the heritage bequeathed to Ameri­cans by James Madison than al­most any modern native-born American you could name. This in itself does not bode well for our freedom. Americans, taking James Madison and the U.S. Constitution for granted, have let slippery semanticists redefine the original Madisonian constructions to mean their opposites. For example, the Madisonian phrase, “general wel­fare,” no longer implies benefits that accrue to everybody; in the modern context it means particu­lar exemptions from the rules that govern the generality. Lazy and slack about their verbalisms, Americans no longer know what Madison meant—or even said. Hayek, on the other hand, has been compelled by the exigencies of a European life to think hard about meanings. As an Austrian he grew up in the shadow of the neighboring Bismarckian Social Service State of Prussia, and he has seen at firsthand how the seemingly innocuous doctrines of “socialists of the chair” can lead to concentration camps and war. The moral would seem to be that liberty must be periodically lost in order to wake up its defenders; it is not safe in the hands of those who have never known its absence.

The Twilight Zones of Liberty

If sheer thinking could change this, would Americans be saved in the future because of Hayek’s book? In general, I think they would. But Hayek seems to be ir­resistibly drawn to a considera­tion of the hard cases that make for bad law—and one cannot be certain that his long and some­times tortuous attempts to explore the twilight zones where the practice of freedom is difficult will help his readers to be clear about basic principle. The reader’s troubles multiply particularly in the section of the book devoted to “Freedom in the Welfare State.” Take Hayek’s chapter on social security, for instance. Hayek is obviously in favor of a “poor law” that will enable government to provide for “the extremes of old age, unemployment, sickness, etc.” People, says Hayek, just can’t be left in “need,” and local charities must at least be supplemented by national attention. “The necessity of some such arrangement in an industrial society,” says Hayek, “is unquestioned—be it only in the interest of those who require pro­tection against acts of desperation on the part of the needy.”

The trouble with this is that “need” in the modern State has come to include just about every­thing from television sets to vaca­tions in whatever is the closest equivalent to Florida. The claims for large federal supplements to local charity thus become irresist­ible.

As a practical matter of going from the “here” of our present “unitary” social security system to the “there” of universal voluntary insurance on a decentralized basis, Hayek’s proposal that “co­ercion” be maintained to “require everybody to make provisions of a kind which only some had made before” may constitute good “in­terim” common sense. The trick would be to compel everybody to prove via a declaration on the income tax statement—that he or she is insured somewhere, with exemption from compulsory gov­ernment insurance being granted to those who choose to take out policies with private companies. But to keep our minds clear on the subject, such a proposal should be labeled as a faute de mieux in­fringement of principle, not as something that is in consonance with principle itself. Hayek tries to argue that free men have the need to employ the coercion of compulsory insurance to “protect themselves against the conse­quences of the extreme misery of their fellows.” Well, it may be practical politics and even good business to force people to pro­vide for their retirement. But it is only by doing violence to the language that it can be described as part of the “constitution of liberty” itself.

Urban Renewal and Zoning

When he tackles the subject of town planning, Hayek is disturbed by the fact that if one man neg­lects his property, it must have “neighborhood effects” that in­evitably drag down the values of the surrounding real estate. Re­garded in this light, zoning and even compulsory slum clearance can be thought of as bulwarks of the value of private property, even though they may infringe the principle of private ownership it­self. Hayek tries to introduce the concept of the municipality as a sort of “superior owner,” with “superior rights” to determine the “character of a large district to be developed.” Again, his approach may be commended as a “practical politics” that is preferable to out­right government seizure of the urban landscape. But his attempt to make such things as compul­sory control of “neighborhood ef­fects” a more or less integral part of the “constitution of liberty” is not conducive to clarity in think­ing. It would have been better if Hayek had let expediency remain labeled as such, leaving the basic principle to stand unencumbered. Once one has accepted the moral desirability of free land use, one can then move on to the esthetic need for positive voluntary substi­tutes for the compulsory zoning principle. There is, for example, Mr. Spencer Heath’s suggestion that small property holders pool their titles in order to get the benefits of planned “neighbor- hood control” without charging the costs to society. This proposal is something that Dr. Hayek might have elaborated on with profit to his own general theory of free­dom.

As to the general proposition of freedom, Hayek wisely observes that it requires a basic frame­work of law. And the protections offered by the law must be the same for all men. The free society must be prepared to accept the fact that unequal results will flow from treating unequals equally under the law. This may offend humanitarians. But if it does, there is nothing to prevent them from raising funds voluntarily to make things easier for the people who have had less talent, less money, or less luck than their fel­lows.

When it comes to taxation, the principle of equality under the law must rule out the progressive income tax. In championing the proportional income tax, Hayek would make exceptions for the lowest brackets on the ground that they are already paying a bigger proportion of their income to the government in the form of hidden taxes.

Whether the equal application of the rule of law can guarantee a free society might in itself be an arguable point. It is obviously a palpable infringement of a city laboring man’s freedom when he is taxed—and progressively taxed, at that—to provide a subsidy for a farmer who may live on the other side of the continent. But what if a government, by demo­cratic majority decision, were to vote a proportional capital levy on everybody, rich and poor alike, to pay for some hypothetically incon­testable general benefit. In such a case nobody would be compelled to obey the “arbitrary” will of an­other; all would have been done legally, and everybody in society would remain in his same relative place. Nevertheless, 49 per cent of the population might feel ag­grieved—and very much unfree.

It may be stretching things too far to suggest that a society would ever vote to oppress all its members equally: where taxes are proportional, for example, there will be a general interest in so­ciety to keep them at a point where they will not bear down too inexorably on anybody. Moreover, under Hayek’s “constitution of liberty” there would be all the familiar checks on precipitate ac­tion. In a good Rechtstaat the or­dinary courts would settle dis­putes arising from administrative acts, an upper legislative chamber would prevent too hasty legisla­tion by a lower, a Ninth Amend­ment (or its equivalent) would forestall the usurpation of individual or states’ rights by central government, and the executive himself would be bound by laws—and also by limiting the funds at his disposal.

Hayek is enough of a believer in human nature to feel that peo­ple will behave under civil liberty if they aren’t tempted by the doc­trines of socialism into doing things that involve treating in­dividual wealth and talent as if it were a pool belonging to the na­tion. He feels that socialism itself has been discredited by recent ex­periences in Europe. As for State Welfarism, Hayek is less sanguine that people will learn to distin­guish between the provision of common amenities and the use of government to insure that particu­lar people get particular things. We could, he thinks, still slip into socialism and serfdom via an at­tempt to legislate a “more just distribution of goods.”

To an American—and very probably to an English—reader, The Constitution of Liberty will be doubly valuable because Hayek, a continental European, has drawn widely from non-Anglo-Saxon ex­perience to illustrate his points. The 113 pages of notes bearing on the text are almost incredibly rich; they are conveniently set up in the rear of the book with direc­tions laid out so that one may get the proper reference at a glance.

To steal from Winston Churchill, never was so much scholarship made so easily available to so many in so small a space.

The Idea Of A College by Elton Trueblood

(Harper. 207 pp. $4.00.)

Reviewed by Edwin McDowell

The College exists, writes Dr. Trueblood, erudite professor of philosophy at Indiana‘s Erlham College, for the sake of producing significant changes in the lives of those who enter the community voluntarily in the hope of personal improvement. Its purpose is to re­move students from the partial worlds which are the product of their own misguided imaginations and distorted viewpoints, in order to introduce them to the “only world that is or ever will be.”

Of the major types of academic establishments in America, the liberal arts college provides the characteristic and central pattern of higher education. Although pri­vate in the sense that it receives no money from government, the college is in fact a “public” insti­tution, the author maintains, in that it serves the entire nation in­stead of existing for the profit of its owners; and, until recently, despite the existence of tax sup­ported institutions, it has served the majority of American stu­dents. Professor Trueblood points with pride to a study by two Wes­leyan University professors which revealed that of the 50 institutions which have, per capita, contribu­ted the most toward science, 39 of them were those with independent boards and support, usually com­paratively small, and with a Chris­tian emphasis.

It is the author’s concern with Christian ideals which dominates much of the book. He traces the combination of the love of God and the love of learning to our early colonialists, explaining how most of the great early colleges—even a number of state universi­ties—were built on Christian prin­ciples. “No scholar . . . can hope to understand American culture,” he says, “if he does not study care­fully the immense impact of the Christian college upon the total American life.”

This Christian emphasis, which Professor Trueblood sadly admits is disappearing from many col­leges, is rarely devoted either to religious studies or to denomina­tional instruction of its members. Instead, it is devoted to emphasiz­ing the reality of human freedom and the responsibility which is meaningless apart from this free­dom; further, it spurs the Chris­tian scholar to search always for the truth because it is God’s truth that he is trying to discover. (For example, writes Dr. Trueblood, “The Christian psychologist will learn from Freud; but he will also learn from Augustine, and his study of the Bishop of Hippo will enable him to see some of the self-contradictions which are to be found in the work of the doctor of Vienna.”

Although the need for the pres­ervation of Christian principles in the colleges is the theme of Pro­fessor Trueblood’s message, he pens many other words of wisdom which college officials would do well to heed. Together with warn­ing against emulating the Russian educational system, he also re­minds us it is not necessary for viewpoints to be represented in order for them to be presented. “Because a good Christian scholar can present dialectical materialism with real fairness, at the same time expressing his own criticism, it is not necessary to employ an avowed communist on the faculty.”

“Colleges are bound to have an effect upon the outcome of current history,” Professor Trueblood warns. “If we succeed in destroy­ing the race, that will be partly because of what has been devel­oped in colleges; and if we come out into a brighter day, that, too, in part, will be because of what college men and women have thought. Ivory towers are among the most productive of human structures.”

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.