Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hayek on the Benefits of Freedom

I often think about liberty from the point of view of what I can do with my freedom. In THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY Hayek writes about the benefits of liberty by emphasizing what others do with their freedom:
The benefits I derive from freedom are thus largely the result of the uses of freedom by others, and mostly of those uses of freedom that I could never avail myself of. It is therefore not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important to me. It is certainly more important that anything can be tried by somebody than that all can do the same things. It is not because we like to be able to do particular things, not because we regard any particular freedom as essential to our happiness, that we have a claim to freedom. . . .What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all. (p. 32)
I think this is very important. It may be difficult to see why Hayek writes this about freedom. Perhaps one way to understand is to consider this question: How many of the things you use in your daily life would you have to make use of if you relied only upon your own freedom? Or consider this question: How many of the things you do in your daily life could you do if you relied only upon your own freedom?

If I relied only upon my own freedom, I would not have the personal computer I'm using right now, and I would not have the modem nor the internet connection I'm using to compose this blog post. I would not have the copy of THE CONSTITUTION OF LIBERTY that is sitting in front of me, and I would probably not have the eyeglasses I've been using to read this great book. Nor would I have the desk lamp I'm using to see the pages of this book. I would not have the desk my monitor and printer sit on, and for that matter I would not have the monitor and printer if I had to rely only upon my own freedom. I certainly would not have an automobile for transportation, nor would there be roads that I use every day if I relied only upon my own freedom. Of course I could go on and on and on with this. Take a look at your own daily life and consider what your life would be like if you relied only upon what you could do with your own freedom.

Perhaps some will read this and suggest that I am merely pointing out the fact that I rely on the production of others rather than the freedom of others, and that I would be able to benefit from the production of others even if those others were not allowed broad individual freedom and liberty. Such a suggestion would seem to miss the understanding of a fundamental aspect of the economic world:
It is through the mutually adjusted efforts of many people that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual possesses or that it is possible to synthesize intellectually; and it is through such utilization of dispersed knowledge that achievements are made possible greater than any single mind can foresee. It is because freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts that a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.

. . .It is because we do not know how individuals will use their freedom that it is so important. If it were otherwise, the results of freedom could also be achieved by the majority's deciding what should be done by the individuals. (p. 30-31)
My standard of living is what it is not merely because I rely on the production of others.

I rely on the knowledge of others. I simply do not know how to make a car, a computer, a telephone, or the electricity that powers my computer and my desk lamp. Most importantly I rely on the use of knowledge in society which cannot possibly be known by any one individual. Even if I wanted to learn how to make a telephone or a modem or a personal computer, I would not be able to come to know for myself all of the knowledge that is required for such things to be part of my daily life. I cannot even come to know for myself all of the knowledge that is required to cause something as simple as a pencil to become part of my daily life. If you doubt this, then you must read I, PENCIL by Leonard E. Reed. Here is just a taste from I, Pencil:
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. . . . .

The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines . . . .

My "lead" itself -- it contains no lead at all -- is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon . . .

The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow -- animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid . . . .To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it?

. . . . .
And, of course, there is much, much more to knowing all that needs to be known in making a pencil part of my daily life.

While I certainly value my own individual freedom, I think Hayek's insights are correct. My life depends on the freedom of others. And, as Hayek writes:
Of course the benefits we derive from the freedom of others become greater as the number of those who can exercise freedom increase. (p. 32)


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