A Hayekian coup in Egypt?

(Warning: This has nothing to do with monetary policy issues)

For some time there has raged a very interesting – but for Hayek fans an unpleasant  – debate in the blogosphere about Hayek’s views of Chilean dictator Augosto Pinicohet. It all started with a blog post around a year ago by Corey Robin – a left-leaning long-time critique of conservative and libertarian thinkers – in which he claimed that “Friedrich von Hayek was a warm supporter of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody regime.” 

I must say that when I first read Corey’s post I thought he made a strong case. For a long time admirer of Hayek as myself that was not nice. Since then I have followed the debate about Corey’s claims on and off over the past year without having followed it very closely and without having made up my mind on all the issues involved in this debate.

Corey has been attacked by a number of libertarian scholars among them Kevin Vallier. Kevin’s latest post – Hayek and Pinochet, A Discussion Deferred For Now – on the issue was recently posted on the excellent Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Pete Boettke also has a very good discussion of related issues here.

Numerous scholars have been involved in this debate, but unfortunately I don’t think that anybody have written anything to sum up the debate – and I am certainly not going to do that. In fact I don’t really has a view on who is right and who is wrong on this topic. However, the debate is highly relevant for recent developments in Egypt and that is what is want I really want to touch on in this post.

Did general al-Sisi read Hayek’s “Law, Legislation and Liberty”‘?

I had just read another blog post by Corey Robin on the Hayek-Pinochet connection when the military coup in Egypt happened. That made me think what Hayek would have thought of that coup.

In his post Corey quotes Hayek:

As long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally, I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking in liberalism. My personal impression…is that in Chile…we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government….during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers.

Corey further claims the following about Hayek’s views:

He had his secretary send a draft of what eventually became chapter 17—“A Model Constitution”—of the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty. That chapter includes a section on “Emergency Powers,” which defends temporary dictatorships when “the long-run preservation” of a free society is threatened. “Long run” is an elastic phrase, and by free society Hayek doesn’t mean liberal democracy. He has something more particular and peculiar in mind: “that the coercive powers of government are restricted to the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct, and cannot be used for the achievement of particular purposes.” That last phrase is doing a lot of the work here: Hayek believed, for example, that the effort to secure a specific distribution of wealth constituted the pursuit of a particular purpose. So the threats to a free society might not simply come from international or civil war.

This discussion to me smells of the same kind of argument, which is being made in Egypt these days by anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces – among them some liberals (in the broadest possible sense). They have been arguing that while Morsi was democratically elected his regime turned anti-democratic and therefore it was in the interest of the people and freedom that the military deposed of him and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some would probably argue that the coup was necessary to save democracy in Egypt.

I don’t have a view on this, but tell me what to think please!

I should stress that I don’t have any particular view – at least not a qualified view – on what Hayek’s views on Pinochet was and I certainly do not have any idea about what he would have thought of the coup in Egypt. However, I do think that the fundamental philosophical discussion about the “rights” of the military to depose a democratically elected government is highly important particularly for what is going on in Egypt these days.

And yes, 90% of what I write on this blog is about monetary issues, but I am still on vacation so I am a bit philosophical here so I would hope that somebody will pick up the challenge and tell me what Hayek would have thought of the coup in Egypt. That is really what I want to know. And again I am not making any judgement on either the Hayek-Pinochet connection debate or the present situation in Egypt.

I am just asking questions. Maybe somebody much better schooled in Hayek’s philosophical work will help me.

PS let me know if you think it is interesting that I from time to time move into other areas of economics and politics than monetary matters. I promise I will not do it a lot, but on the other hand I might start doing it a little more frequent if my readers like it.

PPS In terms of political philosophy I do not and have never considered myself a Hayekian. In fact if any Austrian economist has influenced me on these issues it is – believe it or not – Murray Rothbard. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty made a lot bigger impression on me than Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty ever did, but I am certainly not a Rothbardian either.

PPPS Farant, McPhail and Berger’s 2011 paper on “Preventing the “Abuses” of Democracy: Hayek, the Military “Usurper” and Transitional Dictatorship in Chile”? is a must-read paper.

Update: Somebody sent me this quote from the Wall Street Journal:

“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”

Leave a comment


  1. jpirving

     /  July 12, 2013

    Absolutely please wade into the nonmonetary swamps Lars.

    For me, Pinochet was a flawed but necessary figure and I will think this until someone tells me how he and the (usually evil) CIA are not responsible for the massive improvement in Chile’s living standard since the coup. He surely added to the quality-weighted number of life years in Chile.

    It’s easy to hold Pinochet up to the standards of a western politician. But LatAm was a violent place then (still is though better now without the *Marxist* guerrillas). Likewise, Egypt is a place where an uncovered western woman can be sexually assaulted by a mob of men who chant ‘Jew’ (google Lara Logan Egypt). Islam as practiced in Egypt is also an institution which forces girls to wed their cousins, cover their hair and sometimes faces (a minor crime against humanity) and which routinely brings violence down upon the the vestigial Coptic Christian community (who keep alight the preconquest Egyptian culture).

    So if the Egyptian army has to gun down a few thousand religious fascists to keep civilization going then so be it. There is nothing magical about Democracy, the magic is a wide degree of personal freedom (Hong Kong anyone?). Friedman once said something like ‘Suppose 51% of the population voted that the other 49 should be shot…”.

    Clearly my self-righteousness comes with risks. Go too far down this path and before you know it you could find yourself frostbitten, eating horse meat in Stalingrad. But then *that guy* was democratically elected.

  2. guest

     /  July 12, 2013

    I’m not sure that there’s anything to Hayek’s argument, but the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy” (and note that this means _classical_ liberalism, not what US folks mean by ‘liberal’ these days) accounts for many of its good institutional properties, in a way that is not universally recognized. (this seems quite clear if you look at transitional, “democratizing” countries without a strong history of protecting individual rights)

    On the other hand, genuine “transitional” authoritarian regimes are quite rare; generaly, such regimes are either nationalistic or they promote some kind of fascist-like ideology which has more to do with supposedly “natural authority” or “hierarchy” than supporting a transition to liberal democracy. The best case would be something like South Korea, which used to be quite undemocratic but did turn into a liberal democracy after all. Singapore or even the PRC might go the same way. I’m not at all sure that this would ever happen in Pinochet’s Chile, however.

  3. AJay

     /  July 12, 2013

    Here is a much better link to the Hayek and Pinochet paper (has the bibliography etc): http://coreyrobin.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hayekchile.pdf

  4. Peter

     /  July 12, 2013

    +1 on more non-monetary stuff.

    I’m with jpirving on the democracy/dictatorship issue. It’s just an empirical question of which one produces the most liberal society.

  5. It’s never a bad idea to throw a curveball on posts!

    My knowledge of the history of Chile is limited at best, but from what I do know I think there’s a tendency to overlook some of the horrid things that took place under the Pinochet regime because of the economic performance of Chile since then. That’s great and all that Chile eventually transitioned to more democratic institutions, but (again, based on my limited knowledge) they endured a lot of crap along the way and the transition seems more out of necessity than the Pinochet regime going voluntarily.

    I just have a hard time justifying Hayek’s sentiments on the matter (benevolent dictatorship? That’s like spending your paycheck on powerball tickets every week hoping that you’ll hit it big eventually), though from what I know of the situation I don’t think he realized the full extent of Pinochet’s despotic policies….

  6. Thanks for the comments above from everybody.

    Just for the record. I think Hayek was wrong on Pinochet and I believe the young Hayek would have been the first to be critical about Hayek’s position. A transitional benevolent liberal dictatorship is a oxymoron.

    Public Choice theory and Mises AND Hayek tell us that there is not such a thing as a benevolent dictator. Therefore, Hayek should never had gone to such length to defend Pinochet’s regime – whether or not it had generally good economic policies.

  7. “A transitional benevolent liberal dictatorship is an oxymoron”, that’s well summarized, Lars.

    Again, I see all this discussion in less abstract terms.

    My guess is that Hayek was simply happy to have found some government that was interested in giving his ideas a thought, and implementing some elements of it. After all, Hayek must have been frustrated in a world that only had ears and eyes for the eloquent Keynes and his ideas, or whatever people though were his ideas.
    Too bad for Hayek that it had to be a bloody dictatorship. I think despite all claims about the “road to serfdom”, no economy under Keynesian management actually had to torture and kill any large number of political opponents.

    As for the Egypt and Chile comparison, I see big differences. Chile is a highly Western / Mediterranean society in terms of its values. The Athenian politeia and the Roman republic form parts of their intellectual and philosophical heritage.

    So it would have eventually returned to democratic rule, no matter whether it was ruled by Pinochet or Allende. It was only a question of time.

    Not so sure about Egypt, although for a time, under the Pharaohs, the official language of their state was Greek. Not sure how strong the influence is today, though.

  8. AJay

     /  July 13, 2013

    I fully agree with what Lars has to say about the public choice (and Mises-Hayek warning also) aspects of Hayek and Pinochet.

    The following has a good discussion also:

  9. James in London

     /  July 14, 2013


    “I think despite all claims about the “road to serfdom”, no economy under Keynesian management actually had to torture and kill any large number of political opponents.”

    Err, what about Nazi Germany?

  10. Margaret Thatcher in Britain was a great admirer of Hayek, and also of General Pinochet. (However, she claimed to oppose Communism on democratic grounds!)

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