Books & Manuscripts

F.A. Hayek and the Presidential Medal of Freedom

By Gabriel Heaton
Sotheby's upcoming online sale, Friedrich von Hayek: His Nobel Prize and Family Collection from 8-19 March presents a compelling record of the life of one of the 20th century's most important economists.

"F riedrich August von Hayek has done more than any thinker of our age to explore the promise and contours of liberty. He grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s tyranny, and devoted himself at an early age to the nurture of institutions that preserve and expand freedom, the lifeblood of a full life. The Road to Serfdom still thrills readers everywhere, and his subsequent works inspire people throughout the world because they possess the vigor and feel of real life – not just the hollow ring of abstract theory. Professor von Hayek has revolutionized the world’s intellectual and political life. Future generations will read his works with the same sense of history and awe that inspire us today.” - Citation to the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Friedrich von Hayek, 1991.

President George H.W. Bush’s award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Friedrich von Hayek came towards the end of Hayek’s long life (indeed Hayek himself was too frail to receive it personally). However, it was the culmination of nearly sixty years of engagement with American political and economic life that began in 1923, when Hayek first visited America as a young post-graduate to work as a research assistant to Professor Jeremiah Jenks in New York. When he came to back the US in April 1945 to promote The Road to Serfdom he found himself, much to his own surprise, a public intellectual. His timely book had been condensed for the Reader’s Digest and the arguments even summarized as a cartoon, provoking widespread outrage from New Dealers and admiration from Republicans; rather than lecturing to academics, he found himself addressing a crowd of 3000 at New York’s Town Hall Club and broadcast simultaneously on the radio.

In 1950 Hayek returned to America to take up a chair at the University of Chicago. Hayek wrote his great work on political philosophy, The Constitution of Liberty, during his Chicago years. He was also, perhaps for the first time, surrounded by colleagues with similar ideas. This was the time when the Chicago School of Economics was beginning to bring a new vigour to attacks on Keynesian economic orthodoxy. Hayek was a member of the newly formed Committee on Social Thought and ran interdisciplinary seminars that were highly influential in the development of neoliberalism.

Hayek returned to Europe in 1962, although he remained a frequent visitor to the US, but his ideas had taken deep roots in a nation that had an instinctive trust in markets as a bedrock of freedom. One of the many figures on the American right who was influenced by Hayek was Ronald Reagan. Reagan signaled his admiration for Hayek by inviting him to the White House in 1983 – recording in his diary that "Met 85 year old Frederick Von Hayek—the great economist, a pupil of Von Mises. I’ve read his works & quoted him for years." Reaganomics was deeply indebted to the ideas germinated by Hayek over the preceding decades, and it is legacy that endures to this day.

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