Does Hayek Belong in High School Economics Classes?

At the Freakonomics blog, economist Justin Wolfers criticizes a recent Texas Board of Education effort to include the work of F.A. Hayek in high school economics classes. He sees it as a “conservative” ideological mandate that isn’t justified by Hayek’s scholarly influence:

Sunday’s New York Times reported on attempts by the Texas Board of Education to rewrite the high school curriculum in accordance with its conservative values….. I find the raw ideological force exerted by these “educators” to be both striking and dispiriting.

How do they plan to rewrite high school economics?

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

Taking social science seriously surely means teaching the insights of the most prominent, most important, or most influential economists. This involves teaching important theories—even those you disagree with. There’s no doubt about the influence of Smith, Marx and Keynes; Friedman also belongs. But does Hayek belong on this list?

Let’s use data to inform this debate. I counted the number of references to each economist in the scholarly literature indexed by JSTOR, finding 30,708 articles mentioning “Adam Smith”; 25,626 articles mentioning “Karl Marx”; and 4,945 mentioning “John Maynard Keynes” (the middle name was required to avoid articles by his father, John Neville Keynes). “Milton Friedman” sits easily with this group, and was mentioned in 8,924 articles.

But searching for “Friedrich von Hayek” only yielded 398 articles; adding “Friedrich Hayek” raised his total to 1242 mentions; also allowing “FH Hayek” raised his count to 1561….

By the way, “Lawrence Summers” was mentioned 1712 times, adding “Larry Summers” raises his score to 1972 mentions; and also including “LH Summers” raises his score to 2064….

This exercise suggests that Larry Summers is more influential than Hayek, and so I’m led to conclude that teaching “insights from Larry Summers” involves less of an ideological subsidy than teaching “insights from Hayek….”

The message from the Texas Board of Education seems to be: If you can’t win in the marketplace of ideas, turn to government institutions to prop you up. I don’t think Hayek would approve.

Wolfers’ argument has already gotten some strong criticism from the University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson, economist William Easterly, and my colleague Josh Wright. As Henderson points out, much of Hayek’s influence was in scholarly fields that are not well-represented in the J-STORS database. He notes that Hayek ranks very high in citations by legal scholars (J-Stors includes very few law journals).

Josh and Easterly correctly emphasize that Hayek’s work focuses on broad issues that are of special important to students in an intro course. He wrote about the fundamental tradeoff between the market and government planning, and about the ways in which markets outperform government in conveying and using information. His classic article “The Use of Knowledge in Society” is arguably the most important on this fundamental question, and is readily accessible to nonexperts. By contrast, Summers’ work is mostly on more narrow technical issues. These matters are of great importance to experts, but less likely to be essential reading for high school students. Ironically, Summers himself (quoted by Easterly) has made the same point:

What’s the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the [un]hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That’s the consensus among economists. That’s the Hayek legacy.

I myself summarized Hayek’s relevance to current debates here. Some of his arguments are badly flawed or outdated. But his central insights are almost as important today as they were when he developed them decades ago.

I think Wolfers also underestimates Hayek’s prominence even in the J-STOR data. Counting Hayek’s cites is difficult because of the many different variations on his name. Wolfers captures some of these ( “Friedrich von Hayek,” “Friedriech Hayek,” and “F.H. Hayek”), but not all. At various times, Hayek also was referred to as “F.A. Hayek” (574 cites), “F.A. von Hayek” (68), “Friedrich A. Hayek” (648), and possibly other variants that don’t occur to me. Including just these three variations adds another 1290 cites to Hayek’s count, pushing him to a total of 2851, well ahead of Summers, though still far behind Keynes and Friedman. Part of the problem arises from the fact that Hayek eventually dropped the aristrocratic “von” from his name because he thought it was incompatible with his egalitarian political views.

Just running “Hayek” through the search engine yields a total of 12,136 cites. A few of these are cites to other people named “Hayek,” but not many. I checked the first several hundred cites that came up and all but one or two were to Friedrich Hayek. The situation with Friedman and Summers is very different, since both names are far more common than Hayek, especially in the English-speaking world; Summers and Friedman also were not referred to by as many different variations on their names as Hayek. If you conservatively give Hayek credit for half or two thirds of the 12,000 “Hayek” citations, he is definitely in the same ballpark as Friedman and Keynes, though still trailing Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

Hayek’s citation count is all the more impressive when we remember that academics are overwhelmingly left of center (including economists), and people naturally tend to pay more attention to ideas they agree with.

Finally, it’s worth noting that, contrary to Wolfers’ assumptions (and possibly those of the Texas Board), the man who wrote an essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative” was, ahem, not a conservative.

Like Hayek, I am opposed to the control of education by government boards. I think that schooling should be left to the private sector, with perhaps some government subsidization of education for the poor through vouchers. But so long as we do have public schools and government-mandated curricula, it is better that they include Hayek’s work than leave it out – just as it is also good for them to include major left-wing thinkers like Marx and Keynes. Reading Hayek might even lead some Texas students to question whether the state should have control over what they learn.

UPDATE: It turns out that political scientist Jacob Levy has performed some of the same calculations as I did, and got similar results.

UPDATE #2: I have now included a link to the full text of Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern’s paper on the political views of economists. Among other things, it shows that some 58% of economists identify as Democrats, compared to 23% Republican. It also shows that the average economist is very far from being a consistent free market supporter. The combination of these two findings strongly suggests that the economists really are overwhelmingly left of center, though probably not as much so as scholars in many other disciplines.