Americans searching Amazon’s best-seller list in June 2010 would have encountered a surprising title at the top, above the likes of books by Stieg Larsson, George W. Bush, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Lewis: Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. The “Definitive Edition” had appeared in 2007, yet it sold only six hundred copies a month for a year and a half. Then the combined effects of the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama quadrupled its sales. The book sold seven thousand copies in 2008, twenty-seven thousand in 2009. Talk of stimulus packages and “socialized medicine” and the rise of the Tea Party movement spurred further sales. These factors alone did not account for the one hundred thousand copies sold in June 2010, however. The person who made Hayek a household name was the conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who devoted an hour long Fox News episode to Road. Beck discussed how Hayek had fought against central-government planning and collectivization after World War II, trying to save the West from bondage and unfreedom. Beck maintained that “we are in a similar war today, but if you don’t know history, you probably aren’t even aware of it.” Joined by two scholars affiliated with the libertarian think tank the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Thomas Woods and Yuri Maltsev, Beck implored his millions-strong audience to take the first step in the struggle and read the anticollectivist playbook: “Why don’t we teach this everywhere? Find out for yourself. Go online now and order it.”
Beck demonstrated little knowledge of the actual contents of the book and revealed a faulty understanding of the historical context in which it appeared. While the scrolling text on Fox News referred to the “Austrian Economist” Hayek, Beck himself made no reference to Hayek’s background or his economic ideas. He repeatedly compared Road to Serfdom to Ayn Rand’s work, even though Hayek accepted progressive income taxes, public education, national health insurance, and minimum welfare provisions in Road. Beck also showed no awareness of who Ludwig von Mises was, stumbling badly over the Austrian’s name, while failing to acknowledge that Mises was also an Austrian School economist with similar political and economic views to Hayek’s.
Nonetheless, Beck’s promotion of Road was a milestone in an unexpected renaissance of popular interest in the Austrian School. Earlier that same year, the economist Russ Roberts and the director John Papola created a “rap battle” video pitting Hayek and John Maynard Keynes against each other. The two economists-turned pugilists went toe-to-toe over macroeconomic policy advice and business cycle theory—with Hayek portrayed as getting the better of the argument. The video went viral, recording more than a million YouTube hits in its first few months. (It has now been viewed over six million times.) In October 2011, Nicholas Wapshott published a best-seller, Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, which assigned world historical significance to the ideas of Hayek, even a quarter century after his death.
This interest crested with the 2012 presidential campaign. After the Iowa caucus, Ron Paul declared, “We are all Austrians now,” while the eventual vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, admitted to distributing Road to Serfdom to staffers. A wave of new media coverage directed its gaze on Hayek and the little-known “Austrian School.” “What is Austrian Economics? And why is Ron Paul obsessed with it?” asked then Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias, and he was far from alone. Articles on Austrianism appeared in Bloomberg, the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post. Reactions and rebuttals from the libertarian community ensued in such forums as Reason and Cato Unbound, the latter of which devoted an issue to “Theory and Practice in the Austrian School.” Many supporters of contemporary Austrian thought fielded interview requests and wrote thought pieces, weighing in on the school’s new relevance. The arrival of the Tea Party as a legitimate wing of the Republican Party, embodied by the “Paul Revolution,” signaled the need for a closer examination of the ideas of Hayek, Mises, and the “radical libertarianism” of the Austrian School.
What these overheated conversations revealed more than anything else was a lack of clarity about what exactly the Austrian School was. The historical and social origins of the movement were particularly opaque in these discussions. How did it emerge and evolve over the years? Who were its members? What did they believe? And why do we still care about the school, and should we?
From Marginal Revolutionaries by Janek Wasserman. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Janek Wasserman is associate professor at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918–1938.