In April, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds noted on his very popular blog, "Instapundit," that sales of Friedrich von Hayek's
The Road to Serfdom
had shot up since last year's election. At the time it was ranked No. 601 among all books sold on Amazon.com. "Pretty good," Reynolds observed, "for a book that's been out for over half a century." (It went on to reach No. 283 and was holding its own recently at No. 999.)
Nor is Hayek, a Nobel winner who died in 1992, the only vintage author to get a postelection sales boost. Another is Ayn Rand, whose 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged - scheduled to hit the big screen in 2011 - recently ranked No. 310 at Amazon.
When Rand's novel debuted, the controversy surrounding it focused on its atheism and opposition to altruism. Its anticollectivism, on the other hand, seemed downright patriotic in those anticommunist days. More than 1,100 pages long and set sometime in the future, it centers on a strike by America's most talented and productive people engineered by an inventor named John Galt.
There is something eerily prophetic in the visit heroine Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Hank Reardon make to the ruins of "Twentieth Century Motors." The same can be said of the "Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule":
"The Rule provided that the members of the National Alliance of Railroads were forbidden to engage in practices defined as 'destructive competition'; that in regions declared to be restricted, no more than one railroad would be permitted to operate . . . [and] that the Executive Board of the National Alliance of Railroads was empowered to decide, at its sole discretion, which regions were to be restricted."
Hayek's book, written during World War II, was meant as a warning that democratic institutions were not necessarily prophylactic against collectivism, which Hayek thought was necessarily coercive and despotic:
"The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc., differ among themselves in the nature of the goal toward which they want to direct the efforts of society. But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organize the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end and in refusing to recognize autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individuals are supreme. In short, they are totalitarian."
To attribute the surge in popularity of these books to "conservatives" seeking solace after a defeat at the polls is both tempting and easy. But it almost certainly has less to do with partisan politics than with fundamental principles.
Some years after The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote an essay called "Why I Am Not a Conservative." In it, he describes "as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism," and he proceeds to argue that "the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists." Of course, Hayek uses liberal in its classic sense, referring to someone whose aim is "to free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected." (John Galt couldn't have put it better.)
Moreover, what Hayek says about conservatives applies equally well to many who today call themselves progressives:
"Conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate. . . . They lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment. . . . The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change 'orderly.' "
In this view, neither today's "progressives" nor today's "conservatives" are liberal, which is to say committed, in Hayek's words, to the "set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power."
Happily, a good many people in America remain committed to just those ideals, and what the burgeoning sales of books such as those by Hayek and Rand really suggest is that more and more of them are becoming aware that, precisely in regard to those ideals, there is a growing disconnect between the country's political class and its citizens. It was manifestly on display last month when the House approved the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which in its final form was longer than Atlas Shrugged and which none of the members voting on it had read.
That the free citizens of a free country would be served so cavalierly by their elected representatives is the sort of thing any good novelist would hesitate to invent, for fear it would seem too implausible.