It has been a bad couple of weeks for conservative social scientists. First a doctoral student ran the numbers on the study by Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that underpins austerity and deep public spending cuts as a cure for the Great Recession and found it full of errors. Then a policy analyst, Jason Richwine, who angered Senate Republicans trying to pass immigration reform with a one-sided estimate of the cost of making undocumented workers citizens, was obliged to clear his desk at the Heritage Foundation when it became known his Harvard dissertation suggested Hispanics had lower intelligence than “the white native population.”
It makes you wonder what Friedrich Hayek would have to say about such aberrant research. Hayek has become the patron saint of conservative intellectuals – and with good reason. He went head to head with John Maynard Keynes in 1931 in an effort to stop Keynesianism in its tracks. Hayek failed, but his attempt gave him mythical status among thinkers who deplore big government and central management of the economy.
Hayek became a conservative hero a second time with publication of his Road to Serfdom (1944) that suggested the larger the state sector, the more there was a tendency to tyranny. Many of today’s Hayekians harden up Hayek’s carefully expressed thoughts to declare that all government is potentially despotic, while also ignoring his arguments in favor of governments providing a generous safety net for the less advantaged, including a home for every citizen and universal health care – perhaps because Americans were first introduced to Serfdom in a much truncated Reader’s Digest edition. They would do well to re-read the original.
The rest of Hayek’s vast oeuvre doesn’t get much notice, even from those who boast of their devotion to the master. But it is not a stretch to say that the very notion of conservative think tanks grew out of his plea for an ideology that would inspire and unite the right as effectively as socialist theory continues to inspire the left.
In the aftermath of World War Two, when Western governments adopted Keynesianism wholesale and Social Democrats with big spending agendas won landslide elections, Hayek assembled a ragbag of nonconservatives and maverick thinkers to a summit in an off-season ski resort on Mont Pelerin, Switzerland. He set them a task: Come up with an ideology to inspire conservatives and arm them with cogent arguments to counter socialists and Keynesians. He warned them the effort could take 25 years.