[Marxism] Hayek: the back story

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 11 07:30:23 MDT 2010


NY Times Sunday Book Review July 11, 2010
Hayek: The Back Story
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER

Last month, a funny thing happened on the way to the best-seller list. A 
66-year-old treatise by a long-dead Austrian-born economist began flying 
off the shelves, following an hourlong endorsement from a right-wing 
television host better known for pumping political thrillers than for 
rocking political theory.

The economist was Friedrich von Hayek, the book was “The Road to 
Serfdom” and the host was Glenn Beck, who compared Hayek’s book to “a 
Mike Tyson (in his prime) right hook to socialism in Western Europe and 
in the United States.” As it happens, “The Road to Serfdom” — a classic 
attack on government planning as an inevitable step toward 
totalitarianism, published in 1944 and kept in print since then by the 
University of Chicago Press — had already begun a comeback of sorts. It 
sold 27,000 copies in 2009, up from about 7,000 a year before the 
inauguration of Barack Obama. But Beck’s endorsement catapulted the book 
to No. 1 at Amazon.com, bringing a temporary end to at least one 
tyranny, that of Stieg Larsson. Since the program was broadcast on June 
8, 100,000 copies have been sold.

That’s an impressive number for an academic-press book, if a bit anemic 
compared with the 1.2 million views for “Fear the Boom and Bust,” a 
Hayek versus John Maynard Keynes rap video that went up on YouTube in 
January. (Kickoff line: “Party at the Fed!”) But in fact “The Road to 
Serfdom” has a long history of timely assists from the popular media.

When Hayek began formulating his ideas in the early 1930s, he was an 
émigré professor at the London School of Economics, watching events in 
both Europe and Britain with alarm. Like many others, Hayek was 
frightened by the rise of Nazism. He interpreted it, however, in an 
unorthodox way, not as the defeat of democratic socialism but as its 
logical culmination. Hayek started writing the book after World War II 
began, as a contribution to the war effort. Looking ahead, “Hayek was 
also worried about what would transpire if the Allies won,” as Bruce 
Caldwell puts it in his introduction to “THE ROAD TO SERFDOM”: Text and 
Documents — The Definitive Edition (University of Chicago, $17). In 
ominously titled chapters like “The Totalitarians in Our Midst” and “Why 
the Worst Get on Top,” Hayek laid out his case against “socialists of 
all parties” who he believed were leading the Western democracies into 
tyranny that mirrored the centrally planned societies of Germany and the 
Soviet Union.

This theme, being taken up today by Beck and other antigovernment sorts, 
had a plausible basis at the time. Caldwell quotes a 1942 Labour Party 
pamphlet that declared, “There must be no return to the unplanned 
competitive world of the interwar years. . . . A planned society must 
replace the old competitive system.”

When it appeared in 1944, “The Road to Serfdom” received a courteous if 
mixed reception in Britain (where paper shortages limited the print 
run). Keynes, Hayek’s friend and lifelong intellectual opponent, called 
it “a grand book,” adding, “Morally and philosophically, I find myself 
in agreement with virtually the whole of it.” George Orwell, more 
equivocal, conceded that Hayek “is probably right” about the 
“totalitarian-minded” nature of intellectuals but concluded that he 
“does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition 
means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse . . . than 
that of the state.”

It was in the United States, however, that Hayek met with his greatest 
success — and the most intense hostility. Rejected by several trade 
publishers, “The Road to Serfdom” was picked up by Chicago, which 
scheduled a modest print run. It got a boost when Henry Hazlitt, a 
prominent free-marketeer, assessing it on the cover of The New York 
Times Book Review in September 1944, proclaimed it “one of the most 
important books of our generation,” a call to “all those who are sincere 
democrats and liberals at heart to stop, look and listen.” The political 
scientist Herman Finer, on the other hand, denounced it as “the most 
sinister offensive against democracy to emerge from a democratic country 
for many years.” But the most important response came from the staunchly 
anti-Communist Reader’s Digest, which ran a condensed version of the 
book in April 1945, with reprints available through the Book of the 
Month Club for 5 cents each. The condensation sold more than a million 
copies.

Reading the book today, it’s easy to see why Hayek’s message caught on 
with a public divided over the New Deal, struggling with the transition 
from a regulated wartime economy and concerned about rising Soviet 
power. But unlike some of his champions in 2010, Hayek didn’t oppose all 
forms of government intervention. “The preservation of competition,” he 
wrote, is not “incompatible with an extensive system of social services 
— so long as the organization of these services is not designed in such 
a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields.” This 
qualification, however, was left out of a comic-book version of “The 
Road to Serfdom” printed in Look magazine in 1945 (and distributed as a 
pamphlet by General Motors), which showed well-intentioned regulation 
giving way to more sinister forms of control. “In an unsuccessful effort 
to educate people to uniform views,” one caption read, “‘planners’ 
establish a giant propaganda machine — which coming dictator will find 
handy.”

While Hayek, who moved to the University of Chicago in 1950, built an 
ardent following of admirers (including Milton Friedman),­ his fame 
gradually waned. By the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1974 he was 
largely forgotten by the public and marginalized within his profession. 
In graduate programs in the early 1980s, the economist William Easterly 
recalled recently on his blog, “Hayek was seen as so far right that you 
would be considered a nut to read him.” (His sunny view of the Chilean 
dictator Augusto Pinochet probably didn’t help.)

Today, Hayek continues to inspire noisy ideological debate. In his 
recent book “Ill Fares the Land,” a passionate defense of the democratic 
socialist ideal, the historian Tony Judt writes that Hayek would have 
been (justly) doomed to obscurity if not for the financial difficulty 
experienced by the welfare state, which was exploited by conservatives 
like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The economist Paul Samuelson, 
in a reminiscence of Hayek published last December, was more dismissive 
still. “Where are their horror camps?” he asked, referring to right-wing 
bugaboos like Sweden, with its generous welfare spending. Almost 70 
years after Hayek sounded his alarm, “hindsight confirms how inaccurate 
its innuendo about the future turned out to be.”

Hayek also cropped up in the recent controversy over the Texas Board of 
Education’s new high school curriculum, which will now include him and 
Friedman alongside Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Keynes. In a post on The 
Times’s Freakonomics blog, Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton 
School, noted that a search of scholarly literature found Hayek, with a 
mere 1,745 references, lagging far behind Smith (25,626), Keynes 
(4,945), Friedman (8,924) and even Lawrence Summers (2,064). “The 
message from the Texas Board of Education seems to be: If you can’t win 
in the marketplace of ideas, turn to government institutions to prop you 
up,” Wolfers wrote, adding sardonically, “I don’t think Hayek would 
approve.”

Another blogger, redoing Hayek’s count, tallied 9,385 citations. But 
intellectual legacies don’t stand or fall on such bean-counting. 
Besides, Hayek, whose later work on the self-organizing nature of 
information has been influential far beyond economics, himself said “The 
Road to Serfdom” was more a “political book” than an economic one.

But how relevant is the book to Glenn Beck’s America? In his 1960 essay 
“Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Hayek observed, “Conservatism may often 
be a useful practical maxim, but it does not give us any guiding 
principles which can influence long-range developments.” Then again, his 
own strange road to best-sellerdom illustrates that a book’s reputation 
can be determined not just by its contents but by the company it keeps.

Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at the Book Review.




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