A Nobel Polemicist: a review of The Road to Freedom by Joseph Stiglitz (Samuel Gregg, 5/09/24, Law & Liberty)

At this point, I wondered how much Stiglitz has actually read of Hayek and Friedman. I know of no text where they called for rule-free and regulation-free markets. Significantly, there is just one reference in Stiglitz’s footnotes to something authored by Hayek.

Yet one need only open books like The Constitution of Liberty to find Hayek, for example, pointing out that “a functioning market economy presupposes certain activities on the part of the state.” In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek even says that the “wooden insistence on … the principles of laissez-faire” did immense harm to the market liberal cause. So much, then, for unfettered markets.

More generally, anyone who has read the corpus of Hayek’s work knows that he wrote extensively about the laws and legislation best fitted for societies that take justice and rule of law seriously. That is the whole point of Hayek’s mammoth Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Stiglitz himself concedes that books like The Road to Serfdom show that Hayek was “aware of externalities” and “the need for government intervention when there are externalities.” But how can Stiglitz square this concession with his declarations that Hayek was committed to “unfettered markets”? The answer is: he can’t.

In fact, the debate between free marketers and interventionists is not about whether there should be regulation. The argument is really about what is the best way to regulate markets.

Is it through a combination of macroeconomic policies, specific interventions into particular economic sectors, the application of wide-ranging regulatory codes to economic transactions, and ongoing wealth redistributions through large welfare states and progressive taxation? Or: are markets better regulated through protections of property rights, adherence to rule of law, contract enforcement, commonsense health and safety regulations, a basic safety net, stable money, and the dynamic competition that promotes consumer sovereignty over and against vested interests like established businesses and their political allies? This is a key dispute between dirigistes like Stiglitz and those who believe in markets, and Stiglitz’s presentation of the latter’s position is a caricature.

This, however, is dwarfed by Stiglitz’s astonishing claim that the “free and unfettered markets advocated by Hayek and Friedman and so many on the Right have set us on the road of fascism.” I find it hard to believe that Stiglitz does not know that fascist regimes have historically been characterized by widespread regulation, endless interventionism, and corporatism: in short, the opposite of free market economies.

Republican liberty is the impediment to the Left/Right vision.