Free-market ideas on Amazon.com
9/6/2000 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
Recently, I was searching around on the Amazon.com Web site and made an interesting discovery. Among its top 25 best-selling book titles in economics, an unusually high number were written by free market economists. Yet, despite the popular appeal of such books, liberal bias means that few such books are ever published by major trade publishers. Indeed, if it weren't for small university presses, many of the most important free market economics books of the 20th century would never have seen the light of day.
A classic example is Friedrich A. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," originally published during World War II. Even though it was a major best seller in England, it could not find an American publisher because it equated Communism and Nazism as both merely being different forms of socialism. Eventually, through the aid of friends at the University of Chicago, Hayek got the University of Chicago Press to publish an American edition. Predictably, it, too, was a best seller. Even today, "The Road to Serfdom" continues to sell. So popular is the book still that it appears on the Amazon.com list twice at No. 1 and No. 13. (The former is the paperback edition, the latter, the hardcover.)
Hayek is among the top three or four free market economists of the 20th century. The others being Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises. Interestingly, the first two also have books on the Amazon.com economics best-selling list. Friedman's book, "Capitalism and Freedom," is No. 4 on the list, and Hazlitt's "Economics in One Lesson" is No. 8.
Considering that Hayek's book was first published in 1944, Hazlitt's in 1946 and Friedman's in 1962, this is a remarkable achievement. Moreover, both Hayek and Hazlitt have been gone for some years. (Hayek died in 1992, Hazlitt in 1993.) Friedman is still with us, and recently, together with his wife and collaborator Rose, published a joint memoir, "Two Lucky People."
Going down the Amazon.com list, one finds other important free market economists among the best-sellers. Ronald Coase's book, "The Firm, the Market and the Law" comes in at No. 9, N. Gregory Mankiw's macroeconomics textbook is listed at No. 10, and Robert Barro's macroeconomics text follows at No. 14. Amazingly, another of Hayek's books also appears on the list, his final book, "The Fatal Conceit," which lists at No. 17.
As interesting as the number of free market economists is on the best-seller list, equally interesting is the absence of any Marxist or socialist economist on the list. Indeed, there really aren't even any avowed Keynesians or liberals, other than Paul Krugman, whose international economics text comes in at No. 14, and Paul Samuelson's economics text at No. 24. The balance of the Amazon.com's economics best-seller list is taken up mainly with extremely technical tomes such as Thomas Corman's "Introduction to Algorithms."
Thus, it seems that the real free market, where people spend their own money for what they want, has voted overwhelmingly in favor of those economists who support and defend it. Those favored by the national media, who generally have nothing but disdain for markets, are nowhere to be seen. Where is Bob Kuttner, whose left-wing economics column appears prominently in Business Week and the Washington Post? Where is John Kenneth Galbraith, who spent his life writing books attacking capitalism? Where is Lester Thurow of MIT, whose many books mostly extol the virtues of Japanese central planning. And Paul Krugman, recently installed as the New York Times' economic guru, could only get a textbook on the best-seller list, while none of his many popular economics books made the cut.
Yet, despite the proven market success of free market-oriented books, the major publishers such as Random House and Simon & Schuster, continue primarily to publish books by economists critical of the free market. And this has always been the case. In his excellent new book, "The Triumph of Liberty," Jim Powell shows that almost every important free market book had a long uphill struggle just to get published. The world owes a great debt to those publishers, such as Eugene Davidson of the Yale University Press, who had the courage to publish Mises despite criticism from the Yale faculty.
Friedman eventually got a trade publisher, once his television show, "Free to Choose," aired nationally. But he, too, needed the University of Chicago Press to publish "Capitalism and Freedom," possibly the most important free market book of the 20th century, in terms of its impact. By contrast, the books of Kuttner, Galbraith, Thurow and Krugman were mostly published by leading trade publishers.
The fault lies not just with the liberal bias of most New York publishers. They have also forsaken their responsibility to publish almost anything remotely serious, preferring instead to foist upon the public more and more self-help books, get-rich-quick books and books detailing the latest management fad in the nonfiction category. Those few remotely serious books they occasionally publish are overwhelmingly liberal, despite the long record of pitiful sales of such books.
The publishing industry is, in fact, a major support network for liberals. They often get huge advances from publishers for books with dubious sales prospects. And when sales fail to meet expectations, the advance is simply forgiven. Meanwhile, conservative books with strong sales potential still have difficulty finding major trade publishers, and their authors usually must settle for advances a fraction of that frequently given to liberals who routinely sell poorly.