“Wherever books are burned,” wrote the German journalist and poet Heinrich Heine, “men in the end will also burn.”
He penned those words in 1823, more than a century before the Nazis burned both books and men, which makes Heine a keen observer of the past and a prophet of future events. Making war on ideas is not far removed from making war on people because ideas possess no existence apart from the minds of people. We write them down, we speak them aloud, we form organizations to promote them. Ultimately, ideas are the main ingredient in the recipe of humanity, a glorious feature that distinguishes us as much from the higher animals as it does from the lower ones. Those who seek to kill ideas — rather than debate them, advance them, or debunk them — are killers of humanity.
Those who seek to kill ideas are turning up just about everywhere these days — a sad fact that prompts me to quote another writer, science fiction author Ray Bradbury. In his classic dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” he wrote, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
A very recent and most appalling example comes from the London School of Economics in England. It involves a Marxist student group which calls itself the LSE Class War. In a manifesto it issued in early July, its leadership demanded the dissolution — the outright abolition — of another student group called the Hayek Society. Its “crime” is that it promotes discussion of the ideas of its famous namesake, Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992).
Ironically, LSE Class War could hardly have found another human being, dead or alive, more committed to the free expression of ideas than F. A. Hayek. He warned against intolerance and censorship on numerous occasions, including in his famous 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom.” Hayek lectured for 20 years at the London School of Economics, the very institution where these budding totalitarians want to dictate which ideas can get a hearing and which cannot. He was a champion of the free society and one of the greatest economic thinkers of the 20th Century.
I wonder how many intellectual arsonists of LSE Class War have read any of the numerous books and articles by Hayek that they now seek to figuratively, if not actually, incinerate. If they had read even a small portion, they would know that by their behavior, they are proving an essential Hayekian point: namely, that people who want to regiment society will invariably seek to control its minds as well.
Check out the website of the Hayek Society and you will learn why this student group cannot be tolerated by the other one. It “promotes classical liberalism, libertarianism, and free-market economics among LSE students.” It hosts events, including debates, in the spirit of Hayek’s defense of basic freedoms. In other words, the ideas of the Hayek Society are to LSE Class War what a crucifix is to Dracula. So, in the name of “the people,” “the working class,” “marginalized minorities” and other entities for which it hilariously purports to speak, LSE Class War wants to shut up and shut down the Hayek Society. By inference, they want to erase Hayek and his ideas from discussion. They are, for all intents and purposes, book burners.
Joseph Goebbels must be applauding from the grave.
Hayek delivered his first four lectures at LSE in early 1931 to an enthusiastic reception. Soon afterwards, he received a full-time faculty appointment. According to authors Robert Batemarco, Stephen Kresge and Lief Wenar in “Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue”:
“…[T]he most intellectually stimulating period of his life was that part of the 1930s he spent at LSE. It was there that his work on the business cycle led him to prominence as the principal critic of John Maynard Keynes. When Hayek stood up to Keynes’ customary attempt to intellectually steamroller younger colleagues, meeting him with serious arguments at every turn, he earned the respect of his nemesis.”
While he was at LSE, Hayek built upon the insights of his mentor, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, to develop his pioneering contributions to trade cycle theory. He frequently engaged Cambridge’s John Maynard Keynes in written and oral debate, pointing out the flaws in Keynes’ assumptions only to observe Keynes dodge the criticism and pontificate on something else. Never once did Hayek remotely suggest that the way to deal with Keynes was to shut him up, burn his books or ban his followers from organizing.
“The more the state ‘plans,’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual,” wrote Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom.” That book was a product of his later days at LSE. In his excellent tome on the great economist, “Friedrich Hayek: A Biography,” Alan Ebenstein expounds:
“In his 1944 classic, ‘The Road to Serfdom,’ written in Cambridge where the London School of Economics and Political Science was relocated during World War II, Hayek expanded the argument of the intrinsic economic unproductivity of a classical socialist regime to the realm of political liberty. Now, he argued, it is not just that socialism is unproductive, it is that it is intrinsically unfree. Personal liberty cannot exist where an individual is but a piece in a planner’s scheme.
To the LSE Class War people, Hayek’s championship of the free economy over a socialist one is a sin that can be neither forgiven nor tolerated. Theirs is an indefensible perspective that speaks volumes about their intellectual insecurity. It would be laughable were it not for the fact that if they ever achieved political power, they would be avid practitioners of oppression. It is what Marxists do when their scribblings become law.
Just to have a little fun with this otherwise somber subject, I asked my colleagues at FEE to come up with some one-line analogies. “Banning Hayek from LSE is like what?” I asked. Here’s a partial list of the responses. Banning Hayek from LSE is like…
banning Sir Isaac Newton from the Royal Society, or Dumbledore from Hogwarts, or Yoda from the Jedi order, or Bruce Lee from martial arts, or the Rolling Stones from the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, or Tony Hawk from skateparks.
That last one threw me, perhaps because skateboards were never my thing. I never heard of Tony Hawk, but I think I already know more about him than the LSE Class War people know about either Hayek or economics.
Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus and Humphreys Family Senior Fellow at FEE, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, “Was Jesus a Socialist?” as well as “Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction” and “Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism.” Follow on LinkedIn and Twitter and Like his public figure page on Facebook.