The New York Times on Hayek for Dummies

by

Hayek for Dummies

By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER

Last month, Glenn Beck nearly caused a riot at the warehouses of the University of Chicago Press when he ran an hour-long television special on “The Road to Serfdom,” the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek’s classic treatise against government planning.

The book — a steady but unspectacular seller in the years since its original publication in 1944 — shot to No. 1 at Amazon.com and sold more than 100,000 copies within weeks. A month later, it’s still in the Amazon top 20.

As it turns out, Beck wasn’t the first popularizer to lob Hayek onto the best-seller lists. As I describe in an essay in this Sunday’s Book Review, “The Road to Serfdom,” published to modest sales and respectful debate in Britain, became a huge hit and a political lightning rod in America after Max Eastman, the leftwing radical turned staunch anti-Communist, ran a condensed version of the book as the lead article in Readers Digest in 1945. Eastman’s condensation went on to sell nearly a million copies.

For those who found even that crib sheet a bit taxing, a cartoon version appeared in Look magazine soon after. Later distributed as a pamphlet by General Motors, it showed the slide from well-intentioned bureaucratic planning to totalitarianism in a mere 18 black-and-white panels. Once the planners take over, “if you’re fired from your job, it’s apt to be by a firing squad,” the final caption intones. “Thus ends the road to serfdom!”

Today, as the left and right duke it out over federal bailouts and health care reform, Hayek is having another pop culture moment, and not just thanks to Beck. “Fear the Boom And Bust,” a rap video showing Hayek doing battle with John Maynard Keynes, has gone viral on YouTube. A Hayek vs. Hayek scorecard keeps tabs on Friedrich and his Mexican non-relative, Salma. And those whose sartorial tastes run more to board shorts than post-Hapsburg mustaches can find the libertarianism of the waves in this video of “Serfin’ USA,” by the economics blogger Alexander Volokh. (Full lyrics here.)

Alas, I couldn’t find any sign of an illustrated “Road to Smurfdom,” but surely it’s coming.

(Still confused about just who this Hayek guy is? Read Virginia Postrel’s excellent 2004 article from the Boston Globe reintroducing “one of the most important thinkers you’ve barely heard of,” which details his influence on cognitive scientists, information theorists, and even Michel Foucault.)

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