Taking Hayek in vain

Well, my hopes weren’t high. I made it to the 16th minute of the BBC’s documentary on Friedrich Hayek, before having to switch it off. I challenge anyone to do better than that.

What we are dealing with is a documentary formula, into which Hayek’s life and work has been stuffed. The particular formula is the one they use for pioneering scientists who discover bacteria or something like that, and the need is to stress just how isolated and way-out the fellow was considered by everybody else. That might be fine for doing the mathematician who cracked Fermat’s Last Theorem, and may lend itself to atmospheric long-shots of the presenter walking through empty courtyards and down echoing corridors, but Friedrich Hayek was not a man working alone, and his ideas built on the ideas of other earlier and contemporary economists. I kept waiting for the name Ludwig von Mises to crop up, and it never did. It’s kind of hard to discuss Hayek’s early years in Vienna without once mentioning Mises. The final straw came when the presenter described his work at the Institute of Business Cycle Research which was founded with Mises at the Chamber of Commerce where Mises worked, and where he held his legendary seminars, which Hayek attended, and even then she could not bear to utter Mises’ name. The following is far from a perfect analogy, but it’s like watching a documentary about Mark Antony with no mention of Caesar.

The documentary is from a three-part series called ‘Masters of Money’. The other two parts feature Keynes and Marx. Somehow I figure the Beeb may be in far more familiar territory with these two, especially the last one, although how he can be considered as a master of money, is a mystery, unless it is referring to his incredible talent to leech off his friends, followers and family to fund his decadent, bourgeois life of leisure.

All I can say, is thank goodness we don’t have to rely on the BBC to (mis-) inform us anymore.

  13 comments for “Taking Hayek in vain

  1. Paul Marks
    Sep 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    I do not waste my time watching BBC shows any more – parrticularly not on subjects I care about.

    I used to complain – but then just treated my complaints (even about basic factual errors – such as “history” shows that claimed that the poor rate was invented in 1834) with contempt.

    They really are a waste of time.

    The horrible thing is – that even if one does not watch the BBC (and I do not) one still has to pay a special television tax to fund these people.

    • Lucian
      Sep 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm

      Don’t pay the TV tax. It is only required if you watch or record live tv, so just confine yourself to catch-up tv (i-player etc) and Youtube.

  2. Richard Carey
    Sep 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Not me. No telly.

  3. George Mulberry
    Sep 27, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Personally I thougth it wasns’t that bad, and depsite Paul Krugman popping up occasionally it was a pretty fair portrayal of Hayek’s life and works.
    And as this was a profile of Hayek not the Austrian school in general I wasn’t that concerned that other members of that movement weren’t covered. (Indeed, just getting Hayek on the BBC must could as a sucess!)

    Oh and Mises name was visible briefly- in a clip form the second Keynes-Hayek rap

    • Richard Carey
      Sep 27, 2012 at 11:51 am

      Call me ungrateful. When do you think the BBC will get round to a documentary on Rothbard? 2031? And they’ll tell us he was a Friedmanite!

  4. Tom Burroughes
    Sep 27, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I agree with George and disagree with this posting. I thought this was a pretty fair programme by the admittedly un-stellar standards of the BBC (this is a relative thing). We learned quite a lot about what Hayek thought and said. S. Flanders even had the good grace to acknowledge that, while some people remain unconvinced by the idea that the way for an economy to right itself after a boom is to let prices fall, she also pointed out that many attempts by central bankers to revive economies haven’t worked, either. That is a big admission to make.

    For example, she also pointed to the argument that bailouts of banks create a moral hazard problem and gave the example of Hayek’s idea about competing currencies. That’s good.

    We should not get too sniffy here. The programme put ideas out there that a lot of intelligent people have never heard of before, or seen expressed in quite the same way. Yes, we had the indignity of watching that poisonous character, Krugman, make his laughable comments about the Victorian era or 19th century banking, but at least the hour-long programme pushed some memes out there. Good.

    As for Marx, not quite sure how one talks about a man whose ideas are 90 per cent wrong and who was a liar and a bully. That is going to be a challenge.

    • Richard Carey
      Sep 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

      I don’t think it’s sniffy to point at a glaring distortion in the programme’s narrative. I don’t doubt that Hayek’s views were represented reasonably accurately in themselves, but Hayek was not a man alone and he didn’t become a great economist by going to the crossroads at midnight.

      This is from his essay ‘Economics of the 1920s as seen from Vienna’:

      “For most of the period between the two wars the most important of these was what was known as the Mises Privatseminar, though it was really entirely outside the university. These were fortnightly informal meetings held in the evening at Mises’s office at the Chamber of Commerce and invariably continued far into the night at some coffeehouse. They must have started about 1922 and I believe continued until Mises left Vienna in 1934 – I cannot say exactly, since I was not in either at the beginning or at the end. But from about 1924 to 1931, assisted by the circumstance that Mises had got Haberler and myself jobs in the same building, and Haberler, as assistant librarian, continued the work started by Mises of turning the library into the best economics library in Vienna, the Chamber of Commerce building and the meetings held there were at least as much the centre of economic discussion in Vienna as the University.”

      Regarding his work on business cycles, he writes in the same essay;

      “It all sent me rather back to Wicksell and Mises and made me attempt to build on the foundations they had laid a fully explicit account of the successive phases of the business cycle, in which we then still all believed. ”

      These quotes are only to indicate that Hayek was not working in a bubble. I’m not complaining that the programme was about Hayek when it should have been about Mises or the Austrian School, I’m complaining that the documentary did not even mention in passing some important parts of the story of Hayek’s life and his development as a thinker, and seemed to go out of its way to avoid mentioning Mises, in order to fit a boiler-plate ‘great minds think alone’ documentary formula.

      That formula may work much better with Keynes and Marx, who were both put on a pedestal by their followers.

  5. Sep 27, 2012 at 11:55 am

    I am sure when quantum physicists watch a Horizon programme on string theory they feel like tearing their hair out at the omissions and generalisations used to make it watchable for the masses.

    This programme was intended for general consumption and, as such, it hit the spot pretty well.

  6. Richard Carey
    Sep 27, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    For a more positive review, albeit one that names various flaws:

    http://thegodthatfailed.org/2012/09/25/hayek-masters-of-money/

  7. Tim Carpenter
    Sep 30, 2012 at 1:11 am

    This should be seen in comparison to the one on Keynes.

    While Hayek was fairly balanced, AFAICT, the Keynes edition was almost universally positive. While 2001 as a precursor of 2008 was mentioned in Hayek, not a peep in Keynes, for it would then explode his theories. The producers knew that 2001 happened and the causes, but just could not bear to link them to Keynesian thinking.

    They also mentioned Hoover but did not mention the 1920 recession that was deeper than 1929 but over in 18 months because the State did not intervene.

    So, taken as two episodes, it fails. There is bias, not in the Hayek episode, but the one most will watch, on Keynes. It will be an echo-chamber of denial, delusion and dissonance.

  8. Richard Carey
    Sep 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Tim, wait until you see the one on Marx. Perhaps they intend Marx as the great synthesis of economics into the negation of the negation of the materialistic dialectic.

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