Should schools teach Hayek?

Cite this Article
Todd Henderson, Should schools teach Hayek?, Truth on the Market (March 16, 2010),

The Texas Board of Education recently decided to add F.A. Hayek to the high school economics curriculum. The New York Times reports:

In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

To the Times, this is evidence of the Board’s desire to put a “conservative stamp on . . . economics textbooks.” As usual, the Times gets it wrong.

Hayek is the most courageous and important critic of social planning, and if we are going to expose high school students to the poison of Marx, we must give them the antidote of Hayek. Hayek realized the fallacy of central planning and its inevitable failure decades before anyone else. His book “The Road to Serfdom” should be required reading for any literate American. His ideas about the decentralization of knowledge, the important role heterogeneous preferences would play in destabiling attempts at social planning, and the link between progressivism and totalitarianism are some of the most important contributions to human knowledge of the past 100 years.

Economist, and my friend, Justin Wolfers disagrees. On the ever-interesting Freakonomics blog, Wolfers examines citations to Hayek in economics journals, and concludes the data “suggests that Hayek just doesn’t belong with Smith, Marx, Keynes, or Friedman.”

Others are coming to Hayek’s defense. See comments by William Easterly here.

I offered my own defense of sorts in a 2005 paper for the inaugural issue of the New York University Journal of Law & Liberty. I look at citations to Hayek and other famous “economists” in law journals and by judges. Hayek is the ninth most cited economist, behind only Mill, Smith, Coase, Becker, Stigler, Arrow, Marx, and Friedman. Hayek has been quite influential on law, and like Mill, Smith, and Friedman is accessible to high school students wrestling with big-picture ideas about economics and society.

I do agree with Wolfers’s skepticism about school boards generally and some of the specific decisions of the Texas Board. I also agree that Hayek would be skeptical about attempts to impose knowledge from above. But, since these decisions must be made, it is nice to see some balance being brought to economics education.

Of course, much of this shouldn’t matter. Education starts at home, and I can say that no matter what the high school curriuculum at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (where my kids will attend), they will learn about Hayek in the Henderson House.