As Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney take the stage in Tampa next week, the ghost of an Austrian economist will be hovering above them with an uneasy smile on his face. Ryan has repeatedly suggested that many of his economic ideas were inspired by the work of Friedrich von Hayek, an awkwardly shy (and largely ignored) economist and philosopher who died in 1992. A few years ago, it was probably possible to fit every living Hayekian in a conference room. Regardless of what happens in November, that will no longer be the case.
Hayek’s ideas aren’t completely new to American politics. Some mainstream Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, have name-checked him since at least the 1980s as a shorthand way of signaling their unfettered faith in the free market and objection to big government. But few actually engaged with Hayek’s many contentious (and outré) views, particularly his suspicion of all politicians, including Republicans, who claim to know something about how to make an economy function better. For these reasons, and others, Hayek has become fashionable of late among antigovernment protesters, and if Ryan brings even a watered-down version of his ideas into the Republican mainstream, the country’s biggest battles about the economy won’t be between right and left, but within the Republican Party itself — between Tea Party radicals who may feel legitimized and the establishment politicians they believe stand in their way.