F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has been a bestseller for the University of Chicago Press since its first edition, in 1944. But this week a perennial success turned into a blockbuster. The press’s 2007 “definitive edition” of the work, now in paperback, reached No. 1 on Amazon.com on the evening of June 8 after conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck recommended the book on his Fox News program.
The Chicago Hayek remains at No. 1, three days later, up to this blogging minute. His immediate competition in the top five? Two thrillers by Stieg Larsson, an Eclipse novella in the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, and indeed Beck’s own novel, The Overton Window. So what has this meant for the publisher, which calls Road “an unimpeachable classic work in political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, and economics” that has “inspired and infuriated politicians, scholars, and general readers” for more than half a century.
Not surprisingly, Chicago has had to scramble. “We are rushing a reprint to respond to demand,” says press director, Garrett Kiely. A small reprinting had already been in the works, but the press has “gone back for considerably more,” Kiely says, around 100,000 copies. The hardcover edition is also selling well, at a very healthy No. 345 on Amazon, and will also be reprinted. Hayek fans appear to be tech-savvy. The Road to Serfdom is Chicago’s best-selling e-book, Kiely notes. Second in e-sales is Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, which Kiely says has been helped by the “bump in Hayek sales.”
The Chronicle reached Hayek scholar and biographer Bruce Caldwell for comment. He is the editor of Chicago’s 2007 “definitive edition” of The Road to Serfdom as well as the general editor for the press’s series The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek. Caldwell is a professor of economics at Duke University, where he directs the Center for the History of Political Economy.
Q: What is the significance of “The Road to Serfdom” for our times?
A: Though it was a book that was written in a very specific time and place (and I try to place it in context in my editor’s introduction), it does touch on some timeless themes. In particular Hayek responds to many of the prominent arguments for socialism that existed at the time. He was teaching at the London School of Economics and his colleagues included people like Evan Durbin and Harold Laski, both prominent socialists, so he knew the arguments.
Q: Any thoughts on how these tens of thousands more Beck-driven readers might perceive the book?
A: Hard to know: I don’t know who the median reader might be. Parts of the book will be very congenial. Others perhaps less so. The point is to get people reading someone who took arguments seriously, so I think that this is all to the good.
Q: The next Hayek “definitive edition” you are preparing for Chicago is “The Constitution of Liberty”?
A: That’s right. It is a much bigger book—some would say it is his masterpiece. The new edition we will be publishing will have his notes as footnotes rather than endnotes, which I think will be a great improvement. Hayek’s notes are fascinating, and provide a guide to many different literatures. We just completed a check of the things he cites in French, German, Italian, Greek, Latin, and Russian, to ensure everything was spelled properly! It’s a great book.
Q: What do you suppose Hayek would think of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party phenomenon?
A: Well, he was not against popularization. He approved, for example, a Reader’s Digest condensation of the book that was done by Max Eastman. What Glenn Beck is doing is saying: read the real book. So I think that Hayek would think that that was just fine! As to the Tea Party movement, it has been described in many ways, but to the extent that it is accurate to describe it as a non-partisan group that is worried about the current and projected level of deficit spending and about the intrusion of big government, I think that he would like that. Hayek definitely saw a role for government in the polity, he was no anarcho-libertarian, by any means. But he wanted government to be limited by strong constitutional constraints—hence the title of the book that is soon to appear, The Constitution of Liberty. It has a double meaning—the book is also about what constitutes liberty.—Nina Ayoub