The Clare Spark Blog

October 9, 2010

David Riesman v. Friedrich Hayek

David Riesman, public intellectual

It is a revelation to compare David Riesman’s conception of American character in The Lonely Crowd (1950) and the possibility of individuality with that of Friedrich Hayek’s stubborn seeker after truth in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Riesman’s book (co-written with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney) identifies three social character types, all of whom could be found in postwar America: the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed. Since I had used the last two terms in previous blogs, I checked his book to see if my memory was correct: whether or not the inner-directed type (with which I identify myself) was a desirable type, in Riesman’s view. It turns out that he doesn’t believe that this “Puritan ascetic” bourgeois is an independent thinker at all, but rather one who has internalized the goals injected by his parents. Oh, oh, I thought. So then I wondered, what was his father’s occupation?

But before I get to that remarkable fact, I was not surprised to see that Riesman’s affinity group included many of the names in the burgeoning social sciences that I had analyzed in my book on Melville as read between the wars: Harold Lasswell, Gardner Murphy, Henry A. Murray, T. W. Adorno, Erik Erikson, and others who did not appear in my work, such as refugees Erich Fromm and Leo Lowenthal. All of these figures saw [Hayek’s] “individual” as pathological in some way, especially when, as Lasswell put it, they caused crises of deference by questioning authority.

Friedrich Hayek had written one of the great books of the twentieth century (though it would not be in Robert Hutchins’s list of must-reads): in no uncertain terms, Hayek warned that the totalitarianisms of Europe had made huge collectivist inroads in the United States, and the project of his book was to save classical liberalism from the new misnamed “liberals” whose statism had almost erased the conception of the 19th century individual as understood by those influenced by Adam Smith: Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, and Gladstone, to name a few. What particularly endeared me to Hayek was his recognition that German culture had been pushing both Prussian militarism and volkisch notions of “community” in order to displace the Renaissance/Reformation notion of the peace-loving, innovating, self-reliant individual for several centuries, and that Hitler, Mussolini, and American progressives had not invented anything new in their statist remedies for the social problems of industrialization.

Back to David Riesman, whose achievements as a young man had already identified him as future member of an intellectual elite: his editorship of the Harvard Crimson, his making Harvard Law Review, his clerkship for (Progressive) Louis D. Brandeis, for instance. But since he denied that the inner-directed person was self-reliant, but rather the puppet of his parents and then the flotsam and jetsam of consumerism, I looked up his genealogy and could only get some material on his father, a noted physician and Professor of Clinical Medicine in Philadelphia (The University of Pennsylvania Medical School), where he had been raised. His father’s name was also David Riesman, and Wikipedia simply states that Riesman (fils) was a Jew. The name Riesman does not evoke the Eastern European recent immigrant, but rather the German Jews who came to America perhaps in the 19th century, where they rapidly achieved upper-class status (even though they were excluded from WASP playgrounds and much of corporate America). Moreover, Jews are not allowed to name their children for themselves, and Riesman fils did not even get the Junior appended. But he did go on to write a book claiming that in the new postwar consumer society, no one was free, nor were their ancestors.

According to Riesman fils what the now stigmatized inner-directed parent (along with female teachers) did wrong was to plunge their unknowing offspring into the anxiety-ridden, constantly shifting world of the fashion-driven “other-directed” society of consumerism. Recall now that the Frankfurt School refugees had blamed the rise of fascism on the revolt of the masses, unlike themselves, gullibly consuming Nazi propaganda and loving every minute of it. Whereas Hayek, deeply suspicious of these same recent refugees, warned his readers that they were communist/fascists of the most dire collectivist mentality.

In Riesman’s sad, lonesome world, no separation from illegitimate authority is possible (after all, he never did it): there are only masks and mutual manipulation. In Hayek’s world, such separation from authoritarian collectivism is the test of the civilized individual. And toward the end of his book he cites John Milton several times, who once wrote that “the mind is its own place.” Milton, Hayek noted, was being repudiated in the new collectivist America, shades of the turn against Melville’s Captain Ahab.

I finally stopped reading the Riesman book, for it seemed to me that he was painfully struggling with his own problems, and had no evidence to back up his frequently changing view of “the American social character.”

Hayek with students at London School of Economics, 1948


  1. […] Today’s blog responds to recent questions raised about the mission of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but also to the President’s speech to the United Nations, that sought to remove any impression of American hubris. It will be seen that progressive educators have long worried about a sublime America that could go too far in challenging authority, looking for a middle-ground that may be entirely a product of overheated imaginations. (For a related blog, see […]

    Pingback by Progressives and the teaching of American literature « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 29, 2012 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

  2. […] for what Riesman really thought: I was thinking of myself, not Riesman’s copycat good son. Which suggests the question: what is a leader? Are “the people” the leaders? If not, […]

    Pingback by Dale Carnegie and the organization man/woman « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 13, 2011 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  3. About Milton in your last paragraph: the character who said, “The mind is its own place” is Satan (Paradise Lost 1. 242-263).

    And it’s true that 1970s feminists hated on Milton for his attitudes toward women, just as T. S. Eliot hated on Milton for his liberalism. But Eliot made a tactical retreat, and the other day not a single student in my junior-level course full of English majors recognized the names of Sandra Gilbert or Susan Gubar, and not one likewise had heard of their once famous book _The Madwoman in the Attic_, with its cover picture of Milton and his daughters. Meanwhile, there we were in 2010, reading Milton. Repudiate that part of the English language? I should think that would be like repudiating the second law of motion.

    Comment by Jonathan Morse — October 18, 2010 @ 12:34 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Professor Morse for your observation on the continued relevance of Milton, though I had mentioned him solely with respect to the turn against Captain Ahab above. I showed in my book on the Melville revival, however, that the scholars responsible for his resuscitation avoided the significance of Melville’s annotations to Milton’s poetry for many years, and then when they were forced to engage them (for I had been publicizing them), the current Melville establishment defined the radical puritan Milton as a moderate. I stand by my assertion that Milton has been ignored by the left; indeed Verso ordered me to eliminate the chapter on Milton and Melville. I defied them and they dropped my manuscript. I understand that others may have a different version of the publication history of my book.

      Comment by clarespark — October 18, 2010 @ 6:44 am | Reply

  4. […] vs Hayek on the individual October 14, 2010 | Posted by Greg Ransom I really enjoyed this post from the Clare Spark Blog.  From the posting: “It is a revelation to compare David Riesman’s conception of American […]

    Pingback by David Riesman vs Hayek on the individual | Taking Hayek Seriously — October 15, 2010 @ 4:26 am | Reply

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