Britain’s adoption of free trade (which began in earnest with Parliament’s repeal of the “corn laws”—tariffs on grains—in 1846) owes much to Smith’s own scholarly case for free trade. The logic and eloquence of Smith’s argument inspired other scholars to do further research into trade. This research largely confirmed and strengthened Smith’s conclusions. Just as importantly, it also inspired orators, pamphleteers, and other public intellectuals of the era to take up the cause of free trade. These public intellectuals explained to the public the benefits of free trade and the dangers of protectionism. By the mid-nineteenth century, public opinion in Britain had swung to free trade, along with other related free-market ideas. Not until the early twentieth century would Britain abandon free trade—an abandonment that itself was the product of intellectual developments some years earlier and that had been conveyed to wide audiences by public intellectuals.
Britain’s experience with free trade and protectionism shows that if scholars get the ideas right, there’s a very good chance that those right ideas will eventually influence public policies for the better. But the flipside is also true: if scholars get the ideas wrong, then public policy will eventually reflect those wrong ideas.
No economist in the twentieth century has done as much to get the ideas right as did F.A. Hayek. From his pioneering research into booms and busts, through his explorations into the role of prices and the essence of market competition, to his profound analyses of the rule of law and of the importance of principles both for guiding human actions and for constraining even the bestintentioned government policies, Hayek breathed much-needed new vigour into the case for a society of free and responsible individuals. Hayek’s ideas not only continue to inspire original research by economists and other social scientists, but have become part of the discourse of many public intellectuals.
Hayek’s ideas have already paid dividends. Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister of Great Britain, singled out Hayek for influencing her ideas about moving Britain away from collectivism. In the United States, Hayek’s work was a key source of inspiration and guidance for the greater reliance in that country, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, on free markets.
As Hayek himself understood, however, the case for freedom and free markets must continually be rejuvenated and made again and again and again. The project is never completed, as more recent political developments in Britain and the United States attest. Opposing ideas—those of collectivism of one form or another—are always being generated, refined, and spread. Failure by classical liberals and other defenders of a society based on free markets and strictly limited government to counter these collectivist ideas will guarantee the victory of collectivism.
Being among the deepest and most profound ideas ever developed in the social sciences, Hayek’s ideas can continually nourish the intellectual and moral case for freedom for many generations to come. It is my hope that this little book will play some modest role in introducing people to Hayek’s ideas and in rousing them to build upon those ideas in order to help strengthen the sinews of a free civilization so that civilization will not only endure, but grow to encompass the globe.