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Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part I: Influences, from Mises to Bartley

Author(s):Leeson, Robert
Reviewer(s):Ebeling, Richard M.

Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

Robert Leeson, editor, Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part I: Influences, from Mises to Bartley. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. viii + 241 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-230-30112-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard M. Ebeling, Department of Economics, Northwood University.

Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part I: Influences, from Mises to Bartley edited by Robert Leeson (visiting professor of economics at Stanford University), has the strengths and weaknesses of any anthology of essays. It offers a variety of different perspectives, but lacks the logical coherence of a biography authored by a single writer.  This means that it does not offer an interpretive narrative that fully leads the reader from one moment to the next in F.A. Hayek’s life and contributions — to demonstrate the evolution of the man and his ideas.

This weakness even applies to the ordering of the book’s chapters. After what is meant to be an intellectual overview of Hayek’s ideas penned by the editor, the next chapter (by Melissa Lane) is devoted to a discussion of the development of the ideas that culminated in Hayek’s 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. This is followed by two short contributions on how often as a Nobel Prize winner Hayek has been cited in the scholarly literature (by Gabriel Söderberg, Avner Offer and Samuel Bjork), and on the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1974 to Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal (this chapter is written by David Laidler and is less than three pages long).

The next chapter is a review of Nicolas Wapshott’s 2011 book, Keynes Hayek, written by Selwyn Cornish. It then jumps to a discussion of Hayek’s relationship to Ludwig von Mises that is contributed by Douglas French, which is followed by a history of Hayek’s professional time at the University of Freiberg in the 1960s, contributed by Viktor Vanberg; then there is an evaluation by Nils Goldschmidt and Jan-Otmar Hesse on Hayek’s relationship to the leading founder of the German ORDO liberal movement, Walter Eucken, as captured in their correspondence in the 1930s and 1940s.

In what is the longest chapter in the book (65 pages), written by Robert Leeson, the reader is given a fairly detailed biography of William W. Bartley III, who had initially been chosen by Hayek to be his official biographer, but who died in 1990 at the age of 55.  The volume also includes a further brief discussion of Hayek, Bartley and Karl Popper on “justificationism” and the abuse of reason written by Rafe Champion, and a discussion of Bartley as a biographer by Werner Erhard. In addition, there is an interview with Stephan Kresge, who served as one of the early editors of “The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek,” before Bruce Caldwell assumed that role.

The introductory biography by Leeson reads more like a “stream of consciousness” in which the author takes the reader on an unsystematic journey about Hayek’s relationship with his teacher at the University of Vienna, Friedrich von Wieser, and his early mentor, Ludwig von Mises, and other interwar Austrians; this shifts to his time at the London School of Economics during the 1930s and 1940s and then to how Hayek fit into the reemerged Austrian School in America after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1974.

Douglas French’s chapter on Hayek’s relationship to Mises focuses mostly on their relationship in Vienna, but discusses little about Mises’ substantive influence on Hayek in terms of either monetary and business cycle theory, or economic planning under socialism, or the philosophy of the social sciences.

The chapters on Hayek’s association with Walter Eucken and the Freiberg School of ORDO liberalism add substantive insight on how Hayek’s views on the market economy and the legal framework of the free society compared with these German liberals. The chapters highlight the greater importance that Eucken and his German colleagues placed on social “order” and legal stability in which the freedom of the individual would be defined and given rein. Hayek’s interest in the same questions was precisely with individual freedom as the essential issue, with problems concerning the legal and political order being about how that freedom might be assured and preserved.

Melissa Lane’s discussion of the genesis of The Road to Serfdom clearly explains that Hayek’s arguments grew out of his focus on decentralized knowledge in a system of division of labor, which only a competitive price system could effectively coordinate; a theme that Hayek had been developing in the second half of the 1930s. Hayek’s central point in The Road to Serfdom, she argues, was the fact that a comprehensive system of socialist central planning would require the construction and imposition of a detailed system of relative values to which and within which all in the society would have to conform, if “the plan” was to succeed. This was the origin of Hayek’s fear that central planning ran the danger of becoming tyranny, since any meaningful dissent in word or deed could not be permitted without threatening the fulfillment of the goals of the plan.

The “odd-man-out” chapter, in the reviewer’s opinion, is that longest one devoted to William Bartley. Given its length, Hayek’s role in the discussion is a shadowy second to the explanation of Bartley’s life and career (with its many frustrations and disappointments) and his relationship with Karl Popper, whose official biographer Bartley was supposed serve as, as well.  In what ways Bartley may or may not have had an influence on Hayek’s later life, or to what extent Bartley may or may not have “rewritten” parts of Hayek’s last book, The Fatal Conceit, before its publication, are not really given the attention and detail that one would expect in a volume devoted to the life and contributions of F.A. Hayek.

The reviewer waits, now, with anticipation for the promised part II of this “collaborative biography,” but his expectations are not too high, given the strange construction and content of the first volume.

Richard Ebeling is professor of economics at Northwood University, Midland, Michigan. He is the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (Routledge 2010), and is currently  editing one of the volumes in the Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, devoted to “Hayek and the Austrian Economists: Correspondence and Related Documents.”

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII