Who’s Afraid of Friedrich Hayek? The Obvious Truths and Mystical Fallacies of a Hero of the Right

Who’s Afraid of Friedrich Hayek? The Obvious Truths and Mystical Fallacies of a Hero of the Right

Right wingers love Friedrich Hayek. The Austrian-British economist is revered by true believers at the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the National Review, and the Weekly Standard. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher cited his ideas as central to the social revolutions they hoped to spark. Antigovernment ideologues admire him as one of those few who kept Adam Smith’s fires burning during the dark reign of John Maynard Keynes in the West; his most famous book, The Road to Serfdom, has sold more than 350,000 copies in the United States alone. And the modern right has enlisted Hayek as a political weapon: Why can’t those loony lefties acknowledge the simple and obvious truths that he understood?

I try to keep abreast of right-wing thought, so I’d been aware of Hayek for a long time, and aware of his status in certain circles. Recently I decided I should study his work, much as, in my twenties, I decided I really ought to read the Bible. Influential, whether I like it or not.

Hayek was a surprise, in several ways. He’s nowhere near as extreme as his ideological descendants. He admits that there are a few rare economic circumstances in which market forces cannot deliver the optimum result, and that when these occur, the state may legitimately intervene. He recognizes such a thing as the social interest and will even endorse some limited redistributionalism—he goes so far as to suggest that the state ensure a minimum standard of living, an idea that surely embarrasses the good folks at Cato. Politically, Hayek is not the cynic I had braced for. Plainly, transparently—and in stark contrast to many modern conservative intellectuals—he is a man concerned with human freedom. One of the unexpected things in Road is that he writes with passion against class privilege.

Hayek is by no means as rational and irrefutable as the right would have it. Indeed, he is often eccentric. He is a romantic, a serious deficit in a social theorist. Many of his arguments rest on a reductionist idea of socialism, and his conception of the sources of law can only be called mystical. But Hayek is not merely an eccentric mystic. In Road, first published in 1944, he makes a powerful and far-ranging critique of state control of economic life. At least as far as he takes the argument in this book, there isn’t much that thoughtful modern liberals or even democratic socialists who understand the power of markets would necessarily object to—although they might feel that there is more to the story than Hayek acknowledges.

If this seems odd, recall that Keynes wrote of Road, that “it is a grand book. . . . Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it; and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.” George Orwell wrote, “In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth . . . collectiv...

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