Amazon.com provides some reassurance that capitalism still has substantial public support. Sales are surging for two iconic books advocating free markets. In this year of nationalization, Americans might want to read them as cautionary tales.
Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a provocative philosophical novel published in 1957, is No. 30 in Amazon’s current sales rankings. At No. 290 is “The Road to Serfdom,” Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 primer in free-market economics. Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” by contrast, remains mired at No. 40,869.
These are old books, but both have found new resonance at a time of economic crisis and government bank seizures. Rand tells a story of economic collapse, government takeovers of industry, and the refusal of the capitalist class to cooperate: John Galt and his followers retreat from society, content to let the government ruin what it has taken.
Rand’s apocalyptic vision has intoxicated generations, but Hayek offers more realistic economic advice. The Austrian economist was the philosophical counterweight to John Maynard Keynes, whose argument for central planning and government stimulus now seems ascendant.
Hayek explains that government control comes at the expense of market freedom. Official edicts limit consumer choices over what to buy and at what cost. And state control curtails business freedom to set pricing, production levels and salaries.
But Hayek says that central planners fail because they do not have the knowledge to substitute their judgment for the market’s. And with each economic failure, government usurps more freedom to retain control. The cycle ends in a Soviet-style society, with neither freedom nor wealth.
Rand and Hayek are needed antidotes to the clamor for government to “do something!” about the economy. A society that knows how the story of statism ends is more likely to place its trust in free markets than look to government for salvation.