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Peter J. Boettke, F. A. Hayek. Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy

Stefan Kolev
p. 183-186
Référence(s) :

Peter J. Boettke, F. A. Hayek. Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 350 pages, ISBN 978-113741160-0

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Crédits : Palgrave Macmillan

1The intellectual heritage of Austrian economist and social philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992) is not in good shape today. Instead of Margaret Thatcher, who during her lifetime found her credo reflected in Hayek’s works, it is today the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon who loudly adorns himself with Hayek. In Europe, organizations named after Hayek openly flirt with the growing New Right. And in the social media, the theories of the 1974 Nobel laureate are quite often extremely simplified and not seldom abused for political messages. It is against this background that Peter J. Boettke, economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and until recently president of the Mont Pèlerin Society co-founded by Hayek in 1947, has written his new book. Boettke’s central concern is to oppose the simplifications and misappropriations of Hayek’s theories. He succeeds in doing so by simultaneously targeting two rather different groups of readers. On the one hand, his captivating portrayal of Hayek’s life and work makes it easy for students and for laymen in economics to find access to Hayek’s multifaceted system of thought. On the other hand, Hayek’s scholars can equally profit from the book, since Boettke presents here his original, decades-long in-depth examination of the Austrian School and also contextualizes the Austrian contributions amid the systems of numerous other thinkers.

2The book is divided into eleven chapters. At the very beginning of chapter 1, Boettke lists ten common misunderstanding about Hayek which are reproduced here and whose clarifications constitute a mainline of the book:

  1. Hayek’s methodological individualism was based upon atomistic actors who are perfectly rational.

  2. Hayek saw the price system as perfectly efficient.

  3. Hayek was categorically opposed to government action.

  4. Hayek presented a slippery slope argument toward totalitarianism in The Road to Serfdom.

  5. Hayek saw something being the product of spontaneous order as a normative approval of that order.

  6. Hayek’s resistance to formal modeling and statistical testing was based on old-fashioned methodological ideas that led to dogmatic stances rather than scientific progress.

  7. Hayek’s evolutionary arguments developed late in his career about group selection constituted an abandonment of his earlier methodological individualism.

  8. Hayek’s ideas on monetary theory and the price system never evolved throughout his career.

  9. Hayek’s ideas were roundly defeated by Keynes with respect to macroeconomics, and by Lange-Lerner with respect to the market socialism.

  10. Hayek effectively abandoned economics after the publication of The Pure Theory of Capital and retreated to political theory, legal theory and public intellectual work.

3One of the main achievements of the book is that it convincingly shows the misleading nature of these statements.

4Above all, Boettke depicts Hayek as someone who belonged to what can be called the “thinking-in-orders” tradition. In Hayek’s system, the economy—in this respect, Hayek is very close to the ordoliberals and also to Max Weber—is a societal sub-order, with complex interdependences to the other sub-orders, such as law, science and the state. During his long life, Hayek was preoccupied with the phenomenon of individual knowledge in the context of time and space, and with the “division of knowledge” across individuals that he saw at the core of the modern civilization. Importantly, this “division of knowledge”, analogous to the Smithian “division of labor”, is impossible without a “framework” that encompasses the order of the economy—and that also connects it to the other societal orders. Boettke pinpoints Hayek’s specific approach to orders, rules and institutions on the question about the extent to which different possible frameworks provide an environment for individuals to learn how to deal with the challenges of modernity. And it is precisely these learning processes that become the central topos in Boettke’s argument to portray Hayek as a dynamic thinker.

5While rejecting the laissez-faire credo as a useless rule of thumb that also significantly contributed to the decline of liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th century, Hayek dedicated sizeable intellectual energies to the traditionally difficult question for liberal political economists: the adequate approach(es) to delineate the proper domain of state activity. While sticking to laissez-faire might have been an attractively easy intellectual position that would have spared him the critique of “uncompromising” libertarians like Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand, Hayek—again, close to the ordoliberals as well as to James Buchanan in his later project of a Constitutional Political Economy—founded his quest regarding the state on the concept of the framework. The state’s essential raison d’être is to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of the framework. In doing so, it should not control the individuals, but instead accompany them in their learning processes—metaphorically, like a gardener in the process of cultivation. This central metaphor, also featured in Hayek’s 1974 Nobel address, can be enhanced by an additional distinction: between a French and an English garden. Unlike the French garden which is typically understood as being about controlling each individual plant, Hayek’s state corresponds to the English garden where the gardener sets general patterns for the beds, but leaves all scope beyond those general patterns to the spontaneous growth processes endogenous to the garden.

6Such a “learning liberalism” also involves distinguishing between the logic of the small group and the logic of the extended order—or, in other words, between the logic of community (Gemeinschaft) and the logic of society (Gesellschaft), very much in line with the traditional distinction of Ferdinand Tönnies. Boettke’s specific usage of the terms “economics” and “political economy” helps to understand another related distinction: between the processing of knowledge (through relative prices in the market process) that is at the core of economics, and the storage of knowledge (through rules that crystallize in the process of cultural evolution) that is about the embeddedness of economics in the broader realm of political economy. In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, when Hayek turned to questions of the framework, his focus shifted towards political economy understood in this way. However, this move did not hinder him from retaining the self-understanding of an economist, especially given the politico-economic breadth typical for the self-understanding of his teacher Friedrich von Wieser or for Max Weber, whose legacy was formative in Hayek’s Viennese years. With his move, Hayek was very much in line with the shift of quite a few economists of his generation with different ideational endowments. Prominent examples are Wilhelm Röpke or Adolf Löwe, who felt that economics in the narrow sense had failed them to preserve the order they defended during the Great Depression, and who now looked for other tools to stabilize the embattled civilization on the brink of extinction. In addition, Boettke examines Hayek’s social philosophy and the conditions that can be derived from it for the sustained existence of an extended order à la Gesellschaft. This quest to explain and understand modernity as the unfolding of the extended order is common for the tradition of “mainline economics”, constructed by Boettke to extend from the Scottish Enlightenment to Hayek, James Buchanan, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and Vernon Smith. Reasoning about such commonalities within “mainline economics” is a cornerstone in Boettke’s numerous works on the history of political economy.

7However, the logic of the extended order presents itself as a burden for many citizens, as visible in the current palpable order fragility on both sides of the Atlantic. Hayek repeatedly pointed out in his theory of cultural evolution that humans had lived for thousands of years according to the logic of the small group, while the extended order was only a few centuries old. Nevertheless—and all the more so—Boettke strongly warns against letting Hayek’s theories be appropriated by political forces that demand a return to the community in the sense of a globalization-skeptical nationalism. Hayek’s intellectual project can be understood as a decades-long quest to understand how the tensions of living in the dual world of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft can be, at least partially, resolved for the benefit of the latter. Those “liberals” who in today’s debates call for walls, stir up fears about the global division of labor and knowledge, and provoke conflicts between cultures in collectivist terms, fundamentally betray Hayek’s legacy in method and substance.

8Boettke also rebukes the practice of many Hayekians to read the Austrian’s œuvre as a kind of Bible for identifying a hermetic system. Instead of glorifying Hayek as a historical person, Boettke compellingly invites to an explicitly anti-hagiographical examination of the remaining puzzles in Hayek’s life and work. Instead of the sectarianism not uncommon in the liberal scene, Boettke pleads for a broad interdisciplinary dialogue, among others with philosophers, economic sociologists, anthropologists and lawyers, to creatively test Hayek’s impulses for the challenges of 21st century. For Boettke, the fact that Hayek changed some of his politico-economic positions in the course of his œuvre, thus nurturing internal tensions in it, should not be interpreted as a weakness, as some self-proclaimed “uncompromising” liberals often claim. Instead, it is precisely this constant critical self-reconsideration, and the incessant struggle with the tensions of modernity, that constitute a genuine learning liberalism.

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Stefan Kolev, « Peter J. Boettke, F. A. Hayek. Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy »Œconomia, 10-1 | 2020, 183-186.

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Stefan Kolev, « Peter J. Boettke, F. A. Hayek. Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy »Œconomia [En ligne], 10-1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :

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Stefan Kolev

University of Applied Sciences Zwickau and Wilhelm Röpke Institute, Erfurt,

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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