Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hayek and Benevolent Dictators

Perhaps the biggest problem with libertarianism (and I'm talking about the more extreme minarchist and anarchist range of the spectrum, not Greg Mankiw saying he's largely a libertarian) is that it is a political philosophy which probably more than any other fails to engage its own unintended consequences and robustness. When problems do emerge the true Scotsmen close ranks and don't see it as an opportunity to reflect. What is even more fascinating about this is that these sorts of issues are regularly raised in criticisms of other viewpoints by libertarians.

An important example of this problem is, of course, Hayek and Pinochet. The Review of Political Economy has recently published a symposium on Hayek's relationship with Pinochet, featuring articles by Guinevere Nell and Andrew Farrant, among others. In the same issue, but not in the symposium, there is also an article by Jon Wisman, a professor at American University. Here are the abstracts:

Can a Dictator Turn a Constitution into a Can-opener? F.A. Hayek and the Alchemy of Transitional Dictatorship in Chile

Andrew Farrant & Edward McPhail

Commenting on the Pinochet regime, Friedrich Hayek famously claimed in 1981 that he would prefer a ‘liberal’ dictator to ‘democratic government lacking liberalism.’ Hayek's defense of a transitional dictatorship in Chile was not an impromptu response. In late 1960, in a little known BBC radio broadcast, Hayek suggested that a dictatorial regime may be able to facilitate a transition to stable limited democracy. While Hayek's comments about Pinochet have generated much controversy, this paper neither provides a blanket condemnation of his views (he did not advocate dictatorship as a first-best ‘state of the world’) nor tries to excuse his failure to condemn the Pinochet junta's human rights abuses, but instead provides a critical assessment of Hayek's implicit model of transitional dictatorship.


Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan: On Public Life, Chile, and the Relationship between Liberty and Democracy 

John Meadowcroft & William Ruger

This article places recent evidence of Hayek's public defense of the Pinochet regime in the context of the work of the other great twentieth-century classical liberal economists, Milton Friedman and James M. Buchanan. Hayek's view that liberty was only instrumentally valuable is contrasted with Buchanan's account of liberty situated in the notion of the inviolable individual. It is argued that Hayek's theory left him with no basis on which to demarcate the legitimate actions of the state, so that conceivably any government action could be justified on consequentialist grounds. Furthermore, Friedman's account of freedom and discretionary power undermines Hayek's proposal that a transitional dictatorship could pave the way for a genuinely free society. It is contended that Hayek's defense of Pinochet follows from pathologies of his theories of liberty and democracy.


 Dictating Liberty 

Theodore Burczak

Andrew Farrant and Edward McPhail demonstrate Hayek's willingness to support, under certain circumstances, a transitional dictator who seeks to implement an institutional structure conducive to liberty, understood to mean economic freedom. This comment links this support to Hayek's mistaken rejection of democracy as a constitutive component of freedom, which is the result of his overestimation of the epistemological abilities of judges.


The Alchemy of the Can Opener: How an Austrian Economist Found Himself Supporting Dictatorial Imposition of a Liberal Order 

Guinevere Nell

Why would Hayek, the great critic of ‘rational constructivism’ and defender of spontaneous orders, think a transitional dictatorship could work? Here I attempt to dissect the alchemy of ‘turning a constitution into a can opener’ as Farrant & McPhail (2014) put it. Hayek argues against the imposition by an external source of order upon a society. He stresses the importance of an evolving culture and tradition, noting that they should be spontaneous orders not command systems, and that the culture of a society must be accepting and supportive of its institutions. Sometimes the culture is more important than the formal institutions of a society for efficiency. So why would Hayek argue that a transitional dictator could impose a constitution upon the people? It will be argued here that if Hayek had pursued the theoretical line set out in his Constitution of Liberty, he might have responded to the situation in Chile differently.


  1. I don't really think of Pinochet as what Hayek referred to. I'd think of something closer to an old-school empire composed of city-states where the emperor had virtually no impact on local policy. I guess a country like this today would be Russia with Putin.

  2. I would say that old-line communists engaged even less than libertarians with robustness and unintended consequences...

    Brad DeLong

    1. True - thankfully I don't run into them much so it did not even come to mind :)

  3. Very, very hard to think of Pinochet as a "benevolent" dictator. Or (re Suvy Boyina) Putin.

  4. Not to defend Hayek, but isn't this a commonly held view across the political spectrum? See folks who ooooh and aaah over the current leadership in China. Indeed, aren't we simply talking about here about another version of the philosopher king or enlightened absolutist ruler (the latter being the subject of many pleasantries by a whole host Enlightenment thinkers)? It seems to me that this a common enough species of thought about the nature of political society that we can simply ascribe it to one of the many cognitive biases that human beings are prone too no matter what their self-declared political ideology is. That's a far better explanation IMO and one that fits the facts much better than the hypothesis posited here.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.