May 8th marks the 121st birthday of the one of the most influential economists in the history of the world, Friedrich August von Hayek. Throughout his life, Hayek advised world leaders such as President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, received a Nobel Prize for economics, and cofounded the free market group Mont Pèlerin Society. He also shares a special place in YAF’s history, serving as one of the first members of the Young Americans for Freedom National Advisory Board in February 1961.
Born in Austria in 1899, Hayek spent large portions of his life in England and the United States. He was a professor at the London School of Economics when he published one of the greatest critiques of socialism and centralized planning, The Road to Serfdom. F.A. Hayek later came to America to teach at the University of Chicago where he continued to promote free enterprise and individual liberty, and the founders of Young Americans for Freedom were thrilled when he agreed to join the National Advisory Board of the new organization. Additionally, Hayek also strongly influenced two other YAF allies: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan.
Legend has it that during a debate amongst her advisors, the new Prime Minister emphatically slammed a book down and declared that “This is what we believe!” The book was Hayek’s other great work, The Constitution of Liberty. Thatcher read The Road to Serfdom as a teenager, and the book remained one of the foundations of her philosophy. Prime Minister Thatcher met with Hayek several times and his influence was felt in her policies that helped open the United Kingdom’s economy back to free enterprise and away from centralized planning.
In the U.S., President Reagan’s strong stand against communism was also heavily influenced by Hayek. After President Reagan hosted the Nobel Prize-winning economist at the Oval Office in 1983, he wrote in his journal that he “Met 85-year-old Friedrich Von Hayek—the great economist, a pupil of Von Mises. I’ve read his works & quoted him for years.” Visitors to Reagan’s study noted that he had several of Hayek’s works in his private collection which were heavily annotated; Reagan read them diligently and they helped form core parts of his philosophy that emphasized the rights of the individual. Shortly before Hayek’s death in 1992, President George H.W. Bush awarded Hayek the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of his achievements and lifelong defense of individual freedom.
The Road to Serfdom is as relevant today as it was when it was written during the dark days of the Second World War. With every attack on individual freedoms and every new centralized plan to control people’s lives, America inches a little further down that road. YAF’s founding document the Sharon Statement notes, “That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom”. Students should read Hayek’s magnum opus both to understand the dangers of the direction that America is heading and to help them warn their peers so we can change course– before it’s too late.
Karl Stahlfeld is the Associate Director of YAF’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Free Enterprise