Yesterday at the HES meetings I was part of a panel discussing The Constitution of Liberty that was organized by Bruce Caldwell. The other panelists were Roberta Herzberg and Ted Burczak, as well as Bruce who discussed the context of Hayek's book and the new edition of the book that will appear in The Collected Works.
For my part I emphasized how I thought one can see Hayek's work as part of his project in robust political economy. Pointing to "Individualism: True and False", I stressed Hayek's discussion of how the project of Smith and his contemporaries was to craft a set of rules where bad men can do least harm, and how Hayek saw the fundamental flaws in mankind as exemplified either through our opportunism or our hubristic ambition. Not only can the statesman not direct individuals in their economic life because they lack the local knowledge, Smith pointed out in the Wealth of Nations, but the power required for such a task at command and control can not be trusted to no council or senate, and would nowhere be as dangerous as in a man who fancied himself fit for such a task. The Smithian wisdom was one which warned about opportunism and hubris and the 'man of systems'.
Hume argued that in designing rules of governance, that it would be best to assume that all men are knaves. As I stressed, our knavishness comes in the form of opportunism, and hubris. One of the central intellectual projects in The Constitution of Liberty is the Humean one to use reason to whittle down the claims of Reason. Pointing to passages on pp. 29-31; 68; 154; 184; and 192, I suggested that the work in constitutional political economy can be most fruitfully seen as Buchanan's focus to curb opportunistic ambition in man through rules and institutional mechanisms, and Hayek's focus to curb hubristic ambitions through rules and institutional mechanisms. In both, we see not only the quest for binding rules to limit state power, but also the use of competitive pressures (e.g., federalism) to limit power.
I ended my remarks by stressing how live this research program was in the modern world, and pointed to Hayek's chapter on monetary policy and the quest for rules to bind the monetary authority and the difficulties we face today and how thinking along the lines that I had laid out in terms of opportunism and hubris would produce a different set of policy recommendations than we have in fact followed.
Bottom line: The Constitution of Liberty is a great work in the field of constitutional political economy and as relevant today as it was in 1960 when it was first published.