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Published on Aug 29, 2011
The classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek frequently wrote on the history of liberal ideas, trying both to recover half-forgotten truths and to find the sources of what he viewed as pernicious intellectual errors. He believed that understanding past ideas was important for the correct diagnosis of contemporary ills, since those had so often come from theoretical and philosophical mistakes. He went so far as to propose naming what became the Mont Pelerin Society, the preeminent postwar grouping of free-market economists, the 'Acton-Tocqueville Society,' after two nineteenth century liberal political theorists whose writings on economics were cursory at best. In this talk, Jacob T. Levy describes and assesses Hayek's history of liberal thought, suggesting that he correctly identified key issues in liberal constitutionalism but was too quick to jump from constitutional to economic questions. He wrote histories of rationalism and pluralism in liberal thought, but mistook them for histories of economic planning and free markets. Clarifying this can help us see the often-uneasy relationship between pluralism and markets, and to recognise trade-offs that classical liberal political economy sometimes has to make.