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THE IDEA THAT JUST WOULDN'T DIE

For the better part of 45 years, as Marxists came to power in ever more countries and as Western democracies flirted with statism - the concentration of economic controls in the hands of a central government - free-market theorist Friedrich von Hayek looked like an economic Ptolemy, the sniggeringstock of all posterity.

But Hayek never stopped assailing Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes, and when he died this week at age 92, he had lived long enough to see his ideas, not theirs, hold sway from Warsaw to Washington.Trouble began for big government devotees in 1974, when the Nobel committee honored Hayek for his 1944 work, "The Road to Serfdom."

The book argued that society and its markets were so complex and well-integrated that they defied utopian manipulation; central planning, furthermore, meant coercion and ruin for the overall economy.

Within six years, Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were tilting against their respective welfare states with Hayek-crafted lances. Soon after that, the Soviet Union was kaput.

This is not to say that government-firsters are in full flight everywhere, because politicians always will seek to swap programs for votes.

But President Bush has latched onto the "government is too big and it costs too much" refrain because he knows the public agrees.

And where statism was most pervasive, its collapse has been most total.

The day that Hayek died, free-trade forces swept to victory in Albania. Albania! - once so xenophobic its children stoned tourists, once so Marxist its goons burned a priest at the stake.

We hope that Hayek heard the early returns and exited smiling this world he changed so much.