Ronald Hamowy and the Lion’s Dentist

As David Boaz has written, we mourn this weekend’s loss of one of the great libertarian scholars, Ronald Hamowy, a historian of scintillating erudition, acute judgment, and formidable breadth of interests. Bryan Caplan has an appreciation that includes a Liberty Fund link to the entire online run of the Hamowy-edited New Individualist Review (1961-68), by common consent the best libertarian student journal ever, and notes also the friendly intellectual quarrel that eventually arose between Hamowy and one of his own mentors, Friedrich von Hayek.

Hayek in his social theorizing didn’t always get everything right, but his fellow advocates of liberty weren’t always keen to point that out in print, for the same reason that there are few volunteers to perform dentistry on the lion. But if anyone can perform the delicate operation without fear of the jaws snapping shut, it is one who knows as of instinct how the lion thinks. Such was Hamowy, whose commitment to individual liberty was if anything more ardent than Hayek’s own, and who as a specialist in the Scottish enlightenment of Adam Smith, David Hume and Adam Ferguson had thought long and deeply about the conditions under which spontaneous orders emerge and freedom can generate successful social complexity.

Here is Daniel Klein, reviewing a 2005 volume in which Hamowy takes issue deftly with the master on several issues notably (from my perspective) including the evolution of law:

The final critical essay concerns Hayek’s tale of the common law. Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order is most prominently applied to the complex workings of the economy — “the incredible bread machine” — but also finds application in the evolution of customs, language, law, and science. Hayek was keen to show the viability of capturing a dynamic system of law under the conceptual umbrella of spontaneous order. In making his case, he portrayed the English common law as such a system. Hamowy looks hard at the history and character of English common law, and concludes that Hayek’s historic tale fails on two counts: first, its substance was not all that libertarian, and second, its evolution was not all that spontaneous. Hamowy advises us against citing the English common law as an example of spontaneous-order law.

Hamowy’s scholarship was full of such unexpected, fearless, and provocative acts of judgment.