Defending my homeboy Hayek from Freakonomics

Justin Wolfers has an amusing Freakonomics piece describing how anti-government conservatives are trying to use state intervention to get the anti-statist Friedrich Hayek taught in high school economics classes. Wolfers is completely right that this episode exposes the hypocrisy of these intellectual censors. (My favorite Mark Twain quote: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”)

But after that Wolfers goes astray, piling on Hayek as just intellectually unworthy in general. Wolfers uses shaky exercises like number of citations in electronic academic journal archives. He says Larry Summers has as many citations as Hayek, so why not teach Larry Summers to high-schoolers? (not such a bad idea, actually).

Young Wolfers may not know the history of censorship of Hayek in the other direction. When I was in graduate school in The Middle Ages, Hayek was seen as so Far Right that you would be considered a nut to read him.

Since then, many more economists have realized that was extremely unfair to Hayek, including guess who, Larry Summers:

What's the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the [un]hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That's the consensus among economists. That's the Hayek legacy.{{1}}

Hayek, who once wrote an essay called “Why I am not a conservative” was prescient in appreciating something that is much more trendy today, the idea of “spontaneous order” (Silicon Valley geeks write about a book a week on some aspect of the Internet being a spontaneous order.) My favorite Hayek quote gives a lot of insight into why development has been so hard to engineer from the top down:

It is because every individual knows so little and… because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

This reliance on individual spontaneity and creativity (and here we could include political entrepreneurs who achieve new and better ways to deliver public goods) is threatening to two very specific political factions:

  • the Right
  • the Left

Hayek knew that the Right was hypocritical about individual rights as much as the Left. The latter dictates what you can’t do in the market, the former wants to dictate almost everything else.

Although Wolfers doesn’t do this, many readers of his blog will fall for that classic trick, the Reverse Ideological Rejection: because ideologues like Hayek, therefore I should (ideologically) reject Hayek. This is in the same class as “Hitler liked Wagner’s Ring, therefore I should hate Wagner’s Ring.”

It’s sad that Hayek has been the victim of so many violations of the intellectual freedom for which he was one of the most eloquent and courageous spokesmen ever.

[[1]]quoted in The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that Is Remaking the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1998, pp. 150–151. (Thank you Wikipedia!)[[1]]

UPDATE:  my hometown newspaper The Village Voice has a blog post on how the Texas school board caused the "right-wing blogosphere" to light up. (HT to It includes the Hayek controversy:

{The blog response} bodes well for conservative attempts to keep libertarians on board: Apparently all you have to do is give props to their favorite economists, and they'll go along with anything you want.

I am deservedly too obscure to be quoted in this story, but I guess the Voice hasn't heard about the whole "Hayek: I am not a conservative" thing. Also I'm not sure anyone at the Voice has never met a real libertarian, a group that is NOT disposed to "going along with anything you want."

UPDATE 2: Jacob T. Levy's blog takes on Wolfers on measuring Hayek's citation count versus other economists.  To make a long story short, there was a problem counting Hayek's because of the many variations on his first name(s), and once you correct for this he is in the same league as Milton Friedman and beyond Larry Summers.