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Hayek in Brief

June 19, 2010

Frederich Hayek (1899-1992) was one of the most profound and influential thinkers of the 20th century. His most famous book is The Road to Serfdom, which though first published in 1944, is currently the #1 bestseller at That this book is so widely read and so widely ignored by the leaders of the West defines the economic malaise currently disabling the enlightened spaces of the planet. Hayek’s most profound book, the one that looks most analytically at the role of the state versus that of the individual, is The Constitution of Liberty; it first appeared 50 years ago.

Both are virtually compulsory for anyone who wants to understand the end result of the welfare state and who also wishes to find an exit short of catastrophe. If you are too lazy or busy to read Hayek’s books there is a relatively short essay that encapsulates his thinking on the economic structure of society and the tension between liberty and equality. Individualism: True and False was a lecture given in 1945 and published the following year. It was published in a collection of Hayek’s essays as Individualism and Economic Order. It was recently reissued by the Mises Institute.  Individualism: True and False is the first of these essays.

Hayek starts by defining “individualism”. He distinguishes his sense of the word from that used by Rousseau and the Encyclopedists which he feels means or leads to collectivism. Hayek believes that true individualism is a theory of society. “Individualism postulates…the existence of isolated or self contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society.” Nations, in his view, stumble accidentally on systems that may form the very basis of human organization, but which are not the result of design. Free men create things “which are greater than their individual minds can ever comprehend.” Hayek derived this apprehension from Josiah Tucker, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Edmund Burke. Smith and Burke were particularly important in shaping his thought.

This view contrasts diametrically to those who wrought the French revolution and whose heirs are the social designers of today. “[D]esign theories necessarily lead to the conclusion that social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual reason, and thus (they) lead directly to socialism, true individualism believes on the contrary that, if left free, men will often achieve more than individual reason could design or foresee.” This statement encapsulates the debate which animates our current politics, no matter how inelegantly framed, over the role of the government in the design and direction society in general and the economy in particular. Along with Adam Smith, Hayek was more concerned with a system under which man could do as little harm when at his worst, rather than what he could do when at his best. This is analogous to primum non nocere in medicine.

Hayek, along with Smith and Burke and unlike their French contemporaries, wants a system that grants freedom to all rather than to just the “good and the wise”. The reason for this preference is that the good and wise, no matter how wise, can never know enough to manage any complex system. Any one man or even a group of men can only know a sliver of the whole of society. This is Hayek’s crucial point; the one he returns to throughout his career.

A man “cannot (italics in the original) know more than a tiny part of the whole of society…all a man’s mind can effectively comprehend are the facts of the narrow circle of which he is the center…nobody can know who knows best…The fundamental assumption…is the unlimited variety of human gifts and skills and the consequent ignorance of any single individual of most of what is known to all the other member of society taken together.” These are the reasons why central planning fails. No matter how earnest or well intentioned the planners, they cannot know more than an infinitesimal of that required to successfully plan any enterprise of consequence.

The presence of 40 “Czars” in the White House and the “success” of their charge is a perfect example of Hayek’s assertion of individual ignorance.

He goes on to say his “argument does not assume that all men are equal in their natural endowments and capacities but only that no man is qualified to pass final judgment on the capacities which another possess or is to be allowed to exercise.” He then remarks that only because men are unequal can we treat them equally. If they were all the same we would have to treat them unequally to successfully organize society. But as they are not equal society can be successfully arranged by letting people freely follow their inclinations. “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is a condition of a free society, the second means as De Tocqueville described it ‘a new form of servitude’.”

If all were equal we would have to coerce people into occupations or tasks for which they were no more qualified than anyone else. As people are unequal we can let their talents dictate their activities.

The tension between liberty and equality (if one means equality of outcomes) is the basis Hayek’s masterpiece The Constitution of Liberty. In more than 400 pages of tightly reasoned prose he scrutinizes individual liberty and the role of the state in its application. He defines liberty as the absence of coercion. Coercion may only be exercised by the state. He examines the condition under which such coercion is justifiable. He shows how liberty and equality of outcome are opposites – the more you have of one the less of the other. Thus the state should be careful in the application of its coercive power. Especially as it never has the knowledge necessary to gracefully manage any complex system.

Hayek believes that society must be ordered on general principles which have evolved over time, often unconsciously, that are respected by the state and equally applied to all. These organizational rules must serve for long periods of time. In a dig at Lord Keynes he derides government’s tendency to concentrate on short term problems “because in the long run we’re all dead”. Making up the rules as you go along (even if you’re only 20 years old this must resonate) allows, in fact it demands, that the state become absolute.

So what kind of rules do we want? In this essay Hayek does not examine the subject the way he does in the later Constitution of Liberty. He is, of course, in favor of an effectively competitive market system. He is very much aware that our personal sense of justice frequently revolts against the impersonal decisions of the market. “We must face the fact that the preservation of individual freedom is incompatible with a full satisfaction of our views of distributive justice.” Here is the nub of the contention that animates the politics of all the world’s liberal democracies.

The hard decisions of the marketplace often make the public prefer the imposition of human intelligence as a counter weight, but they soon discover (or they should if sentient) that no matter how hard the market it leave a person with a choice whereas the imposition of the government leaves none. The following paragraph though written almost 70 years ago could be the product of this morning:

“The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field  of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of the same rationalistic ‘individualism’ which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible. Indeed, the great lesson which the individualist philosophy teaches us on this score is that, while it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.”

What Hayek teaches us is that the only viable society is one based on individual liberty, a society that enacts general laws which are equally applied, and which resists the almost irresistible compulsion to interfere with the free exercise of individual rights; this interference is almost always excused in the name 0f social justice, a phrase that typically signals the approach of something nefarious. Social justice results from a free society where the government does for the people only that which is necessary for their welfare and which they cannot reasonably be expected to do for themselves. Whether the democratic countries of the world can successfully organize themselves along the principle of individual liberty is the compelling issue of our age. The alternative is submersion under a flood or moral sloth and societal dependence on a fattened bureaucracy.

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Recording of the Week: Four Last Songs

June 17, 2010

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are not only a personal valedictory, but they are the end of more than a century of glorious German art songs; they are the farewell to the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and finally Strauss himself. These hibernal songs written shortly before the composer’s death, and not performed until after it, have been recorded by almost every soprano of note over the past 60 years. The earlier Strauss, he of the whale sized orchestra and bombast amid beauty, had long been tamed by time. What remained was a gentle old age devoid of anger covered by resignation and acceptance.

The standard by which all interpreters of these works is judged was set by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Here is her recording of the third of the songs – Beim Schlafengehen. All four of them can be downloaded here for only one euro which at today’s exchange rate is less than $1.25. Schwarzkopf’s sensitivity and phrasing reveal every nuance of these beautiful songs. Her almost fragile tone captures the beautiful poignance that Strauss’ final effort suffused these songs. Note the wonderful reading of the text of the third and final stanza.

Beim Schlafengehen
(“Going to sleep”) (Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Renée Fleming easily equals Schwarzkopf in her interpretation of these songs. And she brings to them a more lustrous instrument. She takes the song much slower than Schwarzkopf – her version is a minute and forty seconds longer. Her voice is so perfectly controlled that this greater duration is not readily noticed as the beauty of the song and her voice seems enhanced by this rendition. Here is Fleming’s singing the last stanza of Beim Schlafengehen.

Fleming is so good with Strauss that I wonder what drives her to the bel canto repertory where she’s good enough, but does not reach the level she attains with Strauss. This recording contains five additional Strauss songs which are all gorgeously rendered. Particularly noteworthy is Wiegenlied.  The disc concludes with Der Rosenkavalier  Suite conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

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Dancing Mania

June 14, 2010

First we had La Traviata in public places, now we have The Sound of Music (Christopher Plummer called it The Sound of Mucus and he was there) popping up in train stations in Belgium and New Zealand.

A lot of people seem taken by these public displays by the descendants of the dancing maniacs of the middle ages. These dances seem to be the carefully planned expressions of spontaneous motion as joyous kinesis. I apprehend something more sinister – the imminent descent of Western Culture into terminal bathos. Of course, this decline has been underway since before the circumcision of Elagabalus. But The Sound of Music. Why?

Okay, The Rite of Spring might have been a bit of a challenge. But Tchaikovsky or even Khachaturian would have set toes to tapping without embarrassing even the most cloying sentimental. If you had to have words with the rhythm  Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin are atop the popular pantheon.

My biggest fear is contagion. This sort of thing could easily spread to every shopping mall in the country. Both commerce and culture could simultaneously degrade under the assault of do re mi. If this tic is confined to railroad stations we could escape without serious damage as there are almost none left in the US. I’m told the CDC is on the case. I feel better already. But what if Wagner is next.

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The History of the Tenor

June 12, 2010

The above is the title of a web site devoted to tenors and their recorded legacy. It contains material compiled by the late operaphile Sydney Rhys Barker (1928 – 2005). The site, still under construction, was assembled by Mr Barker’s son Sidney. The material on the site spans most of the 20th century – 1900 to 1990.  This is the description of its purpose given by the younger Barker:

My father, Sydney Rhys Barker was an opera lover from the age of 8. Opera was his great love and he collected records his entire life.

In the late 1980’s someone asked him to put together a cassette tape of highlights from some of his favorite singers.

My father spent the next 2 years recording what was to become “The History of the Tenor”.

He produced twenty-eight 90 minute tapes for a total of 42 hours of narration with clips from his substantial record collection and had access to several others through friends and opera lovers he had known since he was a boy.

These tapes were handed over to me by my mother after my fathers death in 2005 and it seems to me that these treasures should be available to those who shared in this great hobby of his.

It is my hope to try to make all of these sound clips available to anyone who wishes to hear them, it is information he collected over 45 years – of which I have little idea.

But I thank all and everyone who may have contributed in advance on his behalf.

These are the sole opinions of my father and I can only assume that they are as comprehensive a collection as can be made.

Opera was not something I inherited from him, but I do know if he did something – he did it with great enthusiasm, integrity and passion.

Anyone interested in opera in general and tenors in particular will gain great pleasure browsing through the vocal  archives assembled by both Barkers. While there are some errors here and there (eg, Chaliapin is listed as a tenor, La Juive is translated as The Jew rather than The Jewess, Di Stefano’s recording of Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana is the 1944 version with piano rather than the 1947 recording with orchestra), there’s nothing serious enough to distract you from the site’s cornucopia of audio.

Highly recommended. Worth perusing.

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The First Artificial Cell?

June 9, 2010

Last month the news media heralded the creation in the lab of the first artificial cell. This work was a great achievement, but it wasn’t the creation of an artificial cell. What was done at the J Craig Venter Institute was the creation of an artificial bacterial  chromosome that was successfully transferred into a bacterium where it replaced the cell’s native DNA. The cell then began replicating itself making a new set of protein driven by the artificial DNA. Read a summary of this work here and the whole paper here.

This work is a great scientific advance, but it’s far from the creation of an artificial cell. The authors of this work, in fact, never claimed they had created an artificial cell. It was the press that made this leap. A synthetic genome was manufactured. And this bacterial genome was not made from scratch as the synthetic genome inserted was almost identical to that of a natural bacterium. The creation of a whole cell using only inert materials is likely a long way off. In other words, artificial life has yet to be created. Will it happen? Probably. If and when it does the achievement will be stupendous. Going to multi-cell organisms is an even more daunting challenge. But even if this is met the three basic questions facing science and indeed all human inquiry will remain:

1. How did the universe arise?
2. How did life start?
3. How did human consciousness begin?

My guess is that the answers to these three questions will remain elusive or even unattainable. But human ingenuity is as boundless as human mischief.

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Di Stefano Sings Schubert’s Ständchen

June 6, 2010

Schubert and Giuseppe Di Stefano is not a common association. But here he is singing Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade Di Stefano) in Spanish. It’s from the soundtrack of a Mexican movie made in 1953. Below are the Spanish lyrics he sings followed by the original German. After these is an English rendition. So what we have is a German song sung by an Italian in Spanish with an appended English version. Regardless of the linguistic farrago, Di Stefano sings the song beautifully. His voice is in pristine condition which means it’s beautiful beyond words.


“A claror de triste luna faro de pesar
El rigor de mi fortuna quiero aumentar
Todo en paz con blando sueño duerme en derredor
Solo yo, mi duclce dueña. Velo con dolor
Dardo soy que busca errante lauras para ti
Pues quedé tu esclavo amante luego que te vi
Tu quizá gentil señora mientras peno yo
Soñarás que fiel te ador quien infiel nació
Mas te ví por la ventana, ya piedad logré
Tu que fuiste ayer Tirana premias hoy mi fe…”


“Leise flehen meine Lieder
Durch die Nacht zu dir
In dem stillen Hain hernieder
Liebster komm zu mir
Flüsternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen
In des Mondes Licht
In des Mondes Licht
Willst mein liebend Herz du lauschen
Warte Liebster nicht
Warte Liebster nicht

Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen
Ach sie flehen dich
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich

Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz
Jedes weiche Herz

Lass auch dir das Herz bewegen
Liebster höre mich
Bebend harr ich dir entgegen
Komm beglücke mich
Komm beglücke mich
Beglücke mich”


“My songs quietly implore you
through the night;
down to the silent wood
my love, come to me!
The tree tops whisper
in the light of the moon;
Don’t be afraid, my love,
no-one will observe us.

Can you hear the nightingales?
Oh! They implore you,
their sweet lament
pleads with you on my behalf.

They understand the yearning I feel,
they know love’s torture,
with their silvery notes
they touch every soft heart.

Let them touch yours, too,
sweet love: hear my plea!
Trembling I await you,
come, bring me bliss!”

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