HOW TO MAKE HAYEK LAUGH — AND HOW TO MAKE HIM ANGRY

Recollections of F. A. Hayek from Ronald Hamowy, part of his essay “Rothbard and Hayek: A Personal Memory” collected in Walter Block’s I Choose Liberty:  Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians:

“F.A. Hayek began his career at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1950, and during his tenure there he was associated with the Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary department headed by the eminent economic historian John Ulrich Nef. Milton Friedman reports, and there seems to be every reason to accept its accuracy, that the Department of Economics was reluctant to hire Hayek because his approach to capital theory was at odds with departmental orthodoxy. Equally important, Hayek’s salary while at Chicago was paid by the Volcker Fund, and the Department of Economics, according to Friedman, was opposed to accepting a member appointed from outside the department. I first met Friedrich Hayek in the fall of 1960, when I entered the Committee on Social Thought to do graduate work with him. I had been preceded the year prior by my close friend Ralph Raico, whom I had met in New York and who was a regular visitor at the home of Murray and Joey Rothbard. When I joined the Committee in 1960, Hayek had been at Chicago for ten years and was to remain for only another two. Although his tenure there was brief, he had a substantial impact both on the Committee on Social Thought and on the reputation of the University as a center for free-market thought.

Hayek was a somewhat formal man, invariably considerate and good-natured. He was immensely erudite and had a thorough knowledge of the literature in economics and social and political philosophy, both historical and contemporary, gained from books and articles in half a dozen languages. Hayek’s primary concerns, by the time he arrived at Chicago, were in the area of social theory, although he continued to remain active as an economist and regularly taught an excellent graduate course in the history of economics prior to Adam Smith.  Hayek always impressed me as self-possessed and unflappable, although he occasionally allowed himself to loosen up, at least two or three times in my presence. Hayek’s office, as were the offices of all members of the Committee on Social Thought, were on the fifth, or top, floor of the Social Sciences Building, an old Gothic structure at the corner of University Avenue and 59th Street. For some reason, probably because it had least seniority among the departments that made up the Social Sciences Division, the Committee was relegated to the eaves of the building, and each of its cramped and bleak offices were jammed into its gables. Hayek’s was a particularly small office with room for one desk, a couple of chairs other than his own, a filing cabinet, and a table tucked against the wall directly across from the door.

Study on the Committee was done through tutorials, in which students studying a particular work or author would meet privately with that member of the Committee most conversant with the topic. Most of the time, this presented no problem since, given the diversity of topics being studied by each of us, it was usually the case that we met alone with our instructor. In this particular case, however, for some reason there were no less than three of us meeting with Hayek at the same time, three students and only two chairs! Having arrived last, I was compelled to use the table as a seat, which I tried to mount by turning Hayek’s wastepaper basket upside down to use as a step — all this while Hayek continued to complete the point he was making when I entered his office. It probably comes as no surprise that my attempt proved disastrous. The wastepaper basket overturned and rolled away, I fell to the ground, and the table, unable to sustain the pressure I was placing on it as I grabbed for it, tipped over, knocking one of the other student’s chairs into Hayek’s desk. All and all, the effect was that Hayek’s office looked a shambles, but to my great surprise and pleasure Hayek was guffawing to the point where his eyes were tearing. It took several minutes before decorum was reestablished, but my dreadful embarrassment was substantially eased by the humor Hayek seems to have found in the incident.

During the many years I knew Hayek, I recall only one occasion when I saw him really angry. It occurred soon after the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was killed in a plane crash in the Congo in September 1961 while attempting to bring some order to the chaotic situation that obtained there. Hammarskjöld, an economist by training, was, like Hayek, particularly interested in business cycles. Indeed, his doctoral dissertation at the University of Uppsala had been on that topic. Unlike Hayek, however, he was a firm adherent of planned economies and of the need for government intervention in the market. Despite the ideological differences that separated them, however,  Hayek and he became and remained quite friendly.Soon after Hammarskjöld’s death, William Buckley, in some comments attacking Hammarskjöld that appeared, I seem to recall, in the pages of National Review had maintained that Hammarskjöld had been a less than honest man and had suggested that he cheated at cards — the phrase, “had an ace up his sleeve” comes to mind. This attack on Hammarskjöld’s personal integrity so infuriated Hayek that he wrote a blistering letter to Buckley denouncing  his maliciousness and asking that National Review stop sending him future issues of the magazine. Buckley responded to Hayek’s letter, regretting Hayek’s reaction and pointing out that the characterization was only “un jeu de mot,” but it made no difference to Hayek, whom, I believe, remained only on the most formal terms with Buckley for the rest of his life. I indicated that Hayek was given to a certain level of formality, and this was reflected in his appearance. He was extremely distinguished-looking, with an air of courtly elegance about him that, at least in my case, discouraged close familiarity. Whenever we spoke, I always I called him Professor, even though the last time I saw him I was in my forties and we had known each other for over twenty years.

Hayek was not an effusive person, but I suspect that he genuinely liked me. There were two occasions when he was demonstratively warm. The first occurred at a going-away dinner that was held for him by the Committee on Social Thought on the eve of his departure from Chicago in the spring of 1962. I was chosen to speak on behalf of his graduate students, and among the things for which I thanked Hayek was his generosity in lending his name to the New Individualist Review, a publication several of his students on the Committee had started. I was then the journal’s editor-in-chief, and as such it fell upon my shoulders to turn down an article that had been submitted by John Nef, the Committee’s chairman. Nef, who had done excellent work in European economic history and had become one of the leading scholars in his field, had, by this point in his life, almost totally lost touch with reality. I assume that he was allowed to continue on as chairman of the Committee because the position was one in which he could do little if any damage. It was, however, somewhat of a strain on the few students on the Committee who had anything to do with him. In one case I went through a whole tutorial with him in which he referred to me by another student’s name. On leaving his office, I realized that I had forgotten my umbrella and once again knocked on his door. This time he greeted me by my correct name although it had been only a matter of a couple of minutes since I left.

The situation with respect to his submission to the New Individualist Review put the editors in an impossible situation. There really were no circumstances that could justify the journal carrying Nef ’s crackpot article, which was a plea that the nations of the world choose Jesus Christ to replace Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary General of the UN. Nef seemed to take it quite well when I told him that the editors did not think that our small student journal was an appropriate home for a piece of this sort, which deserved far wider distribution. However, he made his feelings abundantly clear at the farewell dinner given for Hayek a month later when he referred to Hayek’s graduate students — that is, the group that edited NIR, as unfeeling, calculating machines whose only interest in life revolved around questions of profit and loss, and that none of us was worthy of having Hayek as our supervisor.

Needless to say, everyone in the room, especially Hayek, was stunned by these comments and Hayek, in his own remarks went out of his way to speak glowingly of us and, to my great pleasure, especially of me.

The second occasion when Hayek showed an unusual amount of warmth toward me was at the 1982 meeting of the Mt. Pelerin Society, which was held in Berlin. Although we had occasionally corresponded, I had not seen Hayek for five or six years, so it was particularly pleasant to find him active and in good health. We both entered the main reception hall where the meetings were to be held at about the same time, but at opposite ends of an enormously large room, and we both appear to have noticed each other at about the same moment.  Both of us began to briskly walk towards each other. Hayek appeared genuinely delighted to  see me; when we met, he beamed down at me and I was surprised to find that, in shaking  hands, he put his other arm around me in what amounted to a half-hug. He went on to tell me how pleased he was to see me again and that he had often thought of me. It was the last time I was to see him and I remember that meeting with great fondness and affection.”

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We have to bring the empirical factor of learning into the frame of the logic of choice in order to turn economics into a science not merely of individual action but what happens in the market. — F. A. Hayek

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