Notes on Hayek’s _The Constitution of Liberty_

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s grand treatise on the political economy of liberalism — The Constitution of Liberty.

The book was written between 1955 and 1959, and then saw publication in America in February of the next year.  As Hayek explains in the UCLA Oral History interviews, “The Constitution of Liberty I did relatively quickly. I wrote the three parts in three successive years, and then took a fourth year to rewrite the whole thing.”   Hayek completed the book on his sixtieth birthday, May 8th, 1959, with the penning of the preface.  Hayek recounts the genesis of the book in an autobiographical fragment from Hayek on Hayek:

“The work on the Saint Simonians [for his Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason project in the 1940s] led unexpectedly to my devoting a great deal of time to John Stuart Mill, who in fact never particularly appealed to me .. This came about through my noticing in tracing Saint-Simonian influence on England how much of the important correspondence of John Stuart Mill which threw light on this issue was either available only widely disperses among many publications, often in places difficult to find, or only in manuscript… My work on Mill bore one unforeseen but very pleasant fruit.  In editing the correspondence with his wife, I had had to omit most of the long letters Mill had written to her form the long journey to Italy and Greece he had taken for reasons of health in the winter and spring of 1854-55.  It occured to me that it might be interesting to repeat the journey after exactly a hundred years with the aim of producing a fully annotated edition of the letters.  I succeed in persuading the Guggenheim Foundation to give me a substantial grant to finance the journey .. Since we were able to travel by car .. we saved enough time to make from Naples a side trip to Egypt to deliver the lectures on “The Political Ideal of the Rule of Law,” which I had been invited by the Bank of Egypt to give.”

These lectures, together with the constant preoccupation with Mill’s thinking, brought it about that after our return to Chicago in the autumn of 1955, the plan for The Constitution of Liberty suddenly stood clearly before my mind.  There is a story connected with it, however, which I like to tell.  In his Autobiography, Mill describes how the conception for his book On Liberty came to him walking up the steps of the capital at Rome.  When I repeated this on the appropriate day a hundred years later, no inspiration, however, came to me.  And as I later noticed, it was indeed not to be expected, since Mill had fibbed:  The letters show that the idea of writing such a book had come to him before he reached Rome.  Nevertheless, shortly after the conclusion of our journey, I had before me a clear plan for a book on liberty arranged around the Cairo lectures.  In the three succeeding years, I wrote drafts of each of the three parts of The Constitution of Liberty, revising the whole during the winter of 1958-59, so that I was able to take the finished manuscript to my American publishers on my sixtieth birthday, May 8, 1959.”

A new “Definitive Edition” of The Constitution of Liberty edited by Ronald Hamowy will ship in the fall and is available for pre-order from Amazon now.

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