Television exposure can turn an unheard-of and undeserving book into a bestseller. But could even the power of television turn a treatise on economics from 1944 into a bestseller in 2010?
Yet this is exactly what happened in June when the US chat-show presenter Glenn Beck featured Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom on his Fox News mid-afternoon show. Soon afterwards, it made number one on Amazon.
Beck is well-known as a protagonist of conservatism and classical liberalism. He can certainly dish out the treatment to his opponents with the best (or worst) of them. But in contrast to the stereotypical "shock jock" in the US (or here), he is deadly serious about presenting to his audiences what he takes to be the root causes of today's political and cultural dilemmas. He gets his audiences — up to 2 million on television, 8 million on radio — to engage with history and with fundamental political and economic concepts by going to the most authoritative sources.
In the programme on Hayek, Beck cut to the essence. He quoted Hayek as saying: "Man does not and cannot know everything, and when he acts as if he does, disaster follows." From this fundamental point about human ignorance, he correctly drew Hayek's conclusion that any form of central government planning through administrative rules eventually leads to serfdom (or servitude), and extinguishes freedom. Capitalism is the only form of economics compatible with human dignity, prosperity and liberty.
This is not a message our political rulers want us to hear. Nor, in this period of post-crunch Keynesian hyper-activity on the part of governments, are most of us ready to consider it. So, one might say, if one were a sports commentator, all credit to Beck for exposing our current predicament in so clear and radical a way.
But the Hayek programme was not a one-off. Beck recently had Stanton Evans on his programme discussing his book demonstrating the truth of Senator Joe McCarthy's accusations of communist infiltration in the 1940s and a speaker from the Acton Institute talking about the roots of liberation theology. Beck hammers away continually at the early history of the USA and the intentions of its Founders, and at the subversion of the rights and freedoms in the Constitution by politicians and academics ever since the time of Theodore Roosevelt. He has also made a bestseller of the (self-explanatory) A Patriot's History of the United States by the academically revisionist professors Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.
We scoff at America and its media and especially its talk-shows, perhaps rightly so. But can one imagine The Road to Serfdom on Richard and Judy (or on Newsnight, come to that), or A Patriot's History of Britain anywhere? From where I stand, one American "shock jock" is doing as much for public education in politics and history as all the BBC's networks put together.