Good Hayek vs. Bad Hayek

23 June, 2016 at 13:06 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

The source of confusion 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 …

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.

Robert Solow


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  1. I would not question Solow’s account of the Bad Hayek’s vices, but are we wise to overlook how Solow uncritically glosses the Good Hayek’s very limited virtues?

    All economists know that a system of competitive markets is a remarkably efficient way to aggregate all that knowledge while preserving decentralization.

    This is the claim — the market as information processing system — that Phillip Mirowski identifies as a critical element in the evolution of neoliberalism. But, are we wise to pass over it so uncritically. Good Hayek himself recognized that his theory failed as a hypothesis descriptive of the world: actual market prices did not vary enough to transmit sufficient information.
    When we gaze across the economic landscape, do we see the ubiquity of enterprise bureaucracy? Do we see the legions of wage workers employed for their time and willingness to follow rules and plans?

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