On ‘The Science Of Liberty’: Should One Tell Ferris To Take A Hayek?

Timothy Ferris’s book The Science of Liberty has as its quite plausible thesis that the pursuit of science and the pursuit of liberty through democracy are mutually reinforcing, beneficial to each other and to society. The book is worth reading for its splendidly written summaries of the lives of many famous scientists and famous champions of liberty and democracy, including more than a few people who are both. What it also has, unfortunately in my not-so-humble opinion, is a plethora of quotes from the economist Friedrich Hayek, a craftsmanly but market-worshipping economist of the 20th century. Ferris repeatedly refers to Hayek as a “liberal” economist, and apparently some other authors refer to him as a “classical liberal” economist.

The more quotations from Hayek I read, the more I understood that Ferris does not use the word “liberal” in its casual present-day sense. The wiki offers the following on conservatives’ view of Hayek’s work:

A common term in much of the world for what Hayek espoused is “neoliberalism“. British scholar Samuel Brittan concluded in 2010 that, “Hayek’s book [The Constitution of Liberty] is still probably the most comprehensive statement of the underlying ideas of the moderate free market philosophy espoused by neoliberals.” Brittan adds that although Plant (2009) comes out in the end against Hayek’s doctrines, Plant gives The Constitution of Liberty a “more thorough and fair-minded analysis than it has received even from its professed adherents.”

I suppose that explains it. If he is a neoliberal, he is not what one typically means by the term “liberal” in present-day American political jargon, where “liberal” denotes people who feel a political affinity with FDR and JFK, people who do not worship the free market as the only and ultimately superior method of making all economic decisions, people who admit to a need for regulations to temper the undesirable side-effects of even the best market, such as pollution from industrial processes and Salmonella in food. Ferris uses the word “progressive” for my position, but that’s not really right, either, again in today’s American political jargon. So we just have to agree to disagree. Given that Ferris is famous and I am a nonentity, that should be easy enough. 🙂

If you can tolerate the possibly unintentional conflation of terms (his and/or mine), this is a book worthy of your attention. There is, however, no need to swallow the bitter pill along with the sweet in which it is wrapped. Just take note that I’m not that kind of liberal, and appreciate the book for what it is.

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  • MandT  On Sunday October 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    For all the inflated terminology or not, and a good mind such as yours (famous or not) can smell a Hayek capitalist, anarchist rat a mile away.

    • Steve  On Sunday October 9, 2011 at 7:46 pm

      MandT, this is a worthwhile book in so many ways that I am inclined to disregard the man’s neoliberal politics, apart from registering my obligatory objection to the whole concept of neoliberalism and his use of the word “liberal” instead of “neoliberal.” Science and liberal democracy (the genuine kind of liberal) are indeed one of the most powerful combinations, conceptual and practical, known to humankind; we shouldn’t let Ferris’s advocacy of it spoil our own outlook on this valuable pairing. It’s not as if Ferris demands a neoliberal interpretation of the facts he presents; he merely states it as his own interpretation. Baby, bathwater, and all that.

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