Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Paul Ryan’s Intellectual Muse

by Richard Epstein

Hoover Institution

Defining Ideas
August 28, 2012

The wisdom of Hayek is exactly what this country needs right now.

My last column for Defining Ideas, “Franklin Delano Obama,” stressed the dangers of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights,” which was long on rights but short on any articulation of their correlative duties. Roosevelt’s program works well everywhere except in a world of scarce resources, which, alas, is the only world we will ever know.

Fortunately, Roosevelt quickly met with some determined intellectual resistance. In 1944, when Roosevelt unveiled his “Second Bill of Rights,” Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian economist, political theorist, and future Nobel Prize winner, wrote The Road To Serfdom. That book rightly became a sensation both in England and in the United States, especially after the publication of its condensed version in The Reader’s Digest in April 1945. Hayek’s basic message was the exact opposite of Roosevelt’s. He was deeply suspicious of government intervention into markets, thinking that it could lead to economic stagnation on the one hand and to political tyranny on the other.

Hayek has never been out of the news. But, right now, his name has been batted around in political circles because Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, has acknowledged that he regards Hayek as one of his intellectual muses. That observation brought forward in the New York Times an ungracious critique (called “Made in Austria” in the print edition) of both Hayek and Ryan by Adam Davidson, a co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money. Davidson’s essay reveals a profound misunderstanding of Hayek’s contribution to twentieth-century thought in political economy.

Davidson leads with a snarky and inaccurate comment that, “A few years ago, it was probably possible to fit every living Hayekian into a conference room.” But it is utterly inexcusable to overlook, as Davidson does, Hayek’s enduring influence. A year after the Road to Serfdom came out, Hayek published his 1945 masterpiece in the American Economics Review, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which has been cited over 8,600 times. In this short essay, Hayek explained how the price system allows widely dispersed individuals with different agendas and preferences to coordinate their behaviors in ways that move various goods and services to higher value uses.