Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty



Friedrich A. Hayek published The Constitution of Liberty in 1960. To mark the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary the IEA is issuing Eugene F. Miller’s Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty: An Account of Its Argument. Miller’s study is best seen as a companion to The Constitution of Liberty rather than as a replacement for it. The Constitution of Liberty is a large book, with its text running to over 400 pages with an additional 110 pages of notes. While Hayek makes a systematic argument throughout the book, at times he deals with the same ideas or concerns in different parts of the work. Miller pulls these scattered discussions together so that the reader can get a complete picture of Hayek’s argument.

Why is Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty worth revisiting at this late date? A look at the structure of Hayek’s work helps us to answer that question. In Part I, “The Value of Freedom”, Hayek offers an argument for the crucial importance of individual freedom, not only for the individuals exercising their freedom, but for society as a whole. Hayek was restating for the twentieth century a philosophical defence of freedom, just as John Stuart Mill had done in the nineteenth.

Part II examines “Freedom and the Law”. Hayek argues that the foundations for a free society are to be found in the Rule of Law. By this he does not mean “rule by laws”, because Rule of Law places limits on what government may legitimately do. The ideal of the Rule of Law requires that law must be general, it must be known and apply equally to all. Additionally, a Rule of Law regime has an independent judiciary, places limits on executive and legislative power, and safeguards fundamental individual rights and civil liberties.

In Part III, “Freedom in the Welfare State”, Hayek examines a number of contemporary policy issues on the basis of the principles established in the first part of the book. Many of these issues are still being debated in various countries today – social security, taxation, health care, housing and town planning, agriculture, and education. Hayek acknowledges that many government services can be provided in ways that do not violate his basic principles, but does argue against government monopoly in providing these services. Hayek argues that creativity thrives in an environment of competition, and that monopoly control of any activity tends to have a stultifying effect.

The dynamic of The Constitution of Liberty is generated by the tension between Hayek’s emphasis on individual liberty on the one hand and his emphasis on civilizational growth and societal evolution on the other. One indication of this tension is found in Hayek’s dedication of the work: “To the unknown civilization that is growing in America.” Rather than dedicating The Constitution of Liberty to “those individuals who blazed the trail to liberty” or to “the unknown and unborn individuals who will complete the foundation of the free society in generations to come,” a dedication that would emphasize the importance of the individual, Hayek highlights “the creative powers of a free civilization” (the title of chapter 2).

As a “methodological individualist”, Hayek emphasizes the role of individual action and argues against an organic view that holds that “society” somehow acts apart from and independently of the individuals who people it. In speaking of human knowledge Hayek writes, “Knowledge exists only as the knowledge of individuals. It is not much better than a metaphor to speak of the knowledge of society as a whole. The sum of the knowledge of all the individuals exists nowhere as an integrated whole.” But Hayek’s methodological individualism does not lead him to the view that men are atomistic individuals with no social connections, and he argues that “all rational thought moves within a non-rational framework of beliefs and institutions,” that is, within a social context.

Miller’s carefully crafted analysis of Hayek’s masterwork places The Constitution of Liberty in the context of Hayek’s intellectual development, and highlights the central argument for freedom that runs throughout the entire book.

See also “What ministers should learn from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty” by Philip Booth on ConservativeHome.

19 thoughts on “Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty”

  1. Posted 16/09/2010 at 10:54 | Permalink

    While I am an admirer of Hayek and have lectured on his work for many years, my heart does sink a bit when I see another post like this. What we want is a 21st century restatement of the case for liberty in the context of today’s total surveillance, zero privacy, religious fundamentalism, instant communication, political correctness, risk-aversity etc world. The years since Hayek’s death, and even more the years since he wrote The Consitution of Liberty, have seen mind-boggling changes in the economy and society. “To the unknown civilization that is growing in America” – we need a wider perspective than that today.

    I await the flak.

  2. Posted 16/09/2010 at 16:18 | Permalink

    RE: I await the flak.

    None from me. The liberty loving movement, including Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard have failed to produce a system of thought with enough explanatory power and enough institutional technology for the size and diversity of our division of knowledge and labor. Freedom requires a methodology. It cannot rest on the sentiment of freedom alone, because freedom was, is, and forever will be, the desire of the minority. The rest want only security and freedom FROM the challenges created by the vast division of knowledge, labor and creative destruction in a market economy, while at the same time, to obtain the benefits that economy provides. Liberty is a failing program.

  3. Posted 16/09/2010 at 16:19 | Permalink

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  4. Posted 16/09/2010 at 16:53 | Permalink

    Let me resume a discussion I started on an earlier blog.

    As European civilisation collapses before our eyes in a welter of mass unemployment and barbarism, I raise the issue that societies which elevate liberty as the supreme value do not survive for very long – a couple of hundred years at most.

    India and China have been civilised for thousands of years and have sustained themselves not on liberty, but on authority, obedience and order.


  5. Posted 16/09/2010 at 18:11 | Permalink

    Michael, an interesting point, but you have missed out the dire poverty in both India and China. It might be simple coincidence that free societies tend to be wealthier and so able to deal with poverty, but I doubt it.

    On Len’s point, again I can see the point he is making, but then isn’t the virtue of Hayek that his ideas still have a relevance even if the specific issues we apply them to have changed? If something has stood the test of time, why reject it because it is ‘old’?

  6. Posted 16/09/2010 at 19:12 | Permalink

    Dire poverty stubbornly persists in India, but China has brought a remarkably large number of people out of it in a remarkably short time. I made the observation in the earlier blog that eight engineers and a lawyer-economist hold the same despotic power over China as the Emperors did. So they solve problems in terms of what is possible from an engineering perspective, without worrying about bean-counting. They can form a coherent strategic vision of how to meet the physical needs of the people, and then implement it integrally, without opposition.

  7. Posted 16/09/2010 at 19:41 | Permalink

    Michael – Hayek was a great believer in authority, obedience and order (and tradition). The question is authority of what, obedience to what/whom and how should the order arise? He thought, for example, that the state should yield to the authority of the rule of law (just as the rest of society should – it is not the state that should carry all authority). Now, you would disagree with Hayek about from where the precepts of the law came (Hayek is not a believer in natural law as you are) but that does not matter too much in this particular debate.

  8. Posted 16/09/2010 at 19:45 | Permalink

    Len – genuinely surprised at your comment. It seems that the encroachment on our freedoms that people like us did not perhaps expect in the 1980s (all the surveillance stuff and so on) were exactly what was anticipated by Hayek. And the problems he diagnoses are very relevant – the raising of other things above freedom, the authority of the state above the rule of law, arbitrary regulation and tribunals as the principle tool of regulation of economic life, the suppression of the common law to be replaced by discretionary law, and so on. The specific economic questions can, of course, but that does not matter. His debate about constitutions versus tradition was highly relevant in the Blair era.

  9. Posted 16/09/2010 at 20:39 | Permalink

    What I’m doing, Philip, is playing Devil’s advocate. I’m raising the issue of whether civilisations like that of China are not more survivable than our Western systems, which have a history which is short by comparison.

  10. Posted 16/09/2010 at 21:23 | Permalink

    Philip, might it be that ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the more prescient book?

    And Michael, I’m not sure it is correct to see Chinese civilisation as being more or less consistent and coherent than that of the West. Might your view on China be one of looking through the wrong end of the telescope and not seeing things in sufficient detail?

  11. Posted 17/09/2010 at 02:39 | Permalink

    RE: “I raise the issue that societies which elevate liberty as the supreme value do not survive for very long”

    To maintain freedom requires two things: 1) institutions that enforce property rights 2) the willingness by the freedom seeking minority to use violence to preserve their freedom.

    Non-violence avoids the entire problem of defending property, land, trade routes and institutions that make economic calculation and coordination possible from theft and fraud. Non violence is simply an attempt to obtain freedom at a discount.

    As the leisure class will lead to socialism, the freedom-loving class will abandon defense of freedom – each out of convenience made possible by freedom.

  12. Posted 17/09/2010 at 05:24 | Permalink

    The China of today is as much “Chinese Civilization” as today’s America and Europe are “European Civilization” — both have thus been around for a few thousand years, or they have not been around for long at all. Communist China was certainly a grand deviation from traditional Chinese Civilization. In fact, Chinese Civilization, like all others, is and was in fact a dynamic, changing system. Talking about Chinese Civilization as such is like talking about France today as though it hadn’t changed since the Gauls.

  13. Posted 17/09/2010 at 05:28 | Permalink

    I don’t refer to the consistency and coherence of Chinese civilisation. I refer to its sheer duration and its survivability into the future.

    The material basis of Chinese civilisation is the fertility of the soil caused by her two great rivers. Western European civilisation is based on Rome, a comparatively young civilisation based on the Mediterranean Sea which is but an extension of the Nile.

    In terms of the ideas that sustained European civilisation, these were based on Judaeo-Christian religion and on Greek and Roman thought and practice. Having lost the first it is likely to be in terminal collapse.

  14. Posted 17/09/2010 at 08:22 | Permalink

    Michael – fair enough. However, I don’t think that China – even currently – exists as a strong civilisation under either what Hayek would call or you or I would call the rule of law. You are absolutely right about China bringing people out of poverty but I don’t accept the other aspects of Chinese policy.

    Peter – possibly, though I think CoL is richer (and Fatal Conceit more interesting in terms of precisely diagnosing the problems with socialism)

  15. Posted 17/09/2010 at 13:32 | Permalink

    True, the Chinese have rule by law as opposed to the rule of law. The point is, their system works. Jeremy Warner wrote this in the Daily Telegraph today:

    “If Boris Johnson were mayor of Tianjin, a vast urban sprawl to the east of Beijing where I’ve been staying for the past week, he’d already have his new airport in the Thames estuary up and running. He’d also have a new metro system, Crossrail, a couple of nuclear power plants and high-speed rail links to all the UK’s other major conurbations for good measure.”


  16. Posted 17/09/2010 at 13:39 | Permalink


    He’d also have a sea-ful of marine and wind turbines all buzzing with activity and making the UK a net energy exporter. In the world he lives in, the bean counters wouldn’t let him. In China, they’d be told to shut up, and the government would print whatever money they didn’t have up front. And the bean counters would obey because the Chinese are characteristically obedient to whomever has the Mandate of Heaven and they know what happens to those who disobey.

    And so the freedom-seeking minority in the West

  17. Posted 17/09/2010 at 13:41 | Permalink

    (sorry about that – I hit the submit button by mistake)

    And so the freedom-seeking minority in the West finds itself powerless before the sheer physical colossus of resurgent China.

    As Sun-Tzu said, the successful general gives battle only when victory has already been won.

  18. Posted 17/09/2010 at 21:52 | Permalink

    Michael Petek

    I don’t think our freedom has much to do with china. And I don’t think your analysis of chinese civilization is resting on any quantitative analysis, and it certainly isn’t resting on strategic analysis. Chinese strategy, was, is, and will likely remain china expressly because it is VULNERABLE. It is vunlerable on a hundred different axis. and it’s temporary housing boom and importation of western technology will not alter it’s vulerability.

    You make the same mistake with France. France is much different now than it was under the Gauls unless you compare it to other nations at which point it is still more similar to it’s history than other nations are similar to france.

  19. Posted 17/09/2010 at 21:53 | Permalink

    We are losing our freedom because our freedom seeking minority was too willing to give up political power, and the violence necessary to retain it. There is no reason to give up political power to extend property rights to all. THese two institutions are separate in purpose.

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