(The University of Chicago Press, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637) 244 pages • $14.00 cloth
F. A. Hayek, 1974 Nobel laureate in economics, is the foremost living exponent of classical liberalism, the philosophy which largely dominated economic and political thinking and policies during the nineteenth century in Great Britain, America, and to a large extent the Continent—until World War I.
The ideal of classical liberalism was individual liberty, promoted through limited government and the free market. Among Hayek’s intellectual forebears, as the footnotes to this volume testify, are John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.
The aim of the volume under review is to provide “a guide out of the process of degeneration of the existing form of government, and to construct an intellectual emergency equipment which will be available when we have no choice but to replace the tottering structure by some better edifice rather than resort in despair to some sort of dictatorial regime.”
He continues, “Government is of necessity the product of intellectual design. If we can give it a shape in which it provides a beneficial framework for the growth of society, without giving to any one power to control this growth in the particular, we may well hope to see the growth of civilization continue.”
In 1960 Hayek wrote The Constitution of Liberty, a major attempt to restate the principles of classical liberalism for modern readers. Law, Legislation and Liberty in three slender volumes, was intended to fill the gaps left by that work, but is actually a comprehensive philosophical statement in its own right.
The first volume in the series, Rules and Order (1973), deals with the distinction between legislative law and natural or “grown” law, and its implications for freedom. Volume 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976), attacks the widespread contemporary belief in political redistribution and “social justice” (the latter a myth, Hayek argues).
Hayek argues persuasively that modern society has destroyed the original conception of the legislature, and that as a consequence there has been a miscarriage of the democratic ideal. Ours has become a “bargaining democracy,” in which government is little more than the football of special interests.
In tracing precisely how and why this situation arose, Hayek confronts the central flaw of modern democracy: the notion of government as sugar daddy, confiscating income and doling it out to those with the greatest political clout. To halt this destructive process, Hayek urges “the containment of power and the dethronement of politics,” together with the rules which permit the formation of a “spontaneous order” in which law is king and government has neither a mandate nor the power to achieve particular—as opposed to general—ends. He logically demonstrates the inconsistency of a centralized, governmentally-controlled society with freedom. The two, he insists, are incompatible.
Hayek’s astounding intellectual range encompasses politics, philosophy, economics, anthropology, sociology and the history of ideas. His language is nontechnical, possessing clarity of style and thought. The book has a consistency, brilliance, insight and accessibility rarely found among thinkers of any age, much less our own. Reading Hayek is a bracing experience, something like the intellectual equivalent of drinking from a cold, clear brook.