F.A. Hayek on Intellectual vs. Economic Freedom

Can intellectual freedom survive without economic liberty?

Today is Friedrich Hayek’s 116th birthday, and so I thought I’d celebrate the great economist and classical liberal thinker with an excerpt from his wonderful treatise The Constitution of Liberty, on the relationship between freedom of thought and freedom of action.

Leftist thinkers have (traditionally, at least) vigorously defending intellectual liberty — the right to speak, to think, and to write as you saw fit — but refused to even acknowledge freedom of action, dismissing it as merely an “economic” rather than a “fundamental” liberty.

Hayek not only rejected this distinction, he further argued for the crucial relationship between the freedom to act, even in the most basic sense, and the flow of new ideas to the intellectual sphere:

The manner in which we have learned to order our day, to dress, to eat, to arrange our houses, to speak and write, and to use the countless other tools and implements of civilization, no less than the “know-how” of production and trade, furnishes us constantly with the foundations on which our own contributions to the process of civilization must be based. And it is in the new use and improvement of whatever the facilities of civilization offer us that the new ideas arise that are ultimately handled in the intellectual sphere.

Though the conscious manipulation of abstract thought, once it has been set in train, has in some measure a life of its own, it would not long continue and develop without the constant challenges that arise from the ability of people to act in a new manner, to try new ways of doing things, and to alter the whole structure of civilization in adaptation to change.

The intellectual process is in effect, only a process of elaboration, selection, and elimination of ideas already formed. And the flow of new ideas, to a great extent, springs from the sphere in which action, often non-rational action, and material events impinge upon each other. It would dry up if freedom were confined to the intellectual sphere.

The importance of freedom, therefore, does not depend on the elevated character of the activities it makes possible. Freedom of action, even in humble things, is as important as freedom of thought.

It has become a common practice to disparage freedom of action by calling it “economic liberty.” But the concept of freedom of action is much wider than that of economic liberty, which includes; and, what is more important, it is very questionable whether there are any actions which can be called merely “economic” and whether any restrictions on liberty can be confined to what are called merely “economic” aspects.

Economic considerations are merely those by which we reconcile and adjust our different purposes, none of which, in the last resort, are economic. 

Economic liberty is neither severable from intellectual freedom, nor the most basic concerns of human life. Freedom of action is the lifeblood of innovation, not just in industry but in ideas.

“Commercial” or “economic” liberty is inseparable from our more supposedly “essential” freedoms because it is the means by which we achieve most of what we want out of life — which, as Hayek points out, is not money but happiness, health, security, and love.

Here’s more on Hayek’s legacy today from Reason's Brian Doherty, David Boaz at Cato, as well as some more great resources from FEE.

I especially recommend Brian Summers’ 1977 Freeman essay “The Division of Knowledge,” as well as Hayek’s own “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which is pound for pound the most insightful thing written about economics, markets, and central planning in the last century.

Further Reading

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