STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many people struggle to understand what Congress is doing and why, but some lawmakers and political candidates insist they are inspired by coherent political or economic ideas. This week, we're hearing about some past thinkers who inform today's debate, including Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist who's often cited by those on the right. His arguments for free market capitalism, and against socialism and central planning, made him popular in the 1940s in America, and again today. NPR's Tamara Keith has more.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Friedrich Hayek argued for humility among economists and politicians. That, says Don Boudreaux, was his most important contribution. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University, and one of the guys behind the blog Cafe Hayek.
DON BOUDREAUX: The economy will always be more complex, will always confound you in your attempts to mold it to your designs.
KEITH: In other words, the economy is too complicated for politicians to avert recessions and unemployment without unintended consequences that may well be worse. This was one of the ideas in his most famous book, "The Road to Serfdom." In it, he made a nuanced case against central planning, something Boudreaux says had been gaining steam among Western intellectuals since at least the Great Depression.
BOUDREAUX: It's a fatal conceit that we can control our destiny as a society, consciously. We can't do that. It'll lead to results quite the opposite of what its best-intentioned proponents believe.
KEITH: The book was first published in 1944, and later reached millions through a Reader's Digest condensation. A new edition came out in 2007 without much fanfare. Bruce Caldwell is a professor at Duke who specializes in the history of political economy. He was the editor of the new edition. Caldwell says interest in "The Road to Serfdom" started to build after the bank bailouts and passage of President Obama's health plan.
BRUCE CALDWELL: Some people called it socialized medicine and of course, Hayek was known as an opponent of socialism. So people were interested in it for that.
KEITH: But that's not what made it a best-seller.
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GLENN BECK: Welcome to the Glenn Beck program. Tonight, I want to talk to you about the crossroads that we're at.
KEITH: In June 2010, Glenn Beck spent an entire hour-long show, then on Fox News Channel, encouraging his audience to read "The Road to Serfdom."
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BECK: This book was like Mike Tyson in his prime - right hook to socialism in Western Europe and in the United States. But the influence didn't stop there. It has inspired political and economic leaders for decades since. Most famously - you know who loved this book? Ronald Reagan.
KEITH: Caldwell says people listened.
CALDWELL: The next day, it was number one on Amazon.com, and it stayed there for, I think, 10 days - and stayed in the top 100 for a couple of months. It was like an Oprah moment for old Fritz Hayek.
KEITH: Hayek had been dead for more than 15 years and just like that, his book was flying off the shelves. These days, saying you're reading Hayek - or others from the Austrian school of economics - is almost obligatory for conservative politicians. In a recent debate, Ron Paul cited the Austrian school. This summer, Michele Bachmann said she lies on the beach reading Hayek's mentor, Ludwig von Mises. And when asked at a campaign event in Iowa to name some books that have shaped him, Rick Perry gave a shoutout to "The Road to Serfdom."
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GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Friedrich Hayek's book is one that had an impact on me, understanding that John Maynard Keynes absolutely knew nothing about economics.
KEITH: Hayek, and the more influential and well-known Keynes, feuded over economic theory and the proper role of government for years. Western governments generally bought into Keynes' idea that with well-timed public spending, you could level out the dips in the business cycle. Recently, though, Hayek has been making a comeback. Freshman congressman Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, can say he was reading Hayek before Hayek was cool.
REPRESENTATIVE JUSTIN AMASH: I've got a framed portrait of Hayek on my wall.
KEITH: In his Capitol Hill office, Amash has framed photos of about half a dozen Austrian economists. But the one of Hayek is big - almost rock-poster big.
AMASH: And then I also have the signature of F.A. Hayek. And I have that framed.
KEITH: Amash, who was elected with Tea Party backing, discovered Hayek's work five years ago, and has devoured his books and essays since. He says Hayek's ideas have informed just about all of his votes in the House.
AMASH: A lot of legislators, members of Congress, think they can decide how society functions from these offices here, and they don't really have the dispersed knowledge that society has to make those kind of decisions.
KEITH: Economics professor Don Boudreaux thinks he knows why so many politicians are citing Hayek.
BOUDREAUX: He's got the intellectual creds. He's not someone who can be dismissed by people on the other side - in this case, by people on the left - as a flake, as someone who was just ranting and raving, as someone who failed to understand the great nuances of the market and politics.
KEITH: But he also believes Hayek and "The Road to Serfdom" are misunderstood, and he suspects some of the big names claiming to read Hayek may not actually be reading his dense academic texts. He says "The Road to Serfdom" wasn't written as a political tract. And in fact, Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell says Hayek was concerned when he arrived in America and discovered his book was being championed by partisans.
CALDWELL: He was surprised and dismayed that it had been taken in a party spirit, that this - the intent of this book was not to endorse one party or the other. It was to make certain points about the feasibility of certain institutional arrangements that responsible people were promoting.
KEITH: Caldwell thinks Hayek would be pleased with all of the attention his work is getting - even if some of it is extremely partisan. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And tomorrow, our series concludes with a look at Englishman John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas influenced efforts to get out of the Great Depression. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.