Road to Best-Sellerdom: F.A. Hayek’s American Editor on the Latest Boom in Conservative Books
For the past week, “The Road to Serfdom”* *has been the number-one selling book on Amazon.com. Authored by the Austrian émigré economist F.A. Hayek and first published in 1944, the book has long held iconic status on the Transatlantic right. Most recently, the book has acquired fashionable currency on Fox News and at Tea Party podiums. But many of those who invoke the title of Hayek’s book as a battle cry against health care reform and the stimulus might be surprised to know that one of the book’s contemporary admirers was John Maynard Keynes himself.
What does Hayek’s book, which was written as a direct response to British wartime debates over the future of the planned economy, have to say about America in 2010? TWI recently put the question to Bruce Caldwell, director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, as well as the general editor of “The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek,” which includes the definitive edition of “The Road to Serfdom.”
**Watching Fox News, where hosts have revived at least a superficial popular interest in Hayek, you’d think that the mild-mannered economist was a sort of Tea Party hell-raiser in his day. But one of the things you bring out in your work on Hayek is the extent to which he was well-received across the spectrum. **
At the particular point in time in which the book appeared, his arguments were perceived as a reasonable presentation of a specific position, respectfully received by British socialists at the time. In America, the response was much more partisan.
Keynes himself was a fan of the book. At that point in time, both Hayek and Keynes were both liberals who opposed fascism and totalitarianism. They simply differed on what the optimal liberal state should look like. Keynes was a “new” liberal, where Hayek was more of a classical liberal. Both opposed price controls. Neither wanted to go full-hog with regard to central planning, which was on offer in the 1930s.
**But since no one is really proposing full-hog central planning today, to what extent has the book become an anachronism? **
It’s true the book focuses on the problem of central planning. It was written in response to the British Labor Party platform of the time, which used the term “socialism.” But some of the book’s arguments are applicable today. For example, the nationalization, or socialization, of losses. Hayek was among the first to use the term “too big to fail.” And in general, he was talking about Liberty.
A careful reader, when they get to some of his policy recommendations, will notice that he often sounds like a standard economist of today. He recognizes problems of “externality” and a “social minimum.”
**In the Tea Party scene and on Fox News, you sometimes see the book in the context of opposition to any and all government intervention in the economy. Is “The Road to Serfdom” a proto-libertarian tract? **
I hear some of the Tea Party people say they don’t want big government, but that they like Medicare. So I don’t necessarily think there’s a consistent philosophy that’s out there that’s embracing this book.
It’s important to note that “The Road to Serfdom” is a full-fledged attack on socialism and totalitarianism. I don’t see it as a libertarian handbook. Hayek never wrote anything that could be conceived as anything like that. He always was writing at a very high level of generality. Even if you look at the last third of the “Constitution of Liberty,” where he talks about Social Security and price controls, he keeps things at a really high level of generality. Hayek was a founder of the Mont Pelerin Society in the 1940s, which was home to a range of liberals in the European sense. I’ve yet to be able to find Hayek’s views on antitrust laws, and this could not be a more important topic. He is not a policy wonk; you can’t study his work and get a blueprint for how to organize society.
People from both the left and the right have always found things to like and dislike in Hayek. To this day, there are people associated with the Ludwig Von Mises Institute who consider him a social democrat, which is not a term of endearment coming from the Von Mises Institute.