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The Case for Freedom

The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends.

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our pres­ent wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty. And, in turn, liberty of the individual would, of course, make complete foresight impossible. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the un­foreseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preserva­tion of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen. These ac­cidents occur in the combination of knowledge and attitudes, skills and habits, acquired by individual men and also when qualified men are confronted with the particular circumstances which they are equipped to deal with. Our neces­sary ignorance of so much means that we have to deal largely with probabilities and chances.

Of course, it is true of social as of individual life that favorable accidents usually do not just hap­pen. We must prepare for them. But they still remain chances and do not become certainties. They in­volve risks deliberately taken, the possible misfortune of individuals and groups who are as meritorious as others who prosper, the possi­bility of serious failure or relapse even for the majority, and merely a high probability of a net gain on balance. All we can do is to in­crease the chance that some special constellation of individual endow­ment and circumstance will result in the shaping of some new tool or the improvement of an old one, and to improve the prospect that such innovations will become rapidly known to those who can take ad­vantage of them.

Imperfect Beings

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest. Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dy­namic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ig­norant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignif­icant.

The classical argument for tol­erance formulated by John Milton and John Locke and restated by John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot rests, of course, on the recog­nition of this ignorance of ours. It is a special application of general considerations to which a nonrationalist insight into the working of our mind opens the doors. We shall find throughout this book that, though we are usually not aware of it, all institutions of free­dom are adaptations to this funda­mental fact of ignorance, adapted to deal with chances and probabili­ties, not certainty. Certainty we cannot achieve in human affairs, and it is for this reason that, to make the best use of what knowl­edge we have, we must adhere to rules which experience has shown to serve best on the whole, though we do not know what will be the consequences of obeying them in the particular instance.

Man learns by the disappoint­ment of expectations. Needless to say, we ought not to increase the unpredictability of events by fool­ish human institutions. So far as possible, our aim should be to im­prove human institutions so as to increase the chances of correct foresight. Above all, however, we should provide the maximum of opportunity for unknown individu­als to learn of facts that we our­selves are yet unware of and to make use of this knowledge in their actions.

It is through the mutually ad­justed efforts of many people that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual possesses or than 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.

The Chance of Error

From this foundation of the argument for liberty it follows that we shall not achieve its ends if we confine liberty to the particular instances where we know it will do good. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom. If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear. We shall never get the benefits of freedom, never obtain those unforeseeable new developments for which it pro­vides the opportunity, if it is not also granted where the uses made of it by some do not seem desir­able. It is therefore no argument against individual freedom that it is frequently abused. Freedom necessarily means that many things will be done which we do not like. Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.

It also follows that the import­ance of our being free to do a par­ticular thing has nothing to do with the question of whether we or the majority are ever likely to make use of that particular possibility. To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to mis­conceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use. It might even be said that the less likely the opportunity to make use of freedom to do a particular thing, the more precious it will be for society as a whole. The less likely the opportunity, the more serious will it be to miss it when it arises, for the experience that it offers will be nearly unique.

It is also probably true that the ma­jority are not directly interested in most of the important things that any one person should be free to do. 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. But ma­jority action is, of necessity, con­fined to the already tried and as­certained, to issues on which agreement has already been reached in that process of discus­sion that must be preceded by dif­ferent experiences and actions on the part of different individuals.

Freedom for the Unknown

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 for 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. The instinct that makes us revolt against any physical re­straint, though a helpful ally, is not always a safe guide for justifying or delimiting 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.

The benefits of freedom are therefore not confined to the free—or, at least, a man does not benefit mainly from those aspects of free­dom which he himself takes advan­tage of. There can be no doubt that in history unfree majorities have benefited from the existence of free minorities and that today unfreed societies benefit from what they obtain and learn from free societies. Of course, the bene­fits we derive from the freedom of others become greater as the num­ber of those who can exercise freedom increases. The argument for the freedom of some therefore applies to the freedom of all.

But it is still better for all that some should be free than none and also that many enjoy full freedom than that all have a restricted freedom. The significant point is that the importance of freedom to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the number of people who want to do it: it might almost be in inverse proportion. One con­sequence of this is that a society may be hamstrung by controls, al­though the great majority may not be aware that their freedom has been significantly curtailed. If we proceeded on the assumption that only the exercises of freedom that the majority will practice are important, we would be certain to create a stagnant society with all the characteristic of unfreedom.

The Nature of Change

The undesigned novelties that constantly emerge in the process of adaptation will consist, first, of new arrangements or patterns in which the efforts of different in­dividuals are coordinated and of new constellations in the use of resources, which will be in their nature as temporary as the par­ticular conditions that have evoked them. There will be, second, modi­fications of tools and institutions adapted to the new circumstances. Some of these will also be merely temporary adaptations to the con­ditions of the moment, while others will be improvements that increase the versatility of the existing tools and usages and will therefore be retained. These latter will consti­tute a better adaptation not merely to the particular circumstances of time and place but to some per­manent feature of our environ­ment. In such spontaneous "forma­tions" is embodied a perception of the general laws that govern na­ture. With this cumulative embod­iment of experience in tools and forms of action will emerge a growth of explicit knowledge, of formulated generic rules that can be communicated by language from person to person.

This process by which the new emerges is best understood in the intellectual sphere when the re­sults are new ideas. It is the field in which most of us are aware at least of some of the individual steps of the process, where we necessarily know what is happen­ing and thus generally recognize the necessity of freedom. Most sci­entists realize that we cannot plan the advance of knowledge, that in the voyage into the unknown—which is what research is—we are in great measure dependent on the vagaries of individual genius and of circumstance, and that scientific advance, like a new idea that will spring up in a single mind, will be the result of a combination of con­ceptions, habits, and circumstances brought to one person by society, the result as much of lucky acci­dents as of systematic effort.

Because we are more aware that our advances in the intellectual sphere often spring from the un­foreseen and undesigned, we tend to overstress the importance of freedom in this field and to ignore the importance of the freedom of doing things. But the freedom of research and belief and the free­dom of speech and discussion, the importance of which is widely un­derstood, are significant only in the last stage of the process in which new truths are discovered. To extol the value of intellectual liberty at the expense of the value of the liberty of doing things would be like treating the crown­ing part of an edifice as the whole. We have new ideas to discuss, dif­ferent views to adjust, because those ideas and views arise from the efforts of individuals in ever new circumstances, who avail themselves in their concrete tasks of the new tools and forms of ac­tion they have learned.

The Complexity of Progress

The nonintellectual part of this process—the formation of the changed material environment in which the new emerges—requires for its understanding and appre­ciation a much greater effort of imagination than the factors stressed by the intellectualist view. While we are sometimes able to trace the intellectual processes that have led to a new idea, we can scarcely ever reconstruct the se­quence and combination of those contributions that have not led to the acquisition of explicit knowl­edge; we can scarcely ever recon­struct the favorable habits and skills employed, the facilities and opportunities used, and the par­ticular environment of the main actors that has favored the result.

Our efforts toward understand­ing this part of the process can go little further than to show on sim­plified models the kind of forces at work and to point to the general principle rather than the specific character of the influences that op­erate. Men are always concerned only with what they know. There­fore, those features which, while the process is under way, are not consciously known to anybody are commonly disregarded and can perhaps never be traced in detail.

In fact, these unconscious fea­tures not only are commonly dis­regarded but are often treated as if they were a hindrance rather than a help or an essential condi­tion. Because they are not "ra­tional" in the sense of explicitly entering into our reasoning, they are often treated as irrational in the sense of being contrary to in­telligent action. Yet, though much of the nonrational that affects our action may be irrational in this sense, many of the "mere habits" and "meaningless institutions" that we use and presuppose in our actions are essential conditions for what we achieve; they are success­ful adaptations of society that are constantly improved and on which depends the range of what we can achieve. While it is important to discover their defects, we could not for a moment go on without con­stantly relying on them.

The manner in which we have learned to order our day, to dress, to eat, to arrange our houses, to speak and write, and to use the countless other tools and imple­ments of civilization, no less than the "know-how" of production and trade, furnishes us constantly with the foundations on which our own contributions to the process of civilization must be based. And it is in the new use and improvement of whatever the facilities of civili­zation offer us that the new ideas arise that are ultimately handled in the intellectual sphere.

Though the conscious manipula­tion of abstract thought, once it has been set in train, has in some measure a life of its own, it would not long continue and develop without the constant challenges that arise from the ability of peo­ple to act in a new manner, to try new ways of doing things, and to alter the whole structure of civili­zation in adaptation to change. The intellectual process is in effect only a process of elaboration, selec­tion, and elimination of ideas al­ready formed. And the flow of new ideas, to a great extent, springs from the sphere in which action, often nonrational action, and ma­terial events impinge upon each other. It would dry up if freedom were confined to the intellectual sphere.

The importance of freedom, therefore, does not depend on the elevated character of the activities it makes possible. Freedom of ac­tion, even in humble things, is as important as freedom of thought. It has become a common practice to disparage freedom of action by calling it "economic liberty." But the concept of freedom of action is much wider than that of economic liberty, which it includes; and, what is more important, it is very questionable whether there are any actions which can be called merely "economic" and whether any restrictions on liberty can be confined to what are called merely "economic" aspects. Economic con­siderations are merely those by which we reconcile and adjust our different purposes, none of which, in the last resort, are economic (excepting those of the miser or the man for whom making money has become an end in itself ).

The Goals Are Open

Most of what we have said so far applies not only to man’s use of the means for the achievement of his ends but also to those ends themselves. It is one of the char­acteristics of a free society that men’s goals are open, that new ends of conscious effort can spring up, first with a few individuals, to become in time the ends of most. It is a fact which we must recog­nize that even what we regard as good or beautiful is changeable—if not in any recognizable manner that would entitle us to take a rela­tivistic position, then in the sense that in many respects we do not know what will appear as good or beautiful to another generation. Nor do we know why we regard this or that as good or who is right when people differ as to whether something is good or not. It is not only in his knowledge, but also in his aims and values, that man is the creature of civilization; in the last resort, it is the relevance of these individual wishes to the per­petuation of the group or the spe­cies that will determine whether they will persist or change.

It is, of course, a mistake to be­lieve that we can draw conclusions about what our values ought to be simply because we realize that they are a product of evolution. But we cannot reasonably doubt that these values are created and altered by the same evolutionary forces that have produced our in­telligence. All that we can know is that the ultimate decision about what is good or bad will be made not by individual human wisdom but by the decline of the groups that have adhered to the "wrong" beliefs.

Measures of Success

It is in the pursuit of man’s aims of the moment that all the devices of civilization have to prove themselves; the ineffective will be discarded and the effective retained. But there is more to it than the fact that new ends con­stantly arise with the satisfaction of old needs and with the appear­ance of new opportunities. Which individuals and which groups suc­ceed and continue to exist depends as much on the goals that they pursue, the values that govern their action, as on the tools and capacities at their command. Whether a group will prosper or be extinguished depends as much on the ethical code it obeys, or the ideals of beauty or well-being that guide it, as on the degree to which it has learned or not learned to satisfy its material needs. Within any given society, particular groups may rise or decline accord­ing to the ends they pursue and the standards of conduct that they observe. And the ends of the suc­cessful group will tend to become the ends of all members of the so­ciety.

At most, we understand only partially why the values we hold or the ethical rules we observe are conducive to the continued exist­ence of our society. Nor can we be sure that under constantly chang­ing conditions all the rules that have proved to be conducive to the attainment of a certain end will remain so. Though there is a pre­sumption that any established so­cial standard contributes in some manner to the preservation of civ­ilization, our only way of confirming this is to ascertain whether it continues to prove itself in com­petition with other standards ob­served by other individuals or groups.

Competition Affords Alternatives

The competition in which the process of selection rests must be understood in the widest sense. It involves competition between or­ganized and unorganized groups no less than competition between in­dividuals. To think of it in con­trast to cooperation or organization would be to misconceive its nature. The endeavor to achieve certain results by cooperation and or­ganization is as much a part of competition as individual efforts. Successful group relations also prove their effectiveness in com­petition among groups organized in different ways. The relevant dis­tinction is not between individual and group action but between con­ditions, on the one hand, in which alternative ways based on differ­ent views or practices may be tried and conditions, on the other, in which one agency has the exclu­sive right and the power to pre­vent others from trying. It is only when such exclusive rights are conferred on the presumption of superior knowledge of particular individuals or groups that the process ceases to be experimental and beliefs that happen to be prevalent at a given time may be­come an obstacle to the advance­ment of knowledge.

The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful means that human reason can em­ploy, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from trying to do better. Every organi­zation is based on given knowl­edge; organization means commit­ment to a particular aim and to particular methods, but even or­ganization designed to increase knowledge will be effective only in­sofar as the knowledge and beliefs on which its design rests are true. And if any facts contradict the beliefs on which the structure of the organization is based, this will become evident only in its failure and super session by a different type of organization.

Organization is therefore likely to be beneficial and effective so long as it is voluntary and is im­bedded in a free sphere and will either have to adjust itself to cir­cumstances not taken into account in its conception or fail. To turn the whole of society into a single organization built and directed ac­cording to a single plan would be to extinguish the very forces that shaped the individual human minds that planned it.

It is worth our while to consider for a moment what would happen if only what was agreed to be the best available knowledge were to be used in all action. If all at­tempts that seemed wasteful in the light of generally accepted knowl­edge were prohibited and only such questions asked, or such experi­ments tried, as seemed significant in the light of ruling opinion, man­kind might well reach a point where its knowledge enabled it to predict the consequences of all con­ventional actions and to avoid all disappointment or failure. Man would then seem to have subjected his surroundings to his reason, for he would attempt only those things which were totally predictable in their results. We might conceive of a civilization coming to a stand­still, not because the possibilities of further growth had been ex­hausted, but because man had suc­ceeded in so completely subjecting all his actions and his immediate surroundings to his existing state of knowledge that there would be no occasion for new knowledge to appear.

The rationalist who desires to subject everything to human rea­son is thus faced with a real di­lemma. The use of reason aims at control and predictability. But the process of the advance of reason rests on freedom and the unpre­dictability of human action. Those who extol the powers of human reason usually see only one side of that interaction of human thought and conduct in which reason is at the same time used and shaped. They do not see that, for advance to take place, the social process from which the growth of reason emerges must remain free from its control.

Freezing the Process

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life. His continued advance may well depend on his deliber­ately refraining from exercising controls which are now in his power. In the past, the spontane­ous forces of growth, however much restricted, could usually still assert themselves against the or­ganized coercion of the state. With the technological means of control now at the disposal of government, it is not certain that such assertion is still possible; at any rate, it may soon become impossible. We are not far from the point where the deliberately organized forces of society may destroy those spon­taneous forces which have made advance possible.


Reprinted from The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek by permission of The Uni­versity of Chicago Press. ©1960 by the Uni­versity of Chicago. 570 pp., $7.50.


F. A. Hayek
F. A. Hayek


Friedrich Hayek  (1899 – 1992) was an economist and philosopher, author of seminal works that changed intellectual history, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena. He taught in Vienna, London, and Chicago.