Alan O. Ebenstein

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Alan O. (Lanny) Ebenstein (born 28 May 1959) is an American political scientist, and the author of Friedrich Hayek: A Biography, the first English language biography of Hayek, and Hayek’s Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek.



Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003)



  • Hayek was in many respects a philosophical idealist, in that he believed that ideas rule the world. It was the idea of constructivism, he thought, that has such destructive consequences. If he could combat this idea, then much good would result.
  • Hayek’s approach was largely Burkean. He saw much good in inherited institutions, and yet, at the same time, he also saw the desirability and necessity of change.
  • Hayek’s ultimate social goal—his utopia—was the unification of all humankind in one society.

Ch. 1: Darwinian Evolutionary Theory

  • Hayek did not believe that the same sort of prediction—and therefore control—that is possible in the natural sciences is attainable in the realm of society. At best, he thought, only a “pattern” of the future can be predicted in social life. He thought that to attempt to formulate laws of societal development akin to the laws of the physical sciences, as Marx attempted, is doomed to failure.

Ch. 2: German and Viennese Intellectual Thought

  • Hayek, highly influenced by Mach as a young man, began reading him immediately following his return from service in World War I. He remarked about four decades later that he was “stimulated by Mach’s work to study psychology and the physiology of the senses,” though his interest in these areas derived as much from disagreement as agreement with Mach’s work.

Ch. 3: The Austrian School of Economics

  • The history of the Austrian school remains unfinished, and what happens in the future may influence interpretations of the past as much as what has already occurred. An increasing number of economists, however, believe that a reconceptualization of the role the Austrian school has played in academic economics from the 1870s to the present would be more accurate than the prevailing view.

Ch. 4: Ludwig von Mises

  • Among Mises’s greatest personal attributes was courage. He had the force of will and character to maintain a position that he thought true even if almost no one else did.
  • Hayek expressed more fully and deeply than Mises the epistemological argument for free market order. The crucial issue for Hayek became not that without prices individuals cannot calculate (though he thought this to be the case), but that the division of knowledge renders centralized control of an economy or society impossible.
  • While it is possible to imagine Mises without Hayek, it is not possible to imagine Hayek without Mises.

Ch. 5: Money and Capital

  • The time component of economic production became vital in Hayek’s work in economic theory. Essentially, his economic work could be said to rest on the idea that the price system is a method for coordinating economic activity through time.
  • Although Hayek ascribed a primarily monetary source to economic fluctuations, he was not a monetarist as this term came to be used.
  • Hayek’s essential gist in capital theory was that capital is heterogeneous, that it cannot be put to many uses simultaneously or at different times. If these empirical assumptions as to capital’s heterogeneity are false, then his theoretical system of economic activity falls. Hayek never established that changes in interest rates primarily and predominantly influence capital production of goods of higher order and their prices.

Ch. 6: John Maynard Keynes

  • Notwithstanding the predominant role in academic economic theory that Keynes and Keynesian economics achieved during the twentieth century, his basic outlook and policy recommendations were shaped by the particular experiences of the British Empire’s waning years.
  • The General Theory is at once both a book of economic theory and a font of economic prejudices—there are probably few academics in economics and political science who do not have an opinion of it, whether they have read it or not. It has reached the status—which it obtained almost immediately—where the fact of its existence is as important, if not more important, than what it actually says.
  • Keynes ultimately placed his hopes for good government in exceptional men. The focus in Hayek’s work was rules.

Ch. 7: From Economic Theory to Political Philosophy

  • When Keynes’s General Theory was published in February 1936, it obliterated all else on the scene in academic economics. Hayek was known to be working on a treatise on capital as Keynes’s work was published (the work that became The Pure Theory of Capital). While there was some anticipation in academia for this forthcoming major work, interest even by economists in Hayek’s work waned.
  • Hayek never really departed from the essential economic theory that he developed during the 1920s, although he expanded and deepened his analysis.
  • Hayek opposed not merely Keynes’s policy recommendations, but his technical method.
  • Hayek’s move from economic theory to political philosophy was a natural evolution in his ideas. First, he considered the influence of prices in production.Then he considered the larger question of the role of prices in social life. The conclusion he reached was that law should guarantee to each person a protected sphere within which each could live as much as possible as he pleased. Later in his career, he progressed to the idea that whole societies through their customs, morals, and rules are engaged in macrocompetition, the survivor of which would possess the customs, morals, and rules that are the most materially productive and result in the highest standard of living for the most—the economist’s goal.

Ch. 8: The Abuse and Decline of Knowledge

  • True and false individualism differ, according to Hayek, not primarily about values but about facts. The question of how societies are actually ordered or organized separates them: Are communities created, or do they evolve? The answer is obviously some combination of the two, but the relative weighting is of the greatest importance.
  • Hayek emphasized the importance of rules. He thought that what society should do is not to direct the individual in his or her particular actions, but to create a metaphysical structure, as it were, enforced by rules or laws, that create stable expectations and thus allow rational action.
  • Both Hayek and Locke thought that this is best achieved by limiting government’s potential actions and restricting these potential actions to known general rules applicable to all. Both sought a government of rules rather than commands, the latter of which, by their nature, are not known in advance and may be arbitrary—not applicable to all. Hayek’s goal was the society of law.
  • Hayek ripped G. W. F. Hegel in The Counter-Revolution of Science’s third part for his “historicism”—the idea, in Hayek’s terminology, that history moves in set and predictable stages. He considered this idea fatally flawed and societies that were based on it to be unsuccessful, unproductive, and unfree. Historicism denies free will. The future is what we make of it.

Ch. 9: The Road to Serfdom

  • One of the paradoxes of Hayek is that he wrote better than he thought. That is, his writing is often more suggestive and stimulating than the thought that underlaid it. While his writing is, stylistically, difficult, it is also exceptionally profound, and its value lies in its profundity.
  • Hayek’s essential political philosophy was that liberty is the supremacy of law. To some, this may appear a paradoxical conception of liberty, for liberty is too often considered to be the absence of law.This, however, was the exact opposite of Hayek’s view. He thought that liberty is not possible without law. Right law is liberty.

Ch. 10: Epistemology, Psychology, and Methodology

  • His epistemology began from a phenomenalist base. The philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach was very important in Hayek’s development and to the atmosphere at the University of Vienna when Hayek was a student there.
  • Stemming from the Germanic philosophical heritage, Hayek was likely to place more emphasis on the act of knowing than on objects themselves. Hayek ultimately followed Kant in his ontological conception of reality—he thought that mind impresses order on existence.
  • Hayek’s view was that all the knowledge that is possible of a circumstance is a theory of the circumstance—that is, there is no such thing as pure sensation. There is, rather, a theory of sensation.
  • The core ideas in Hayek’s metaphysical and methodological thought were, in the former, that reality is complex; and in the latter, that there should be some empirical corroboration for statements about events in the realm of nature.

Ch. 11: The Constitution of Liberty

  • Government creates the market and law. Law is not the negation of liberty; it is its fulfillment. Right law is not a restriction on people’s liberty; it makes their freedom possible. Right law is liberty; liberty is right law.
  • Where laws rule, people are free. Conversely, where not laws, but individuals, rule, people are unfree. Law is the indispensable tool for securing personal freedom, because only under the rule of law are individuals able to plan their lives according to known expectations about the social order.
  • Although Hayek would have protested being characterized as a democratic welfare statist in The Constitution of Liberty, this is what he was. While he favored less government rather than more, government at the local level rather than national level, the provision of social welfare through private charitable organizations rather than government at any level, and the private competitive provision of government services, there was much in his work that any modern, twentieth-century liberal could support.

Ch. 12: Marx, Mill and Freud

  • Hayek had high regard for Marx in technical economic theory and considered him a predecessor in his business cycle theory. [...] It was not in technical economic theory that the classical Austrians disagreed with Marx. So towering a figure in history is Marx that discussion of his thought in summary form is always difficult, for there is so much that he said and that others have said about him. At the same time, so tendentious, ill-spirited, and just plain wrong a thinker was Marx that it is surprising that he may have had some of the influence attributed to him. Hayek’s opposition to Marx was in the realm of practical political emanations from Marx’s thought. Here he considered Marx’s influence to have been wholly pernicious.
  • Placement of both Hayek and Mill in the liberal tradition is suspect to many historians of political thought for various reasons. First, Mill also expressed socialist sentiments, so to classify him as a liberal has seemed inaccurate to some more right-inclined liberals. Second, Hayek is sometimes considered more a conservative by left-inclined liberals, and not in the liberal tradition as it has evolved. Nonetheless, Mill and Hayek were the two greatest liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Hayek was too harsh on Freud. It is, indeed, one of the surprising facts of the development of intellectual thought during the twentieth century that Freud—who was so pervasive and dominating during the first half of that century—virtually dropped off the face of the map during the second half. Hayek was almost the last person still talking about Freud, in the sense of taking him as a serious living influence on civilization.

Ch. 13: The Chicago School of Economics and Milton Friedman

  • The question of Hayek’s relationship to the Chicago school of economics raises the anterior question of the Chicago school of economics itself.

Ch. 14: Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics

  • At the same time, as Hayek maintained elsewhere, the facts of the social sciences do not lend themselves to the same degree of prediction, or explanation, as the facts of the natural sciences—it is for this reason that there are degrees of prediction or explanation. Prediction may be expressed numerically, moreover, “not as a unique value or magnitude but as a range,” narrow in the natural sciences and potentially very broad in the social sciences. In the social sciences, Hayek modified the conception of a numerical range to a “range of phenomena to expect.” This was his concept of pattern prediction, or explanation of the principle, broad, general predictions.
  • Hayek’s work in philosophy can be considered from another perspective than its methodology. When Hayek wrote that his philosophical studies should precede his political studies, he meant that in order to explain the sort of political system he favored, it was necessary to have greater understanding of the transmission and communication of information and knowledge. This is why he wished to travel to Italy and Greece. He thought that he might understand nonverbal knowledge better in doing so and might better understand the role of institutions in transmitting knowledge and information.

Ch. 15: Karl Popper

  • Expressed egotism is, of course, no reason necessarily to disregard someone’s work, but it is a warning signal. If someone can evaluate his work so poorly, is the work itself likely to be better? In many of his areas of intellectual interest, Popper’s work is wanting.
    Hayek did more to advance Popper professionally early in his career than anyone else, and Popper remembered his personal debt to Hayek. Over the years, he wrote him a number of appreciative letters.
  • During World War II it was exciting and unexpected for Hayek to find someone else, from Vienna, who was interested in many of the same topics that he was. The Open Society and Its Enemies has three main parts, on Plato, Hegel, and Marx. The next main chapters in Hayek’s uncompleted “The Abuse and Decline of Reason,” on which he was at work then, were to be on Hegel and Marx. In addition, Popper’s scholarly style was similar to Hayek’s, with extremely extensive notes.
  • Hayek truly did get Popper his position at the London School of Economics. “I am personally anxious to get Dr. Popper to this School,” Hayek wrote Gombrich as early as 1943. Given the later prominence that Popper achieved for the school, this was one of Hayek’s most significant contributions to its reputation, as well as the decisive career move in Popper’s life.
    Hayek also genuinely influenced Popper’s political philosophy. While Popper always remained to Hayek’s left, he started out much further to Hayek’s left than he wound up, and this movement was in no small part the result of Hayek’s influence. Popper was a charter member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He suggested, however, that socialists be brought into it. Hayek wrote Popper several deeply personal letters in connection with his divorce. It is likely that their personal relationship was more important to and valued by Hayek than Popper, though Popper valued highly Hayek’s friendship.
  • Hayek expressed the greatest praise for Popper. Whether this was Hayek’s ultimate view or a reflection of a deep, though subordinate, strain of personal modesty and humility that ran through him is an open question. Hayek’s support was vital in Popper’s career. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hayek was involved with an unsuccessful effort to obtain the Nobel Prize in Literature for Popper.

Ch. 16: Law, Legislation and Liberty

  • Law, Legislation and Liberty was written and published during a different period from The Constitution of Liberty. The earlier work was a product of the late 1950s—a generally optimistic and socially cohesive time when Hayek himself was in his late fifties, at the University of Chicago. Law, Legislation and Liberty, on the other hand, was a product of the 1960s and 1970s, a far more turbulent time, as he became an old man, was somewhat intellectually isolated in Freiburg and Salzburg, and experienced depression. That the later work has a different feel from the former is hardly to be unexpected. The relationship between the two works might be considered to be something like that between Plato’s Republic, a product of his prime, and Plato’s Laws, a product of his old age.
  • Hayek’s practical political thought was flawed not where he postulated too small a role for government, but where he sanctioned too great a role. In his late work, Hayek the classical liberal became Hayek the libertarian.

Ch. 17: Later Monetary Work

  • Indeed, Hayek’s later monetary work constitutes some of his most creative practical policy suggestions, though his thought in the area was, by his own admission, undeveloped.
  • Hayek possessed a towering intellect. At the same time, his intelligence was as much brittle as it was powerful.

Ch. 19: Sundown

  • Hayek died in Freiburg, Germany, on March 23, 1992, less than two months shy of his ninety-third birthday. After 1985, he was unable to work and lost contact with almost all friends and associates. In his last years, almost the only people with whom he had regular contact were his wife, Helene; secretary Charlotte Cubitt, whom he always called “Mrs. Cubitt”; children Larry and Christine Hayek; and Bartley. Hayek was grateful to Cubitt for her assistance from 1977 to 1992. He inscribed in her copy of The Fatal Conceit in 1990: “In gratitude for all her help over so many years F. A. Hayek.”
    During his last years, he had periods of more and less lucidity, as well as being ill and depressed. Lord Harris of the Institute of Economic Affairs wrote in his obituary of Hayek that “by 1989 the great man had lost touch with affairs.” He was buried in Vienna, the place of his birth.
    [...] Friedrich Hayek was the greatest political philosopher of liberty during the twentieth century.

Quotes about Ebenstein and his work

  • Nor does [Ebenstein's] book offer any real historical setting for Hayek's career. Although often naive in his political judgments, Hayek was intensely concerned with public issues throughout his life. Yet we learn virtually nothing of the development of his views on the affairs of the day. What did he make, for example, of the Dollfuss dictatorship in Austria, where his teacher Ludwig von Mises served its clerical predecessor under Monsignor Seipel, and where Hayek himself planned to return in the 1930s? Mr Ebenstein never even mentions these conservative authoritarian regimes of the period. In later years, he records Hayek's efforts to secure South Tyrol for Austria once again; his organisation of the Mont Pelerin Society, an influential post-war group of free-market intellectuals; his recommendation that West Germany, France and Britain sue for entry as states into the United States; his reception in Verwoerd's South Africa and his admiration for General Pinochet's achievements in Chile; his wish that Iran be bombed in 1979 and Argentina in 1982. Homages from Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Yegor Gaidar roll past (the only discordant note comes from Ayn Rand, once Alan Greenspan's muse: “As an example of our most pernicious enemy, I would name Hayek. That one is real poison.”; or again: “The kind who do more good to the communist cause than ours”). Yet no coherent picture of Hayek's political commitments ever emerges, still less their relation to such important works as “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960).
Friedrich Hayek
Concepts and career Business cycle theory · Dispersed knowledge · Extended order · Spontaneous order
Books Prices and Production (1931) · The Road to Serfdom (1944) · Individualism and Economic Order (1948) · The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952) · The Sensory Order (1952) · The Constitution of Liberty (1960) · Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1967) · Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973) · The Denationalization of Money (1975) · New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas (1978) · The Fatal Conceit (1988)
Notable essays "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945) · "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (1960) · "The Pretence of Knowledge" (1974)
Commentators Alan O. Ebenstein · Bruce Caldwell
Other topics On evolution · On dictatorship · On John Maynard Keynes