For years the formula for a bestselling summer beach read has been the same: a colorful cover with the author’s name splashed boldly on top, a catchy title (bonus points for including the words “diaries,” “sisterhood,” or “murder”), and “advance praise” from another blockbuster author or, better yet, Oprah. So how is it that, for the past week, the bestselling book on Amazon.com has been a 300-page tome bearing the ever-so-sexy title The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents—The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek) (Volume 2)?
The answer lies in the (early) summer’s other blockbuster book, a thriller called The Overton Window, which comes with the requisite dramatic blue cover, blurb by Brad Thor (“The Last Patriot”), and star treatment for the author’s name: a guy named Glenn Beck. The funny thing is, The Overton Window and The Road to Serfdom actually tell the same story, and in more ways than one.
On June 8, Beck devoted an entire episode of his talk show on Fox News to The Road to Serfdom, a work of political theory written in the immediate aftermath of World War II by Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian émigré to the U.K. and the 1974 recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. As Beck explained it, Hayek’s book “clearly and logically explained how any form of central government planning usually leads to serfdom (or servitude) and extinguishes freedom.” In other words, The Road to Serfdom is a treatise on libertarianism, well-known only in academic circles or among political theory wonks stalwart enough to wade through the 60-page introduction and chapters on “Planning and the Rule of Law” and “The Prospects of International Order.” The day after Beck plugged it, it jumped to No. 1 on Amazon. The University of Chicago Press just went back and printed 20,000 more copies.
To state that Beck holds an extraordinary amount of sway with his millions of viewers is, by now, roughly equivalent to suggesting that BP slightly underestimated how much oil spilled into the gulf. In fact, if BP had Beck spinning for them, the company would be in far better shape. Beck pitched The Road to Serfdom to his viewers not as a history lesson per se but as a shocking expose of a secret socialist plan to destroy America. “There’s a war for the future of this country,” Beck told viewers. “It’s being waged right now.” Just in case you didn’t buy that message, Beck tossed in a carrot: an interview with Yuri Maltsev, an economics professor from Carthage College in Wisconsin who read the book while growing up in the Soviet Union, where it was banned. “You have the opportunity to go online and grab something that he risked his life to read,” Beck said. Then came the stick: “America, you know, if you watch the show and you watch the bestseller list, this audience reads an awful lot. Don’t let anybody tell you this audience is stupid.”
Beck has the country going haywire for Hayek the same way he’s getting it to read his own book: by employing his extraordinary talent for making anything sound sexy. There’s actually a line in The Overton Window where the protagonist tells his love interest, ‘Hit me with some Thomas Paine.’
Too bad there’s very little that’s intriguing about Beck’s political intrigue. Sure, there’s a murder in the prologue—the charmingly old-school style that takes place at a pay phone, which everyone knows exists now only in books with secret political conspiracies. But I stopped reading at page 10, where the protagonist’s first encounter with the girl of his dreams was “punctuated by the thunk of his Tootsie Roll into the metal tray of the candy machine.” Really, Glenn, a Tootsie Roll? What the Hayek were you thinking?