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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 HayekCenter.org) 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.

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26 Comments

  1. Kevin wrote:

    “Homeboy”? Clearly you are a white guy from Ohio…

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  2. Justin Kraus wrote:

    Don’t be hatin on the white homeboys from Ohio or we may just have to get all John Deere on yo a*s.

    (sorry in advance)

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 3:40 am | Permalink
  3. Damien wrote:

    I don’t much like conservatives in general, but I think it’s rather unfair to blame them for trying to change the curriculum. Now, if education were a truly free-market, with competing schools (or groups of schools) independently setting standards, I would be the first to oppose state intervention. At the moment, however, state intervention is the rule rather than exception. Given current institutions, a second-best optimum might be to change the curriculum to include an extremely important thinker. The fallacy here is to think that there might be a neutral position. But whether you include or exclude Hayek, you are taking a stand. The status quo is not neutral either. If you believe that an idea is worth knowing, are in a position of making it known, and not acting means it will remain unknown, do you not have an ethical duty to act?

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  4. Greg Ransom wrote:

    I first collected the Summers quote on Hayek here:

    http://hayekcenter.org/?page_id=5

    along with many others, before later adding it to
    the Hayek Wikipedia entry.

    Note well that Hayek played a central role in the development of economics in the 20th century — economists simply don’t know any history of economic thought, as surveys of the profession repeatedly prove.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  5. geckonomist wrote:

    lots of anti government people rely on their constitution, a government document, to make their points/rants/….

    It always amazes me they never seem to realise the hypocrisy / irony in that.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  6. Carla wrote:

    “my homeboy hayek”? lol. i haven’t even read the piece yet but that headline made me smile.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  7. Tom Dougherty wrote:

    “lots of anti government people rely on their constitution, a government document, to make their points/rants/…. ”

    “It always amazes me they never seem to realise the hypocrisy / irony in that.”

    Lots of pro-government people shop at non-government stores in the free-market and work at non-government businesses. It always amazes me they never seem to realise the hypocrisy / irony in that.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  8. Ryan Vann wrote:

    Ah Wolfers makes much sense of things now. Here I was thinking Economists were revered for the substance of their works, but it turns out economists are actually just graphical model beauty pageant contestants.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  9. hutch wrote:

    “lots of anti government people rely on their constitution, a government document, to make their points/rants/….

    It always amazes me they never seem to realise the hypocrisy / irony in that.”

    do you really know that many people who are anti-government? among conservatives, i don’t think there are many people who are anti-government. believing that the government intrudes way too much in people’s lives and should be scaled back to a level more closely resembling the time when the constitution was written does not mean someone is anti government. it just means someone is anti today’s version of government.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  10. Justin Martyr wrote:

    Hayek, who once wrote an essay called “Why I am not a conservative”

    I’m not an expert on Hayek, but my understanding is that he wrote that in Europe, which has a very different species of conservatism. In the United States he was perfectly happy to be associated with conservatives [insert disclaimer that he might not feel that way today].

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  11. Jim Pier wrote:

    We anti-government types who invoke the Constitution have actually read it, and we recognize that it was instituted solely for the purpose of limiting the scope and reach of government into the sphere of individual liberty.

    Hayek may have written that he was not a Conservative, but he was a defender of long-standing institutions, their having evolved because they proved useful over time for reasons often no longer remembered, and cautioned against their rash and arbitrary destruction by the forces of central planning and “liberalism.”

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  12. Mr. Easterly – Very rightly said. I think guilt by association is a classic concept. “A man is known by the company he keeps”. Another important factor for economists (or for that matter anyone) is their style of expression. Milton Friedman and Stiglitz are great are expression, on top of having wonderful ideas. David Ricardo was terrible. Everyone who is concerned about mankind’s future, should go back and ready up on their Hayek.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  13. Jeremy H. wrote:

    Also of interest when determining influence: Hayek is the second most cited Prize winner by other Prize winners (Arrow was first).

    http://www.davidskarbek.com/uploads/HayeksInfluence.pdf

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  14. Manuel wrote:

    It seems that, like many other purportedly ‘Hayekians’, the members of the Texas Board of Education didn’t get the part about ‘unintended consequences’…

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  15. Dan Kyba wrote:

    I first read Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” around the same time I read Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda” and Mancur Olson’s “Logic of Collective Action” The three were on the totalitarian state reading list long back in days gone by.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  16. dullgeek wrote:

    Wolfers point seems to be to try and rely on some objective measure of influence as a means of determining who ought be taught in school and who ought not. Your argument in favor of Hayek seems to me to be simply that you agree with his conclusions, rather than addressing the point Wolfers seems to be making: he wasn’t influential enough to be included.

    Perhaps JSTOR references is not a good method for selecting who to include and who not to include. Is there some other objective, non-ideological method for selecting who ought be included in the list of economists taught?

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  17. Julia wrote:

    “[].. but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody. [] Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provisions. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are weakned by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinly insurable risks- the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.” F.A. Hayek

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  18. If you allow me I want to use this space to leave a message to Mr. Wolfers.

    Mr Justin Wolfers:
    I humbly believe that you suffer from a fatal conceit: “believe owns the truth.” Your reasoning is riddled with ambiguities which is inconsistent with the truth that it pursues and you say you possess. Your conclusions are useless because it does not meet the requirements of a proper reasoning. Also you accept as true something that may be false. All this is called intellectual dishonesty. But as if that were not enough, it appears that you have not read or have not understood Hayek. The brain of F.A. Hayek was a fertile substrate for ideas on the economic importance of the individual will of the people. Only one thing I agree with you: the great F.A. Hayek never accept the imposition of their ideas. So I challenge your big boss, no idea who he is, to disperse among all the universities in the USA the implementation of simultaneous non-compulsory courses on the theories of these thinkers you are talking about. After five years there will be a flow of sufficient data to improvise some conclusion. I invite you to discuss these findings later on that database.

    Atte.
    Juan Carlos Vera
    Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  19. John Papola wrote:

    - 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.” –

    Ain’t that the truth.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  20. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Margaret Thatcher famously said of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty “This is what we believe”. Thatcher was instrumental in moving the UK from a socialist planning model back towards a capitalist seeking model, turning the economy from stagnation towards growth. Hayek and von Mises called the Thatcher approach catallaxy. As per Easterly’s approving quote above, catallaxy means “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.” The hatred of Hayek derives from resurgent socialist ideology. Aid is beset by the false idea that only socialist planning can reduce poverty. Reading Hayek helps to understand why socialism is wrong and how socialism distorts aid planning.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  21. Bill Stepp wrote:

    Jim Pier wrote:
    We anti-government types who invoke the Constitution have actually read it, and we recognize that it was instituted solely for the purpose of limiting the scope and reach of government into the sphere of individual liberty.

    I’m an anti-government type (the technical term is libertarian, or even better, anarchist, or anarcho-capitalist), and, having read my Spooner and Rothbard, I’m here to tell you that the U.S. Constitution
    was not written to limit government’s intervention in the economy. If you think otherwise, read Art. 1, sect. 8, which is just a laundry list of government monopolies. Add in the income tax, the estate tax, and other intrusions too numerous to mention, all of which are “constitutional”–like the Fed–, and you are far removed from anything resembling a free market or even a classical liberal order. The Con-job-stitution is just a scrap of paper.
    And btw, the right to own a gun is a natural right (like all other rights) and existed before the so-called Founding Fathers were a glimmer in their parents’ eyes.

    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  22. Santtu wrote:

    The constitutional argument is not about what limits the government should or should not have, or anything of the sort. It’s about the fact that the people who are supposed to govern us cannot even govern themselves. That is to say, follow the rules set out for them – the constitution. What governmental authority are these people claiming to possess when they selves are, in a practical sense, wholly ungoverned?

    It’s basically an argument for the rule of law, and an argument against arbitrariness.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 1:32 am | Permalink
  23. DeeBee9 wrote:

    It seems that someone at one time decided to include Keynes and Friedman in the curriculum. Given that they are included, there aren’t many ways to achieve balance. Texas could remove Keynes and Friedman, or Texas could leave curriculum up to local school districts or boards (a large and complex governmental change), or Texas could include Hayek. It seems to me that the simplest course was the one Texas took. If one complains about the inclusion of Hayek on the grounds that the state is being heavy-handed, then one should also complain about the earlier heavy-handed decision to include Keynes.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  24. A.J. Lenze wrote:

    My favorite Twain quote is:
    “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.
    But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

    Do other countries have folksy wise authors like Twain?

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  25. James Smith wrote:

    Dr. Wolfers includes Marx in the list. Doesn’t that weaken his thesis? Marx should be included in history, but as far as Economics, he was a minor Post-Ricardian. He formulated a system that didn’t work. Should scholars of Aether be included in a natural science class?

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  26. Greg Ransom wrote:

    Game over — Wolfers says Hayek is “a serious influence” on his own work, and in something of a confirmation, a Google Scholar search of “Wolfers” and “Hayek” generates 328 hits. More details here:

    http://hayekcenter.org/?p=2094

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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