Friedrich August von Hayek was born on this day in 1899. Those of you who have followed me for some time are likely aware that no person has influenced my outlook on governance more than Hayek. When I first encountered Hayek’s writings in 2005, I never could have imagined the extent to which his ideas would affect my life.
Today, in honor of his birthday, I want to celebrate the single most important aspect of Hayek’s work: his message of humility, which sits at the core of Hayek’s philosophy—from economics to politics—and binds everything together.
Hayek’s key insight was that, in all of humanity’s pursuits, it was essential to recognize the limits of human knowledge. In his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek noted that economists had been mischaracterizing society’s economic problem. The issue isn’t simply how to allocate scarce resources but rather “how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.”
Hayek pointed out that this dispersed knowledge, which he called “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place,” could be rapidly and effectively shared only through a system of decentralization, with planning divided among countless individuals instead of being done by a central authority.
With respect to the development of society, Hayek warned against “constructivist rationalism,” the belief that anything not consciously designed or fully intelligible should be discarded. Here again, he emphasized the importance of humility. Humans are irrational, fallible, and incapable of understanding all the social processes that have brought about modern civilization. Our most cherished customs and institutions are the product of hundreds or thousands of years of evolution, reflecting what Hayek described as a spontaneous or emergent order. This fact was not an argument against change but an admonition for respect and caution.
Finally, nothing better represented Hayek’s call to humility, or had a more profound impact on my work as a representative, than his views on governance. Central to Hayek’s approach was his belief in the Rule of Law. This means, first, that laws should be limited to the provision of general rules of just conduct. Proper laws are not specific commands; instead, they establish a framework of expectations within which people are free to pursue their own ends. Such a system allows diversity to flourish, while centralized power smothers it.
A second fundamental component of the Rule of Law is the concept of equality before the law. Targeted corporate welfare and other forms of favoritism are wrong not only because they’re unjust but also because they ascribe to the state a knowledge about best uses and ultimate outcomes that the state cannot possess. Equality before the law is therefore not only a protection against injustice but also an expression of humility.
There’s a lot more I could write about Hayek, but I’ll have to leave it there for now. I hope you’ll check out his writing, especially his essays (such as the one linked above) found in Individualism and Economic Order and The Market and Other Orders. Let me know what you think!
Happy birthday, F.A. Hayek!
Excellent Justin! Happy Birthday Freidrich Hayek!