The Hayek Century

Article excerpt

It's as if the New York Times editorial page were suddenly to crown Ronald Reagan as the greatest president of the 20th century. Or as if the ultra-liberal British daily, the Guardian, were suddenly to call Margaret Thatcher the worthiest prime minister in British history. Well, that was my reaction when I picked up the current New Yorker magazine, whose liberalism I thought was unquenchable, and found a long essay in praise of Friedrich von Hayek, a Nobel laureate in economics who died in 1992.

For half a century, the Austrian-born Hayek was belittled by contemporary liberalism because he mocked the received ideas of mainstream economists: central planning, Marxism, nationalization of industry, social engineering, pervasive government intervention in the economy. Because of his anti-socialist views he was discredited professionally, says New Yorker writer John Cassidy. College economics textbooks to this day rarely discuss his ideas if they even mention him at all.

But Hayek lived to see his promotion of capitalism and the free market vindicated and those Marxist nostrums, which were going to turn the world into an earthly paradise, globally repudiated. So great was Hayek's victory that Mr. Cassidy, a British-trained economics journalist, says that "it is hardly an exaggeration to refer to the twentieth century as the Hayek century."

Last month's Times Literary Supplement (TLS) had an equally appreciative essay on Hayek, this one by Kenneth Minogue, one of our great political philosophers in the tradition of Michael Oakeshott. Now, you would expect that kind of article from TLS. But in the New Yorker? In the past, its economic experts have been Robert Heilbroner and the egregious John Kenneth Galbraith, both of whom at one time or other were admirers of the Chinese and Russian revolutions and other Marxist phenomena; thus the Hayek appreciation in the Feb. 7 issue is a significant event in contemporary American culture.

You get an idea of what used to be economic analysis in the New Yorker when I cite Mr. Galbraith's 1984 observations about the Soviet Union in the magazine: that the Soviet economy was making "great material progress." Evidence: "One sees it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people on the streets, the close to murderous traffic, the incredible exfoliation of apartment houses." The secret of such achievements: "Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower." All this on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Or Mr. Heilbroner, a long-time socialist scholar who once defended Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as encouraging a desirable modernization. Mr. Heilbroner held on to his Marxism until 1989. …