Road to Serfdom: “right-wing crank” becomes best-seller

31 Aug 2010

On the list of Amazon’s best-selling non-fiction, there’s one that stands out amongst perennials like the works of Malcolm Gladwell and Three Cups of Tea: It’s the 1944 economics text The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.

It’s published by the University of Chicago Press, and as an editor there explains in the Washington Post:

In November 2008, sales [of The Road to Serfdom] more than quadrupled, and they haven’t slowed down since. What’s more, the Kindle edition went on sale in late May 2009 and is now the best-selling book that the University of Chicago Press has offered in that format. This would be a pretty good sales record for a contemporary author, but it is nothing short of amazing for a book originally published in 1944, and by an economist, no less.

One reason for the sales boost may have been, the editor writes, that “the Republicans had been walloped, and some sought principled arguments that could be used to combat the policies of the party in power.”

I found this oddly reassuring, since when I first saw Hayek’s book on Amazon’s bestsellers, I thought it was all because of a series that Fox News host Glenn Beck did on Hayek. It gave me heebie jeebies to think Beck has that much sway, but apparently there was much more at work.

The University of Chicago Press editor also argues that the national health care plan gave Hayek a boost, too, since his book “is perhaps the most famous attack on socialist central planning, [and] would naturally be invoked by the health plan’s opponents.”

“But perhaps the biggest stimulus to sales was, well, the stimulus package,” the editor says. “The macroeconomic analyses of John Maynard Keynes had gone quickly out of vogue in the 1970s, when a decade of stagflation delivered a death blow to the notion of Keynesian fine-tuning of the economy.”

If Keynes got a death blow then (and I’m not sure he did), then the free marketeers like Hayek most certainly got a death blow from the Great Recession of 2008, which had its roots in the long-running push for deregulation.

So even though people are flocking to Hayek now, I think it’s good to keep in mind what John Cassidy wrote in his recent book How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, which is an excellent and up-to-date record of how we wind up in such a dire place. He writes:

In the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan launched the conservative counterrevolution, the intellectuals who initially pushed this line of reasoning—Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer, Sir Keith Joseph—were widely seen as right-wing cranks.

For people my age, whose first memories were during the age of Reagan and Thatcher, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the idolization of free markets hasn’t always had so much power. There were good reasons to be skeptical about it before, and now—during possibly the worst depression in US history—there’s even more reason to be skeptical of these ideas.

It’s too much to go into detail here on what was wrong with the ideas of Hayek, Friedman, and their followers. But Cassidy says that it’s mainly that they had excessive faith in markets, didn’t see a need for oversight or regulation, and got caught up with “proving” that these ideas work by using simplistic mathematical models of the economy that were tied to reality by only a slender thread.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »