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Hayek, probably the deepest thinker of the twentieth century.

July 28, 2009

Hayek was not translated into Italian for a very long time. In the early eighties my dad and I read a review of a newly reprinted book of his in the newspaper and we bought a copy. It was a bit technical and I had no background in economics at the time. In fact I think it was a series of essays. I showed it to my friend Giancarlo and he also gave it a try. We then proceeded to debate the book to no end, as it was with every thing. One Sunday afternon we started debating around lunch time. The next time we checked the clock it was ten at night and we had forgotten to eat dinner. I don’t remember much about those essays, except that one we discussed a lot was about Hayek’s idea of denationalizing money. The funny thing was that Giancarlo was in my mind always more statist and I usually took the “anarchist” side. And yet we could read the same sentence in Hayek and both think that it was a great confirmation of our theory. Well, Hayek is like that: controversial, misintepreted, ignored, deep and truly neither-left-nor right. He wrote books titled “the errors of socialism” and penned essays titled “why I’m not a conservative”.

In college I continued reading Hayek’s books. Most notably his huge “Law, Legislation and Liberty”. And Hayek never left me, I read it on and off, in graduate school and then later too. I’m still reading it: he lived into his nineties and wrote in several fields not just Economics, but also Psychology, etc…Some people find it hard to read. He has a way of writing long convoluted sentences, German style, where every word and adjective is actually crucial.

One of Hayek’s biggest insights is that the task of the “student of society” is to explain observed regularities, arising “orders”, that are the unintended consequences of many individual actions, but are not the result of anyone’s design. See how it’s already pretty hard to be concise? To illustrate the concept, Hayek talked about the beautiful footpaths that form along a mountain slope: they’re clearly orderly, they’re the result of many many individual actions, but the actual shape and placement is not anyone’s design.

If I had to name one idea that I think is Hayek’s biggest contribution to twentieth century thought it would be this passage:

“Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.”

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From → Hayek

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