Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Best of Intentions

We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past. (The Road to Serfdom, p. 13)

I've been working on Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (The University of Chicago Press, 1944). Hayek wrote it in the 40s, before the end of WWII. It's a book by an Austrian in the USA, an analysis of totalitarianism in a time when three totalitarian regimes more or less owned Europe.

The Road to Serfdom is too intricate a book to intelligently review on a blog. I wish I could, but it's simply too complex to tackle in this forum. It's partly political, partly economical: it's a book with a simple message, but it's not a simple book. The book's message is this: socialism is merely a return to feudalism. I'll limit this "review" to a few comments on the book and its thesis.

Hayek's arguments are largely illustrated by the three collectivist regimes in Europe in his time: Soviet Russia under Stalin, National Socialist Germany under Hitler, and Fascist Italy under Mussolini. But while they provide excellent illustrations for him, his argument is not really against them particularly. His argument is against collectivism (and particularly socialism) in principle. His argument is that socialism logically leads to the abuses of those regimes, that they were merely acting out the very same principles espoused by American and English "progressives" of his day. And if the proof of a theory lies in its ability to predict the future, Hayek's been vindicated in the 60 years since.

Hayek's analysis of Nazism and Fascism as what we would term "left-wing" phenomena is refreshing after countless inane pop-wisdom references to them as "extreme right-wing" philosophies. It's obvious that a political party that comes to power on the popular vote advocating government seizure of factories and businesses, offering socialized health care and retirement planning, and heavily taxing "unearned income" (to the tune of about 90% on capital gains and estate taxes) must be considered to have more in common with what we now call "the left" in North America than "the right." Aside from genocide (and I haven't personally met any genocidal conservatives), the Nazi political platform sounds like the NDP in Canada or the Democrats here in the USA. Mussolini's Fascism was also the " working man's party" in Italy.

It is important to note that what Hayek calls "liberalism" we call "conservativism" today. That is, he uses the term "liberal" in the sense of Jane Austen, not in the sense of Hilary Clinton. He refers to the laissez-faire capitalists as "liberal" in contrast to the socialistic "progressives".

Hayek makes the interesting claim that the only economic system that's ever been shown to increase personal freedom is capitalism, which brought an end to feudalism in Europe and led to the Magna Carta in England and constitutional democracies in America. Try as I might, I can't come up with a counter-example. His proverb that "socialism is slavery" is borne out in history, so far as I have been able to tell.

Hayek's argument might well be summarized as this: socialism is really just a return to feudlism. Feudalism was essentially a state of affairs where the Crown owned the land, and rule over it was delegated through levels of nobility that governed those living on it. Socialism offers fundamentally the same dynamic, where a totalitarian government owns (or at least controls exclusively) all property, and that control is delegated downwards in various levels of the government. The effect on the common individual is the same: nothing is his, and all decisions are made for him.

There are some differences: for example, feudalism was perpetuated by landed aristocracies, where socialist regimes generally perpetuate through political parties. But in actual practice, feudalism in mediaeval Europe might have been a significantly better system for the "common man" than the socialist regimes we've seen in the 20th Century. The mediaeval feudalism was restrained by a vague religiousness (despite flagrant hypocrisies) that at least theoretically believed in the sacred worth of the individual, where modern collectivist regimes have been virtually unrestrained. Mediaevals launched the Crusades, but they were child's play compared to the killing fields of Cambodia or the gulags of the Soviet Union. And however imperialistic the Crusades were, modern Socialists have perpetuated atrocities on their own people ("citizen" is really a euphemism) that the Mediaevals reserved for foreigners and "infidels."

Hayek's central argument is that the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union were not anomolies: totalitarianism is the expected outcome of a collectivist society. A socialist country cannot thrive without totalitarianism, and attempts to have the one without the other are unstable: either the country must abandon its collectivism, or it must abandon individual freedom.

Individual freedom must have the effect of upsetting attempts at central planning: they cannot reasonably coexist. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia were merely the logical outworkings of Socialist principles.
We must now examine the belief from which man who regard the advent of totalitarianism as inevitable derive consolation and which seriously weakens the resistance of many others who would oppose it with all their might if they fully apprehended its nature. It is the belief that the most repellent features of the totalitarian regimes are due to the historical accident that they were established by groups of blackguards and thugs. (p. 134)

The "thuggish" nature of these countries was not due to the historical accident that the thugs in them latched onto Socialism, but that Socialism cannot exist without significant coercive force from the government. A government where wealth is distributed equally is a government that treats its people unequally: since it is a plain fact that all are not capable of producing equally, any arrangement in which all have similar wealth is evidence that those most capable of producing are being unequally penalized for their abilities. A situation where the only possible employment is from a single source (whether the government or a monopoly) is by definition a state of slavery. Slavery is not unemployment, slavery is having no choice in one's vocation.

The worst of reading Hayek is the knowledge that warning was already too late in the 40s. There is really very little chance anything will change now. Here are just a few points to consider:

  • We condemn Hitler's eugenics, but every pregnant woman is encouraged to test for potential birth defects during pregnancy, so she can decide whether to abort. How is this not just eugenics?

  • It is possible to be self-employed, but government and society both view that arrangement with suspicion. And here in the USA, there are serious tax consequences for the self-employed. The system is built to restrict individual aspiration and effort, and to channel people into regulated employment.

  • And "privacy" is a joke in a society where I have to report to the government to the nearest dollar how much I earn yearly.

I don't see anything but acceleration towards totalitarianism in the future here. Our totalitarianism is "soft" compared to Hitler's, but it's no less real.


Chuck said...

Excellent summation; you've spared me from having to read von Hayek.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe has built upon Hayek's analysis and demonstrated empirically that modern democracies are vastly more violent than monarchies ever were. At least a monarch had a low time preference, and sincerely wanted to preserve and pass on his kingdom to his heirs. Today's managerial elite want to plunder the state apparatus for all they can draw out of it, then turn the wreckage over to their political rivals. Kings sent small armies into cow pastures to fight small-scale line battles; democractic ideologues (including Hitler, popularly elected) slaughter millions of innocent civilians.

The Anti-Christ, arising out of the sea of popular consent, will do no less before his run is finished.

Thnaks again. Keep reviewing.

Michelle said...

The more I read your blog, the more I look forward to meeting you. No wonder Ames is so fond of you - how many people actually challenge themselves by reading books that force them to think about serious topics? I enjoy your reviews very much.

Shan said...

I agree about the totalitarian state. It's more dangerous than an overt dictatorship because of the illusion of freedom and the false sense of drop your guard.

The primary interest of the modern Western world is to preserve the status quo. Extremes are bad for business.