The illusions of conservative economics

25 November, 2012 at 23:19 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

Just as I was wondering how to start this review, along came the Sunday New York Times Magazine with a short article by Adam Davidson with the title “Made in Austria: Will Friedrich von Hayek be the Tea Party’s Karl Marx?” One Tea Party activist reported that his group’s goal is to fill Congress with Hayekians. This project is unlikely to go smoothly if the price of admission includes an extensive reading of Hayek’s writings. As Davidson remarks, some of Hayek’s ideas would not go down well at all with the American far right: among them is a willingness to entertain a national health care program, and even a state-provided basic income for the poor.

The source of confusion here is that there was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge in the economy (and in the rest of society). Since knowledge—about technological possibilities, about citizens’ preferences, about the interconnections of these, about still more—is inevitably and thoroughly decentralized, the centralization of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. The consequences for society can be calamitous, as the history of central planning confirms. That is where markets come in. All economists know that a system of competitive markets is a remarkably efficient way to aggregate all that knowledge while preserving decentralization.

The Good Hayek also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable. It has serious defects: successful actors reach for monopoly power, and some of them succeed in grasping it; better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant, creating an inefficiency in the process; the resulting distribution of income may be grossly unequal and widely perceived as intolerably unfair; industrial market economies have been vulnerable to excessively long episodes of unemployment and underutilized capacity, not accidentally but intrinsically; environmental damage is encouraged as a way of reducing private costs—the list is long. Half of Angus Burgin’s book is about the Good Hayek’s attempts to formulate and to propagate a modified version of laissez-faire that would work better and meet his standards for a liberal society. (Hayek and his friends were never able to settle on a name for this kind of society: “liberal” in the European tradition was associated with bad old Manchester liberalism, and neither “neo-liberal” nor “libertarian” seemed to be satisfactory.)

The Bad Hayek emerged when he aimed to convert a wider public. Then, as often happens, he tended to overreach, and to suggest more than he had legitimately argued. The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book. Leaving aside the irrelevant extremes, or even including them, it would be perverse to read the history, as of 1944 or as of now, as suggesting that the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” The correlations often run the other way. Sixty-five years later, Hayek’s implicit prediction is a failure, rather like Marx’s forecast of the coming “immiserization of the working class.”

Robert Solow

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1 Comment »

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  1. Thanks for this citation.

    Interesting to read this review text from Solow and see how he see, interpret and – to some extent – value Hayek’s and also the wider neoclassical work with the presence of an exogenous growth model. It explains some of the confusion I have regarding Solow’s own work and a focus on productivity measures. Not all, but it’s something on the way. :)


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