By Justin Lahart
On Tuesday last week, customers at Deb’s Books in Cullman, Ala. started coming in and calling with an odd request: They wanted copies of “The Road to Serfdom,” a book economist Friedrich Hayek wrote over 65 years ago.
- Getty Images
- Glenn Beck
Customers at Schuler Books and Music, in Grand Rapids, Mich. were also looking Hayek’s book. Same with the Book Shop in Green Valley, Ariz. On Amazon, it shot to number one where it remained for a week. The reason: Fox News television host Glenn Beck, whose recommendations have lately had an Oprah Winfrey-like effect on book sales, had just devoted a section of his show to the Road to Serfdom.
But Mr. Hayek’s book is no beach read. Rather, it’s dense polemic against socialism that argues that centralized planning by the government will inevitably lead to an oppressive state. Mr. Hayek wrote it while living in England in the early 1940s out of concern that a shift toward collectivism there would give rise to something akin to Nazism.
Even before Mr. Beck’s show, there was a surge in interest in Mr. Hayek, a Nobel-prize winner who died in 1992.
A member of the so-called Austrian school of economics, Mr. Hayek believed that the economy was simply too complex for the government to attempt to manage its ups and downs. He argued that economist John Maynard Keynes’s recommendation that government spend money to allay an economic downturn could actually make the downturn worse, as well as lead to an inflation problem later.
With many people angry over the financial crisis, the recession and the government’s large-scale response to both of those things, Mr. Hayek’s ideas are striking a chord. Late last year George Mason University economist Russell Roberts helped put together a rap video that pitted Mr. Keynes against Mr. Hayek that so far has garnered over a million hits on YouTube.
“Your focus on spending is pushing on thread,” Mr. Hayek inveighs against a hung over Mr. Keynes. “In the long run, my friend, it’s your theory that’s dead.”
Mr. Roberts, a libertarian who runs the economics blog Café Hayek with colleague Donald Boudreaux, says he’s encourage by the renewed interest in Mr. Hayek.
“There’s been very large growth in government and very large growth in the deficit – it’s alarming,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re on the road to serfdom but we may be on the road to Greece, which is scary enough.”
Among most academic economists, however, Mr. Hayek’s ideas about how economy responds to government intervention have held little sway. His major contribution to the field has been the idea that prices convey crucial information about supply and demand, and that government attempts to manage prices – like the price controls put in place by the Soviet Union and its satellites – lead to the overproduction of some items, while others end up in short supply.
It wasn’t a Soviet-era breadline, but the Road to Serfdom has run into some supply and demand problems. The rush of orders caught Hayek publisher The University of Chicago Press short of copies, and it had to resort to print-on-demand services offered by Amazon and Ingram Content Group to fill the gap. That cuts into profitability, says director Garrett Kiely, but not as much as the orders the publisher would have lost if people had to wait for the book. He anticipates that as many as 120,000 copies of the Road to Serfdom will be sold this year, up from about 27,000 last year, and 7000 to 8000 a year before the financial crisis struck in fall 2008.
The Elkhart Public Library, in Elkhart, Ind., has just one copy of the Road to Serfdom and nine holds on it for people waiting in line to read it. It’s ordered another one and would have ordered two, except that recent cuts in the library’s funding mean that it can’t buy as many books in response to reader demand as it used to.
The Road to Serfdom doesn’t earn many accolades from the mainstream academic economists. “Two-thirds of a century after the book got written, hindsight con?rms how inaccurate its innuendo about the future turned out to be,” wrote the late Paul Samuelson in an article published in 2009.
Sweden and its Scandinavian neighbors are among the most socialistic countries in the world, as Mr. Hayek defined them, Mr. Samuelson pointed out. “Where are their horror camps?” he wrote. “Have the vilest elements risen there to absolute power? When reports are compiled on ‘measurable unhappiness,’ do places like Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway best epitomize serfdoms? No. Of course not.”
Still, Mr. Hayek’s book taps into a centuries-old distrust of government – and intellectual authority figures like Mr. Samuelson – in America that has been rekindled by anger over recession and the view that elites have been too-little punished while others have paid dearly.
“A lot of people are pretty angry,” says Deb’s Books owner Deb Laslie, who can recite a litany of books that Glenn Beck has recommended because her customers immediately come in looking for them. She’s also been selling a lot of copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
“If anything good can come out of all this, it’s that people are becoming more educated,” she says. “I think that’s a good thing.”