Barney Frank on F.A. Hayek

Washington is doing so little that it is virtually impossible to calculate just how much they’re not doing.

Via Hit & Run, we find outgoing congressman Barney Frank in an entertaining interview with New York magazine. Sometimes I wonder if politicians actually believe the mischaracterizations they fling at the media or if they use talking points so regularly they’ve convinced themselves what they’re saying is true. I think the latter.

Here, for instance, in the middle of complaining about democracy (otherwise known as “that behavior” by Republicans), Frank pulls a F.A. Hayek quote to make his point:

You were talking about the Republicans and not being able to work with them. But isn’t your ultimate beef with the voters, since it’s the voters who reward that behavior?

I’m glad you said that, you’re very smart. These days, in developed countries, everybody says you need a private sector to create wealth, you need a public sector to create rules by which wealth is created. Sensible people understand that. The tension between left and right has been where you draw that line, but it’s been a contest between people who see maybe a 20 percent overlap. Let me read this to you. [Picks up copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.] “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing.” ¬[Closes book.]

Do you read Hayek a lot?
For these purposes. For the first time in American history, we have people in power now who reject that idea. If they knew it was Hayek, they might think, Well, maybe. But they reject the public sector. That’s why we can’t work together.

It’s nice, if not a bit odd, that Frank just happens to have a copy of Road to Serfdom within reach and that he just happens to open it to the page that features an out-of-context position that caters so neatly to his imaginary analysis of Tea Party conservatives. Hayek is good for “these purposes” — as in the purpose of reinforcing perceptions that New York readers have about these progress-impeding bible thumpers in far off lands.

Well, here’s a bit more of that Hayek’s quote: “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing. An effective competitive system needs an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted legal framework as much as any other.”

One could argue that much of the legislation Frank has backed is neither intelligently designed nor continuously adjusting — as much as it is continually growing and deliberately interfering. I’m no Hayek scholar, of course, but in this quote, the (in)famous Austrian economist seems to be talking about a legal framework that allows for peaceful trade, not an assertive government that creates fabricated marketplaces, restricts trade so environmentalists can feel good about themselves, uses taxation as a tool of “fairness,” etc …

And as Brian Doherty points out, “Yes, F.A. Hayek is not an anarchist.”

But here’s Frank’s (and Obama’s and Krugman’s and …) formulation: cutting a dollar from the federal budget is unfairly enriching the wealthy, deregulation is unfairly enriching the wealthy, opposition to regulation that does not yet even exist means you’re unfairly enriching the wealthy and doing nothing at the same time. Because if government doesn’t do it, it’s not happening.

We have so many laws and regulations in this nation — federal, state, local — that it’s fair to say that they govern nearly every human activity imaginable. The left rarely aknowledges that government’s doing something can be destructive — that “doing something” might help create a housing crisis, for instance. We have scary things happening, after all.

And as someone once said, “‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”