Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The General Theory in a close 14,728th behind The Road to Serfdom!

The General Theory is number #14,728 in Amazon's books right now, trailing very closely behind The Road to Serfdom's #1. I think I sense a second wind coming for Keynes! All we need is a shout out from Glenn Beck.

Oh well - there's no accounting for taste.

In seriousness:

1. Congratulations to Hayek, and

2. What's interesting is that this recession has resulted in an enormous resurgence of both Austrian and Keynesian economics, at the expense of rational expectations theorists, New Classicals, etc. It may not show up in the Amazon numbers, but it is undeniable.

Two questions:

1. Why are two such starkly opposed views both getting more popular? That seems a little odd, doesn't it? and,

2. Why can't Keynesians sell books like Austrians?

Any thoughts? I have both cynical and serious explanations personally.


  1. Trust me, the only Austrian book that has sold in great numbers is the Road to Serfdom. I'm pretty sure Human Action is probably behind, or with, The General Theory.

  2. That was one of my cynical thoughts, namely: The Road to Serfdom - who cares?

    Not that I have anything against the Road to Serfdom - simply for this reason. It's not really the foundation in the way that other books are.

  3. The Constitution of Liberty comes in at 710 (very respectable given its complexity, etc.).

    Human Action is at 21,277.

    Economics in One Lesson is at 161 (it has sold well since it was published).

    Principles of Economics is at 121,131,.

  4. Anyway, it isn't like "The Road To Serfdom" ever sold poorly or was somehow an obscure, out of print book - it, along with Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson" - have been selling well for decades.

    "It's not really the foundation in the way that other books are."

    Sure and that is why it is far, far more important that what Keynes wrote or whoever. I think of it as one of the first shots made against collectivism and centrally planned economies when both ideas were dominant and promoted throughout most of the world. It took a great deal of courage and moral grit for Hayek to write what he wrote.

  5. Actually, both Mises' _Socialism_ and his _Human Action_ are outselling Keynes ...

  6. How's Keynes' _Treatise_ doing?

  7. Well, earlier today they were outselling Keynes.

    It's a Beck bubble, right?

  8. Greg -
    :) this isn't a contest... the whole "#14000 vs. #1" was just a joke. If you're gonna play that game, though, two thoughts:

    1. there are far more versions of Keynes in print than Mises, and

    2. More people probably have an old copy of Keynes on their shelf than an old copy of Mises on their shelf and therefore don't need to go out and buy the book.

    Xenophon -
    The first shot against collectivism and a centrally planned economy? That's a joke, right? It is a prominent and eloquent shot at collectivism and centrally planned economy, but hardly the first.

  9. dkuehn,

    One of the first, not the first.

    Include Ayn Rand on that list because of her own first hand experiences there (whatever misgivings we might have about her overall philosophy) - indeed, her reports in the 1920s of what was happening there were dismissed by the American press - that probably went a long way toward the development of her less than pleasant personality.

    Most American and British liberals were stumbling over themselves in an effort to justify, defend, etc. the Soviet experiment, etc. until it became very, very clear what the fruits of those were - and then they generally defended the Soviet project's goals while condemning the particular methods. It is a fairly shameful portion of American/British liberal history.

  10. dkuehn,

    BTW, I welcome your disquisition of anti-collectivist, etc. authors of the 20th century that preceded Hayek. There aren't that many; he was swimming hard against the "stream of history" as intellectuals, etc. understood it then.

  11. Well now you're changing the question - why are we just talking about the Soviets and the 20th century? I was thinking of people writing against collectivism that were writing well before the 20th century. It is hard to get before Ayn Rand in the 20s for simple chronological reasons. But Keynes in 1923 and 1925 should do the trick. Orwell. HL Mencken. That's just off the top of my head.

    I'm not trying to detract from Hayek, Xenophon - I just think you're crazy to think that a book written in 1944 was one of the first critiques of communism in the 20th century, MUCH LESS collectivism and planning (which was your first claim).

  12. I don't believe I am changing anything. The context of Hayek's book is well known.

    Keynes wasn't against planned economies nor collectivism for that matter; and he spent much of the 1920s and 1930s praising the Soviet Union as a grand experiment. In order to understand just how screwy Keynes' thoughts were one merely has to think about this statement Keynes made about "The Road To Serfdom" - "Dangerous acts can be done safely in a community which thinks and feels rightly, which would be the way to hell if they were executed by those who think and feel wrongly." As Milton Friedman noted, this is contrary to one of Hayek's chapters in "The Road To Serfdom" - "Why the Worst Get On Top."

    In the 1920s Orwell was writing things like this:

  13. Daniel,

    Hicks once wrote that when the history of 20th century economic policy comes to be written, the pivotal debate will be the Hayek v. Keynes debate. When you scratch the surface of the various positions, it ultimately comes back to that. That is why I believe you see the rise of interest in these two positions again, and again. And ultimately, the earlier version of that debate is contained in the letters exchanged between Malthus and Say.

    As for sales of Keynes versus Hayek, I think you would have to look at books written by followers of Keynes as substitutes. So Krugman, Stiglitz, and Shiller/Akerlof. The follower of Keynes are more respected and more recognized than the followers of Hayek. Sowell's book sell widely, but not necessarily Knowledge and Decisions (his most Hayekian book). But more relevant is the comparative sales of (a) Skidelsky vs. Caldwell, and (b) the works of Krugman, Stiglitz and Shiller/Akerlof versus Garrison, Selgin, White, O'Driscoll, and Horwitz.

    If you look at it that way, I suggest you might see a different picture about the intellectual battle that is on-going.

    It is quite a fascinating story to follow.

    Peter Boettke

  14. Xenophon -
    I can't keep up with you.

    First it's collectivism and planning - Hayek clearly wasn't the first to criticize that.

    Then it's the Soviets in the 20th century.

    Now it's any sort of communitarian vision whatsoever.

    What exactly are we talking about here!?!?!?

    As for Orwell - I never referenced his writing in the twenties specifically. He was writing against Stalinism in the 30s. His most famous works are more contemporary with Road to Serfdom, of course.

    Either way - your initial point was about collectivism, the criticism of which clearly predated Hayek.

  15. Peter -
    It would be reassuring if that is how the debate is remembered. Obviously that excludes the elephant in the room of central planning. I hope that when the 20th century is remembered, central planning will be recalled as a political disaster rather than a viable policy debate. It will be a historical oddity that's interesting but not relevant to the concerns of the future. The relevant issues to consider will be the Hayek vs. Keynes questions, and I think the answer to that question will depend on circumstance.

    I think it doesn't have to be quite the either/or that people make it out to be. Keynesian policy without a cognizance of what Hayek said is doomed to failure. Crude Hayekianism without an appreciation of Keynesian insights is doomed to bumping along at a sub-optimal level. The conflict between the two men helps to illuminate the real issues and the real trade-offs and blind spots of each perspective. But I hope the future doesn't feel like they have to choose one or the other.

  16. Daniel,

    "First it's collectivism and planning..."

    Same things, different words in the context of the time - collectivism, centralized planning, the Soviet Union (all things which Keynes praised at one time or another in his career).

    On Orwell this is what you wrote: "It is hard to get before Ayn Rand in the 20s for simple chronological reasons. But Keynes in 1923 and 1925 should do the trick. Orwell. HL Mencken."

    To me this looks like you are discussing the work of all four figures in the 1920s (especially since Mencken was at the top of his game in the 1920s).

    "Crude Hayekianism without an appreciation of Keynesian insights is doomed to bumping along at a sub-optimal level."

    Keynesian insights? Keynes was a monster - and like Heidegger, he ought to be outed for the monstrosities he proposed, defended, etc.

    "Either way - your initial point was about collectivism, the criticism of which clearly predated Hayek."

    No, this was my initial point:

    "I think of it as one of the first shots made against collectivism and centrally planned economies when both ideas were dominant and promoted throughout most of the world."

    Note how I very narrowly qualify the time period in question in my initial statement. BTW, this all makes perfect sense of course; it would have hardly been courageous for him to write this book in say the 1880s.

  17. "Keynes was a monster"

    No, this was a monster:

  18. Also, if critics of centralized planning, etc. were so common it seems rather strange that Hayek's book sold so well and was viewed as such a breath of fresh air when it was published (same thing with Rand's novels). The fact is that there were not very many critics of these things because the vast majority of intellectuals, etc. for centralized planning, etc. Indeed, what made Hayek especially unique was that he was an academic critic of these trends; almost all the other small circle of critics were not in academia.

  19. I think he was probably one of the few blatant intellectual critics. And that has value - I'm sensing you think I'm denigrating Hayek or something. The intellectual critics at the time weren't quite as accessible as Road to Serfdom was (they still aren't).

    I really wouldn't compare Rand to Hayek. Rand brings a whole lot of other things to the table.

  20. But even WITHIN lefist circles you had criticism of communism. That really says something! Part of the problem, I think, is that people see guys like Orwell and Keynes as being part of the problem! I suppose when you purge everyone that actually agrees with you on Communism as being closet Communists, the field does look sparser.

  21. dkuehn,

    Happily Cookie Monster is still around (though he now eats vegetables too):

  22. dkuehn,

    You would do well to read Burns' new biography of Rand - it changed much of the way I saw her as a historical figure (to the positive).

    Orwell was an anti-totalitarian and he never had anything good to say about mass social experimentation and the like (probably because of his own experiences with such in the British Empire). I don't see anything like that in the career of Keynes.

  23. The new bios do look very interesting - I don't think I'll have time to read them any time soon, though. I'm not even saying she has a negative view (although I don't agree with everything she says), just that I think it's a quite different contribution from Hayek's.

    I think you're hanging on awful lot on one or two sentences from Keynes that you've read - particularly since you're using this word "experimentation", which gives me a pretty good guess at which passage you have in mind.

    All I can say is read his other pieces and pay attention to how he talks about how those policies should be implemented. He's by no means a jump in head first kind of guy. I think it's fair to say I have almost exactly the opposite view of him on this than what you seem to. That doesn't change the passage or two you have in mind, of course, but you need to read that in context.

    And I should say - Keynes's caution and his aversion to grand plans is one of the reasons why I like him so much. I think I'm in agreement with you on what's good here - just in disagreement on who's on what side.

  24. Well, then suggest to me a one volume bio of Keynes (a warts and all one) and I'll forgo mentioning him until I have finished it. Sounds like a fair proposal to me.

  25. Actually I've never read a bio of him. The only thing close I've read is Skidelsky's new book, although I had some problems with that. It was ok I guess, but I wouldn't highly recommend it.

    Skidelsky's bios are supposed to be good, but (1.) they're not one volume, and (2.) after seeing him on PBS and reading his new book I'm not sure I'd recommend them without reading them anyway.

    He definitely had warts - there's no doubt about that. He was a Victorian aristocrat in the early twentieth century. There are facets that aren't as pleasant. I don't think that makes him a monster, though, and I don't think you're giving a fair picture of how he would implement policy.

    I'd just keep it simple - read the General Theory or the Tract on Monetary Reform. He's cautious when it comes to policy, not bombastic.

  26. Found something along the lines of what I am interested in: "Keynes and the Role of the State."

  27. Interesting - I looked it up.

    Post-Keynesians will give Keynes a fair shake, so that's good. Don't count on them always agreeing with most American Keynesians, who largely aren't post-Keynesians.

  28. Great Will Wilkinson post on Glenn Beck and the extent of his "libertarianism":

    'Is Glenn Beck's populism terrifying?'

    "Those whose souls sing to the message of providential American exceptionalism and misty non-denominational pieties are also those most likely to support the use of force to impose conservative morality at home and Western-style democracy abroad. I suspect the tens of thousands who answered Mr Beck's call emerged predominantly from the ranks of those who vigorously defend Arizona's nativist crackdown, who are trying to shout down the so-called "ground-zero mosque", who have cast Barack Obama as a pretender bent on destruction, and who continue to support the strafing of innocents abroad with taxpayer-funded remote-controlled death kites. And I suspect few of them see dishonour in any of it."

    There's a certain saying that springs to mind... Something about putting lipstick on a pig?

  29. PS - There is, of course, a more personal narrative being played out for Wilkinson amidst all of this...

    Three very different sources all discussing the same issue: (the original)

    It appears that Cato's loss (purge?) is The Economists gain.


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