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Hayek and The Vienna State Opera: a Reprise


Preparing for a debate on the continued existence of PBS this past autumn, readers with long memories will recall, I posted a bleg on the great libertarian economist, Friedrich von Hayek. John Gray, a tutor of mine when I was at Oxford, I explained, had told me that Hayek believed in government support of certain cultural enterprises, notably the Vienna State Opera. Could anyone, I asked, give me a reference to such a position in Hayek’s books?

Nobody could, but a couple of enterprising readers were able to send me an email address for John Gray, who had long ago moved from Oxford to the London School of Economics. Today I heard back from Dr. Gray at long last. In the hope that it will satisfy the many readers who tried to answer my bleg, here is Dr. Gray’s learned reply:

Dear Mr Robinson

A very belated response to your message and query( I’m sorry that travels and a whirlwind of other activities have delayed it for so unconscionably long). Hayek did mention the Vienna State Opera as a case of justifiable government activity in conversation with me when visiting in Oxford in the Eighties, but I don’t know a text where mentions it and I doubt that one exists. However, in The Constitution of Liberty he sets out very clearly his general view that the state may supply many services and amenities provided it doesn’t claim a monopoly in them. You can find his discussion on pp. 222-4 of the book. Interestingly in footnote 3 on pp. 491-2 which references that discussion Hayek strongly endorses the distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative activities of government made by JS Mill( who he disliked intensely). Mill’s distinction turns on whether a government intervention invades the ” protected sphere” by using coercion beyond the tax power( which includes establishing a monopoly). In Mill’s view as in Hayek’s the state can do anything in the non-authoritative sphere that can reasonably be regarded as useful or desirable, and in Hayek’s view this could include a State Opera and similar cultural and informational amenities.

I hope this clarifies matters regarding Hayek, though it comes too late to be used in your debate about PBS.

With best wishes

John Gray


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