The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.
Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.
Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category
The following is part of a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, conducted as part of The Mendenhall’s expanding Capitalist Reader’s Guide project. Previous entries can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
In “Economic Control and Totalitarianism”, the subject of Hayek’s seventh chapter, we find him at his best, with a clarity and reason that we have not seen since chapter two, “The Great Utopia.” In chapter seven, Hayek expounds upon numerous themes within the titular subject: the inextricability of dictatorial control and economic planning, the fallacy of believing that economic controls can be separated from broader political controls, the inevitability in a planned economy of controls extending to individuals’ choice of profession, and the interrelation of economic and political freedom. What aspects of the chapter we might find to criticize arise either from a desire for him to take his line of thinking a step further than he does or already established mistakes carried over from previous chapters. Despite a few minor missteps, however, Hayek’s chapter is, overall, an exceedingly positive contribution.
He begins by stating what is, to many self-deceiving advocates of socialism, a jarring observation: that planned economies, following their natural course, ultimately always require dictatorial rule. “Most planners who have seriously considered the practical aspects of their task,” Hayek writes, “have little doubt that a directed economy must be run on more or less dictatorial lines” (66). Without fully restating the argument here, Hayek implicitly rests upon the description of this tendency that he spelled out in chapter 5, “Planning and Democracy”: power in a planned system gradually consolidates into a central committee or single dictator as a matter of organizational efficiency, with a decisive central leadership winning out over the gridlock and inefficiencies of a democratic body. The point is as valid and well made here as it was then.
Where Hayek expounds upon this is in refuting one of the false promises often made by planners as they reach for the reins of a country’s economy: “the consolation… that this authoritarian direction will apply ‘only’ to economic matters” (66). Contrary to the suggestion that controls will be limited to economic affairs, Hayek asserts that economic controls in the absence of broader political controls are not simply unlikely, but impossible. Rather than simply detailing in a typical way the interrelationship of economic and other activities, Hayek acknowledges the inseparability of the two, writing, “It is largely a consequence of the erroneous belief that there are purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life” (66). He later elaborates:
“The authority directing all economic activity would control not merely the part of our lives which is concerned with inferior things; it would control the allocation of the limited means for all our ends. And whoever controls all economic activity controls the means for all our ends, and must therefore decide which are to be satisfied and which not. This is really the crux of the matter. Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends” (68).
Hayek’s point is, in the context of modern economic education, a largely underappreciated and mishandled one. Economics instructors have, with time, lost the important skill of contextualizing economic interests within the broader scope of other human pursuits, instead treating them either as abstract ideas toyed with in a vacuum without real-world ramifications or preaching the ‘economics is everything’ doctrine to the exclusion of other analytical tools and frameworks.
Hayek, whether by virtue of writing at a time less bound by such false dichotomization of the field or simply due to his exceptional qualities as an economic thinker, successfully avoids both traps. “Strictly speaking,” he writes,
“there is no ‘economic motive’ but only economic factors conditioning our striving for other ends. What in ordinary language is misleadingly called the ‘economic motive’ means merely the desire for general opportunity, the desire for power to achieve unspecified ends. If we strive for money it is because it offers us the widest choice in enjoying the fruits of our efforts” (67).
Hayek rightly acknowledges money as a profoundly empowering economic good, calling it “one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man” that “opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man, a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy” (67).
Chapter seven goes on to briefly characterize the pervasiveness of central planning, and its propensity to spread to all areas of a society. Hayek recognizes that the much-eluded question of socialism-versus-capitalism is not simply one of which decisions individuals are to make for their lives, but whether the decision is to be theirs at all:
“The question raised by economic planning is, therefore, not merely whether we shall be able to satisfy what we regard as our more or less important needs in the way we prefer. It is whether it shall be we who decide what is more, and what is less, important for us, or whether this is to be decided by the planner” (68).
Those on both sides of the aisle in the United States today, who fail in so many matters to appreciate the distinction between individuals choosing the right thing for their lives and a government official imposing their choice (be it right or wrong) upon them, would do well to heed Hayek’s warning. Modern American political thinking, caught between an increasingly authoritarian left (taken directly from Marx and Rousseau, or updated via modern incarnations like Krugman, Sunstein, and Stiglitz) and a right that has yet to extend its limited government spirit to all areas of economics—much less censorship and social issues—has a great deal to learn from an Austrian economist’s words written some seventy years ago.
One element of central planning that utopian-minded young socialist idealists evade is that labor, being an input, must, in a controlled economy be as controlled as any other good—if not more so. This does not mean simply the control of wages or the maintenance of union. Ultimately, it means government control over the quantity of individuals in a given profession, conducted in the interest of keeping wages in a given field high and ensuring that there is an adequate supply of expertise to meet all of the economy’s needs. This means at some point dictating who can and cannot enter a given field of work.
“Most planners, it is true, promise that in the new planned world free choice of occupation will be scrupulously preserved or even increased. But there they promise more than they can possibly fulfill. If they want to plan they must control the entry into the different trades and occupations, or the terms of remuneration, or both” (71).
How many young socialists on college campuses across the country would not object to being torn from their chosen course of study and compelled to study for degrees in which they had no interest, to spend their lives in careers they did not love? That is the fate that they ask for, whether they recognize it as such or not. Would they accept it willingly? Would they “become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’” (72), bowing their heads subserviently to spend a life on a path that was chosen for them, for the good of society? Perhaps some. And perhaps others would recognize the nature of what they profess to believe in and renounce it. Either way, it is a reality that should be presented to them in those terms by those who see socialism for what it is.
Towards the end of the chapter, Hayek makes several key observations that would prove all the more true in the decades after his writing. He notes the decline of references by advocates of socialism to the functional superiority of socialism. Gradually witnessing their system being discredited, but doubling-down on their dogma, the socialists of the mid-20th century came to look less and less like those of the early 20th century, who believed in the system as a technically superior model for society. Instead, their arguments turned egalitarian in nature, “advocat[ing] planning no longer because of its superior productivity but because it will enable us to secure a more just and equitable distribution of wealth” (74). Little did Hayek know how far that trend would go with the rise of the New Left and its legacies, stretching up to the present and the current American administration.
Finally, in another point that has proven all the more true since the time of his writing, Hayek recognizes that the extent of planning proposed by socialism, empowered by modern modes of control, is that much greater than the control and subjugation that occurred under the days of monarchy and feudalism. In reading it, one is brought to wonder how much greater that mechanism of control is today, with NSA surveillance, a growing regulatory state, and ever more executive agencies maintaining armed units to impose their rules, than at Hayek’s writing in 1943.
Hayek’s seventh chapter is a valuable and, for the same reasons, saddening one for the way that it makes us reflect upon the applicability of his words and ideas to our current political environment. Though our current condition is far from totalitarian in nature, the same principles apply, to a lesser extent, in all areas where government intrudes to control markets, alter incentives, or provide special advantages to some at the expense of others.
Human beings are rational animals. We respond to the incentives around us. In the presence of a government that seems increasingly, explicitly willing to toy with those incentives to alter our behavior to suit models and ideals for our lives that are not our own, how much do we lose that we never knew we had? In what ways are our options limited? Need it be by a government edict that tells a young man who would study to be a doctor that doctors are no longer needed, and he should apply to be an engineer instead? No. It may be as subtle as inflating the price of his education through government loan programs, regulating the field he seeks to enter, and subjecting him to entitlement programs that tell him that his life’s work is not his own; that he works and exists in the service of society as a whole. And at that point, the difference between our condition and the ill fate that Hayek describes becomes one not of kind, but of degree.
The following is the seventh installment in a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Previous entries are available here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Hayek’s sixth chapter, “Planning and the Rule of Law” sets out to establish two fundamentally different legal frameworks. The first, characteristic of a free society, is what Hayek refers to as a ‘Rule of Law’ approach. The term itself is inadequate, but not incidental; it arises from Hayek’s more fundamental philosophy, and this analysis will address why the lack of a better term is inevitable for Hayek based on his earlier premises. The second type of law described by Hayek is the sort of arbitrary system of decrees inherent to a planned economy.
In the course of contrasting the two and explaining the superiority of the former, Hayek hits many valid points and makes some worthwhile analyses—he even surprises us with the first mention of rights in the whole book! True: in the process, he again falls victim to the sorts of improper philosophical analyses, badly defined concepts, flawed defenses of freedom, and errant policy endorsements we have come to expect. Nonetheless, the essence and guiding message of Chapter VI introduces a valuable subject for thought and further discussion—even if that thought consists of dispelling Hayek’s arguments in favor of stronger, more objective ones.
Hayek’s characterization of each of the two systems—the ‘Rule of Law’ and what he calls ‘substantive rules’—is valid in a limited sense. He writes,
“The Rule of Law thus implies limits to the scope of legislation: it restricts it to the kind of general rules known as formal law, and excludes legislation either directly aimed at particular people, or at enabling anybody to use the coercive power of the state for the purpose of such discrimination. It means, not that everything is regulated by law, but, on the contrary, that the coercive power of the state can be used only in cases defined in advance by the law and in such a way that it can be foreseen how it will be used” (62).
In this description, Hayek hits many necessary points well: it limits legislation, establishes formal and general rules, and limits the use of coercive power to purposes defined in advance by the law. Likewise, with respect to ‘substantive rules’, his description is accurate: “It cannot tie itself down in advance to general and formal rules which prevent arbitrariness. It must provide for the actual needs of people as they arise and then choose deliberately between them” (55).
With similar acuity, he describes such a system’s coercive restructuring of the plans and long-range thinking of individuals,
“[W]here the precise effects of government policy on particular people are known, where the government aims directly at such particular effects, it cannot help knowing these effects, and therefore it cannot be impartial. It must, of necessity, take sides, impose its valuations upon people and, instead of assisting them in the advancement of their own ends, choose the ends for them” (57).
And, finally, its privileging of some parties over others: “There can be no doubt that planning necessarily involves deliberate discrimination between particular needs of different people, and allowing one man to do what another must be prevented from doing” (58-59).
His characterizations of both systems—‘Rule of Law’ and ‘substantive rules’—are correct on the above points. Where these descriptions lack is not in their truth, but in their completeness. Hayek’s description of both the ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘substantive rule’ approaches neglect the fundamental difference between liberal and statist law: whether the state is vested with the privilege of initiating force against the individual. This point cannot be left obfuscated or marginalized; it is nothing less than the definitive difference between the two systems and must be highlighted as such. Generality, non-discrimination, and established pre-requisites for legal action are important features within this framework, but they are ultimately supporting or consequential features of this more fundamental point.
This definition by essentials—of liberal law as that which forbids the violation of individual rights by government force, and of statist law as that which has no such prohibitions—points to the fundamental crux of liberal law: objectivity.
As Harry Binswanger describes it,
“An objectively derived law is one stemming not from the whim of legislators or bureaucrats but from a rational application of the principle of individual rights. Rights tie law to reality, because they are a recognition of a basic, unalterable fact [--the requirements of man’s life]… As the law must be objective in its source, so it must be objective in its form: objective laws are clearly defined, consistent, unambiguous, stable, and as straightforward and simple as possible… The ideal is to make the laws of man like the laws of nature: firm, stable impersonal absolutes.”
Thus, what Hayek describes as the ‘Rule of Law’ is better conceptualized as objective law—law that is based on a clearly defined, rationally derived standard. Conversely, the ‘substantive rule’ approach can be thought of as simply non-objective law.* That Hayek has not properly defined the two is consistent with his argument thus far, which in previous analyses has been shown to be largely based on a subjectivist-skepticist epistemology. This does not make his endorsement of the ‘Rule of Law’ any less genuine, but it does explain his admitted discomfort with his own descriptions in this chapter and why he was unable to correct them.
(For a fuller description of objective law, see Binswanger’s full article on the subject here.)
Hayek impressively illustrates the dangers of ‘substantive rules’ (we shall continue to use his term for accuracy, despite its inadequacy) with a discussion of policies that use the force of government to achieve egalitarian ends. He decries the increasing frequency under socialism of legal discussions as to what is ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’, with ultimate discretion in such matters left to the subjective whim of a judge or regulator.
“Formal equality before the law [Hayek writes] is in conflict, and in fact incompatible, with any activity of the government deliberately aiming at material or substantive equality of different people, and that any policy directly aiming at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the Rule of Law.” (59)
Tangential to this discussion of the displacement of justice in the law by distorted notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘reasonability’ is a short but powerful challenge to the concept of ‘privilege’ that Hayek observes to be animating such cases. ‘Privilege’, he writes, is a valid description of those instances in which “landed property [was] reserved to members of the nobility” and property was understood to be held not by right but at the discretion of the monarch and its state (60). It is likewise privilege where “the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority.” It is an inaccurate and unjust characterization, however, that treats the possession of property by right as ‘privilege.’ To do so “depriv[es] the word privilege of its meaning” (60).
In a landmark moment, Hayek even mentions the concept of rights for the first time. “[R]ecognised limitations of the powers of legislation,” he writes, “imply the recognition of the inalienable right of the individual, inviolable rights of man.” He goes on to write “How a formal recognition of individual rights, or of the equal rights of minorities, loses all significance in a state [sic] which embarks on a complete control of economic life, has been amply demonstrated by the experience of the various Central European countries” (64). Both instances are valid discussions of the concept. Whether this signals the introduction of a more enduring concept throughout the remainder of the work, or whether it is simply a passing mention not to be invoked again, time and further chapters will reveal.
Amidst these positive points, however, the chapter is not without severely detrimental flaws, beginning with Hayek’s further elaborations upon the ‘Rule of Law.’ Hayek unduly and inexplicably concedes ground to capitalism’s detractors, writing, “It cannot be denied that the Rule of Law produces economic inequality—all that can be claimed for it is that this inequality is not designed to affect particular people in a particular way” (59). That such a grave error should be committed on the very topic—economics—in which he has thus far been relatively solid and which is, in fact, his stock-in-trade is exasperating.
The ‘Rule of Law’, even in Hayek’s loose and non-essential definition of it, does not produce inequality—neither in means nor in outcomes. He has devoted much of the chapter to explaining its superiority to ‘substantive rules’, largely on the grounds that it does not privilege one party over another. Thus, he cannot be thought to be saying it produces an inequality of means. He can only be understood as saying that it produces an inequality of outcomes. This, however, is patently false.
Inequality in a laissez-faire society is simply a reflection of the differing achievements of individual men. It arises from man’s nature—the fact that he is rational and capable of immeasurable creativity, but that his consciousness is volitional. In such a society, man is left free—restricted only by the limits of his own faculties.
A limited government honoring individual rights, refusing to intervene in an economy or in any way initiate force against its citizens, does not produce anything except a system of justice and a circumstance in which force is prohibited from human relationships. Where inequality of achievement results between different men—whether competing in the same field or pursuing unrelated economic ventures—it is neither produced by the law nor prevented by it. It is a fact of nature.
Hayek makes similarly baffling assertions as to what the ultimate aim of law should be, and it is here that we come to see the difference between Hayek’s ‘Rule of Law’ and objective law as we defined it above. Where objective law references a particular standard—the requirements of man’s life—as the ultimate value to be gained and kept, Hayek’s looser ‘Rule of Law’ seeks to preserve not a concrete value, but a state of randomness.
“[T]hat we do not know their concrete effect, that we do not know what particular ends these rules will further, or which particular people they will assist, that they are merely given the form most likely on the whole to benefit all the people affected by them, is the most important criterion of formal rules in the sense in which we here use the term” (56). [Emphasis mine.]
Thus, the unpredictability of outcomes is treated as an intrinsic value. True: Hayek is correct that an objective legal system in no way predicts or influences which parties in a society will be successful and which might fail. However, lest one remain adamant that Hayek is simply describing what will happen in such a system, rather than arguing why such a system should be instituted, a subsequent passage leaves no room for doubt:
“[I]t may appear paradoxical to claim as a virtue that under one system we shall know less about the particular effect of the measures the state takes than would be true under most other systems and that a method of social control should be deemed superior because of our ignorance of its precise results. Yet this consideration is in fact the rationale of the great liberal principle of the Rule of Law” (56). [Emphasis mine.]
Should this passage not suffice to bring back memories of Hayek’s abhorrent defense of liberty in Chapter IV, Hayek further abuses the concept and paves the road for anarchist libertarians to come by suggesting that law itself is a violation of liberty. He writes that, “While every law restricts individual freedom to some extent by altering the means [sic] which people may use in the pursuit of their aims, under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action” (54).
To suggest that every law—even objectively derived and defined laws that prohibit the initiation of force between individuals—constitutes a restriction of individual freedom is to suggest, conversely, that there exists a freedom to initiate force—that is: a freedom to restrict freedoms. Implicit in it is the suggestion that freedoms clash, and that the pursuit of ever-greater freedoms requires a conflict of interest between men. For a succinct refutation of this idea, an entry from Ayn Rand’s column, “Textbook of Americanism” puts it best:
“Do not be misled . . . by an old collectivist trick which goes like this: there is no absolute freedom anyway, since you are not free to murder; society limits your freedom when it does not permit you to kill; therefore, society holds the right to limit your freedom in any manner it sees fit; therefore, drop the delusion of freedom—freedom is whatever society decides it is. It is not society, nor any social right, that forbids you to kill—but the inalienable individual right of another man to live. This is not a “compromise” between two rights—but a line of division that preserves both rights untouched. The division is not derived from an edict of society—but from your own inalienable individual right. The definition of this limit is not set arbitrarily by society—but is implicit in the definition of your own right. Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.”**
Other passing errors punctuate the chapter—a collectivist invocation of “society as a whole” as the good to be considered, an acceptance of there being no negligible difference between an explicit and codified Bill of Rights versus a tradition-based common law, and a parting endorsement of “factory laws” (the destructive effects of which have been thoroughly argued by historian Robert Hessen).
There are again passages that sound hauntingly familiar in today’s world. His description of the bureaucratization of government—“[b]y giving the government unlimited powers the most arbitrary rule can be made legal: and in this way a democracy may set up the most complete despotism imaginable”—sounds much like a description of today’s regulatory state. A description of The Economist as a half-hearted defender of capitalism with an inflated liberal reputation completes the picture and demonstrates that many things have not changed since Hayek’s time.
The subject of Chapter VI, the abuses perpetrated by socialism on the legal system and the ways in which law is transformed by it from a shield into a weapon, is an important one for capitalism’s defenders to understand. Certainly the ongoing antitrust abuses being carried out at the time of this writing make its continued relevance vividly clear. But the fact that the subject demands greater understanding does not mean that Hayek’s argument against it can or should be incorporated as part of that understanding—and certainly not as part of capitalism’s defense. It—and we—deserve better.
** “Textbook of Americanism”, The Ayn Rand Column, pg. 85
The fifth chapter in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom looks at the reciprocal relationship between economic planning and democracy, detailing the institutional and ideological interaction of the two, the ways in which democratic socialism leads to the further centralization of power in committees and dictators, and the ways in which even partial attempts at planning necessitate further and further interventions until, unless opposed, a totalitarian system arises. In the process, Hayek makes many worthwhile points about these institutional trends, describing and explaining their trajectory. He again offers the sort of brief and destructive detour into moral philosophy that we have learned to expect from the book thus far, but in this sense the author shows us nothing new. Finally, he addresses the subject of democracy itself and the misconceptions surrounding it, with observations that sound conspicuously familiar to today’s political and academic culture.
Hayek’s argument against planning is again an inadequate one that relies upon a functional, pragmatic approach. His case, however, still affords us some valuable insights—most notably regarding what can be referred to as the ‘knowledge problem’ of central planning. “It would be impossible,” he writes,
“for any mind to comprehend the infinite variety of different needs of different people which compete for the availability of resources and to attach a definite weight to each… it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs” (44).
Thus, he writes, efforts by central planners to coordinate the economic activity of a whole society are fundamentally flawed and doomed from the start. The limitations of planners’ knowledge and their inability to reconcile conflicting wants among different groups within society leads both to plans based on insufficient (and, furthermore, unattainable) knowledge of individuals’ and groups’ values and a system that necessitates the sacrifice of some parties to others. To this extent, Hayek notes the problem well.
In support of this, however, he offers an argument that both fails to challenge the collectivists’ ethical premise and reaffirms the skepticist moral approach observed in his earlier chapters. In reference to the collectivist moral premise, Hayek writes,
“The ‘social goal’ or ‘common purpose’ for which society is to be organised, is usually vaguely described as the ‘common good’, or the ‘general welfare’, or the ‘general interest’. It does not need much reflection to see that these terms have no sufficiently definite meaning to determine a particular course of action” (42).
Hayek is correct in acknowledging that the terms are non-objective. What he fails to do is to challenge their validity as ethical concepts, repudiating the very notion of a “common good” or of the “general interest.” An objective, rational defense of individualism is not made by simply proclaiming the functional superiority of individualism over collectivism, as that superiority has been made clear throughout history, and avowed collectivists have long-since proven themselves disinterested in actual consequences and results. The ultimate defense of individualism must challenge the very existence of any alleged collective good that is apart from and contrary to the good of the individuals who constitute it.
Hayek’s only moral challenge to collectivism, rather than refuting the notion of the “common good”, is to challenge the possibility of any complete system of values. To be clear: Hayek does not challenge the imposition by force of a complete system of values; he challenges instead that one can even exist:
“The conception of a complete ethical code is unfamiliar and it requires some effort of imagination to see what it involves. We are not in the habit of thinking of moral codes as more or less complete. The fact that we are constantly choosing between different values without a social code prescribing how we ought to choose, does not surprise us, and does not suggest to us that our moral code is incomplete… The essential point for us is that no such complete ethical code exists. The attempt to direct all economic activity according to a single plan would raise innumerable questions to which the answer could be provided only by a moral rule, but to which existing morals have no answer and where there exists no agreed view on what ought to be done” (43).
Thus, for Hayek, the problem with central planning is a problem of moral absolutism. Failing to condemn the collectivists’ reliance upon force to achieve their ends or their violations of individual rights (a concept he has yet to mention for five chapters and counting), he instead asserts that the fallacy of their schemes arises from the assumption that all people share the same hierarchy of values and a “complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place” (43).
Hayek’s words can be taken either of two ways. In the first, he could be suggesting that collectivists are wrong for assuming unanimity in values throughout a society, that all individuals share the same ethics. Alternatively, he could mean that collectivist beliefs are misguided for normatively believing in a set hierarchy of values and ethical code that should be applied throughout a society. His meaning is unclear. What is clear, however, is that whichever way Hayek intends these words, they are a flawed explanation for the evils of collectivism.
As to the first meaning: one would be hard-pressed to find any collectivist, modern or historic, who asserts that all individuals in society share the same values and ethical code. For the amount of effort totalitarian regimes devote to suppressing resistance and dissent, it is impossible to believe otherwise. Collectivism does not rest on the assumption that all parties in a society share the same values, but that the individual minds that hold such values are inconsequential fodder in their grand design. It is not evil for assuming that a set of values is unanimously held throughout society, but rather for its utter disregard and disdain for the rights and freedoms of individuals to choose their own values.
The second interpretation of Hayek’s statement—that collectivism is wrong for maintaining a set hierarchy of beliefs that should be applied throughout society—goes beyond the historiographical error of the first interpretation. It suggests that the error of collectivism arises from its attempt to uphold a universal code incorporating and prioritizing man’s values. This interpretation is more in keeping with Hayek’s skeptical, subjectivist moral views (as well as those of other libertarians) explored in earlier chapters. It implies that the belief in an absolute morality leads directly to the forcible imposition of that morality on society in general and, conversely, that peace and freedom rest on a subjectivist morality of self-doubt and proclaiming the impossibility of acquiring absolute moral truth. In essence, it suggests that the natural consequence of upholding a set system of values is to forcibly impose it, and that the only means by which we restrain ourselves from such forcible imposition is through the belief that there are no certain moral truths.
That such a morally subjectivist view should precede a faulty defense of individualism is to be expected. The fact that, as Hayek wrote earlier, “it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs” establishes, according him,
“the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted, that man is egoistic or selfish, or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that, since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual minds, nothing but partial scales of value exist, scales which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each other. From this the individualist concludes that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s, that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others” (44) [Emphasis mine.]
Having established in the last chapter his flawed view that the basis for freedom arises from the need to leave room for unexpected growth, Hayek now states his defense for individualism as based on man’s non-omniscience. That is: individuals are the primary unit of political consideration not because they have any natural rights, but because the attempt suppress and control them is forever limited by the knowledge problem of their would-be masters.
Conversely, one can assume that if such masters were able to attain perfect knowledge, he would have no arguments with which to oppose their collectivist system. The battle between individualism and collectivism is thus, for Hayek, reduced to a pragmatic debate between those who doubt the efficacy of totalitarian systems and those who claim that, despite the history of failure in socialist systems, this time they have the right answers.
Certainly, parting words by Hayek to the effect that “[i]t is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position” (44) sound promising, and invite us to support and be inspired by his argument. However, when placed in the context of what he says elsewhere, such language is revealed to mean less than we would have hoped. Hayek is not defending individualism based on the right of man to judge his own values and ends, but rather on the basis that incomplete information as to individuals’ values and the inability of planners to reconcile conflicting values between individuals leads to a conflicted, inefficient system. Yet again, Hayek is passing off a pragmatic, unprincipled defense of freedom in bold, triumphant language.
Hayek is thus unable to offer us a sufficient defense against oppression. He might, however, provide us some valuable descriptive insights into how the process of establishing socialist systems is conducted and how socialist democracies drift toward dictatorship. “[P]lanning,” he writes, “leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals” (52). The trend, as Hayek describes it, arises from the fact that once socialist policymakers presume to control a society, the profundity of that task is highlighted and exacerbated by democratic inefficiency. This spurs a drive toward consolidation of power into committees and, ultimately, into a single dictator capable of taking decisive action. He writes,
“The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective ‘talking shops’, unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts, permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies” (46).
Many democratic socialists would, no doubt, challenge the determinism of this trend by touting the goodwill of legislators and their commitment to enacting solutions. But “[t]he fault,” Hayek observes, “is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such, but with the contradictions inherent in the task with which they are charged” (47). The immensity of the task and its contradiction of man’s nature and means of acquiring and applying knowledge forbid such a system from ever successfully matching the successes of a capitalist system.
Certainly a belief to the contrary is not unique to Hayek’s time, but pervades modern political thought. When Hayek writes, “The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure” (50), any observer of modern American regulatory culture and the expansion of executive branch power will undoubtedly note some parallels.
Another parallel to be observed between Hayek’s portrayal of his time and today’s political environment is in his depiction of the cultural preoccupation with the idea of “democracy” and the popular tendency to attribute to it an intrinsicist admiration, as if the institution of democratic systems and procedures was, in and of itself, a guarantee or safeguard of freedom. Hayek is not susceptible to such illogical leaps, however.
“Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom. As such it is by no means infallible or certain… and it is at least conceivable that under the government of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority democratic government might be as oppressive as the worst dictatorship” (52).
Hayek is not without his own misconceptions as to the true nature of democracy, though, nor the relationship between democracy and capitalism: “If ‘capitalism’ means here a competitive system based on free disposal over private property, it is far more important to realise that only within this system is democracy possible. When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself” (52).
To say that democracy is possible only within “a competitive system based on free disposal over private property” ignores the fundamental nature of democracy. Despite the typical usage of the term today, democracy in its pure sense entails no protection or recognition of rights whatsoever. As it was designed, democracy is a system of unlimited majority rule.
Capitalism does rely upon certain legal and political necessities such as individual rights and objective law. What is perceived as the hallmark of democracy—the ability to vote—is not, however, sufficient to secure democracy and may, in the absence of the other two features, destroy it. True, there exist milder democracies throughout the world today that do recognize rights, but their regard for rights does not derive from their nature as democracies. The recognition of rights is only an adjunct to—and, furthermore, a limitation on—the democratic system. The more that alleged “democracies” alter their nature to accommodate individual rights, objective law, and the principles of capitalism, the more they shed their democratic nature and acquire the qualities of a representative system suited to capitalism: a republic.
Though he fails to properly define and conceive of democracy, Hayek does acknowledge the rampant, dangerous popular preoccupation with it and the propensity for those consumed with the idea to invite a tyranny of the majority clothed in democratic language and ideas.
“It may well be true that our generation talks and thinks too much of democracy and too little of the values which it serves… The fashionable concentration on democracy as the main value threatened is not without danger. It is largely responsible for the misleading and unfounded belief that so long as the ultimate source of power is the will of the majority, the power cannot be arbitrary. The false assurance which many people derive from this belief is an important cause of the general unawareness of the dangers which we face” (52).
Hayek’s “Planning and Democracy” is thus an average of what we have seen thus far from him: poor ethics and incomplete defenses of liberty mixed with some valuable insights as to changing political processes and the reciprocal relationship between a socialist state and society as the state seeks to deliberately mold the activities of its population, but finds itself transformed in the process. As much can be expected in our next analysis as Hayek addresses the subject of “Planning and the Rule of Law” in Chapter VI.
This analysis is the fourth installment in a series of chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The previous analysis of Hayek’s introduction, Chapter I, and Chapter II can be found here, here, and here, respectively.
Hayek’s third chapter, “Individualism and Collectivism,” proves to be what our earlier analyses had anticipated: good on recognizing the economic benefits of liberalism, skilled at pointing out the flawed concepts and illogical thinking that facilitate and perpetuate socialism, and effective in arguing for certain basic fundamentals such as the necessity of an effective legal system, but slightly inadequate in its offering of better concepts, lacking in its defense of capitalism, and guilty of a borderline intrinsicist endorsement of ‘competition’, without treating that endorsement as premised upon the benefit rendered to man as an individual or, for that matter, any other more fundamental value.
The chapter begins with a valuable point as to the extent to which socialism has succeeded by distorting and disguising its own nature, with each socialist faction clinging to its chosen group or alleged beneficiary—a race, party, or class—and proclaiming that by virtue of its superficial differences in approach it is somehow different from all other varieties of statism. It thus exaggerates concrete matters of application, treating them as differences in fundamentals. Hayek repudiates this approach, pointing out that, regardless of the group they claim to represent, “the methods which [the socialists] shall have to employ are the same as those which could ensure an equalitarian distribution” (25). He goes on to acknowledge that “nearly all the points which are disputed between socialists and liberals concern the methods common to all forms of collectivism and not the particular ends for which socialists want to use them” (24), establishing that the basic objection of liberals to socialist policies apply to all socialist policies, not those of a certain type, as the conflict is fundamentally between individualism and collectivism.
Hayek’s shift of focus from political ideologies to the more fundamental dichotomy in all political theory is valid and much-needed in a world that so rarely thinks in terms of fundamentals anymore—both at the time of writing and today. What is lacking in this effort, however, is an explicit definition of ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism.’ He implies, though does not expound upon, the idea that the collectivism is best thought of as a set of “methods which can be used for a great variety of ends,” seeing socialism “as a species of that genus” (25). While he is correct in viewing socialism as a subtype within a broader category of collectivist politics, collectivism itself is not fundamentally definable as a set of methods, but as an ideological framework.
The question that divides the two political philosophies of individualism and collectivism is one of standards of value. It asks, ‘Which is the primary unit for consideration in judging what is politically ‘good’?” Hayek’s failure to define the two concepts and their difference misses the opportunity to dispel the socialist misrepresentation of that dichotomy. Socialists, rather than seeing the question as one of standards of value and units for consideration, mischaracterize human affairs as a perpetual conflict between the individual and collective, accepting conflict as a necessary ingredient in social relationships, and, therefore, self-interest as fundamentally anti-social. They therefore view the question of individualism and collectivism as one of loyalty: “Individuals or the collective: whose side are you on?” Many defenders of socialism, having accepted this false notion of man’s life as perpetually in conflict, thus accept the morality of altruism that preaches that someone’s sacrifice is necessary and good for society to function, and accordingly defer to socialism for fear of being an enemy of an alleged ‘greater good.’
Other flaws punctuate Hayek’s challenge of socialism. The first is his failure to challenge socialists’ ends as goods to strive for. He describes their ends as a desire for “social justice, greater equality, and security” (24), but then sets upon his argument as to the impossibility of separating socialists’ means from the system itself, implicitly suggesting by his omission that their ends are indeed desirable. He writes, “There are many people who call themselves socialists although they care only about [the ideals of social justice, greater equality, and security], who fervently believe in those ultimate aims of socialism but neither care nor understand how they can be achieved, and who are merely certain that they must be achieved, whatever the cost” (24). The error in their reasoning that Hayek seems to imply lies in socialists’ disregard for the means by which they hope to achieve their ends. He does not, however, challenge the ends as such.
Hayek fails to challenge the concepts offered by socialists or to insist that they properly define their terms—what they mean by the bromides they use: social justice—by what standard of justice? equality—of rights or of results? security—from force, or from the facts of reality? Hayek leaves these questions unasked, thus leaving the socialists’ values uncontested and the socialists themselves with more apparent justification than they could ever deserve.
In tandem with this omission, he describes it as “unfair to use the term socialism to describe its methods rather than its aims, to use for a particular method a term which for many people stands for an ultimate ideal” (25). Though he does not elaborate upon this, it can easily be interpreted as a suggestion that some more peaceable socialists’ ends are well-intended—at least “for many people,” but that it is their means which are flawed. Despite his earlier insistence upon the essential connection between different apparent varieties of socialist, he apparently further accommodates the socialists’ ultimate values without challenge.
Hayek’s approach to the subject of planning offers some valuable insights that go to the heart of modern mainstream misunderstandings of liberal thought. “’Planning’”, he writes,
“owes its popularity largely to the fact that everybody desires, of course, that we should handle our common problems as rationally as possible, and that in so doing we should use as much foresight as we can command. In this sense everybody who is not a complete fatalist is a planner, every political act is (or ought to be) an act of planning, and there can be differences only between good and bad, between wise and foresighted and foolish and short-sighted planning” (26).
This distinction—that liberal policies advising against intervention are no less a deliberate form of planning than interventionism and no less based in a conscientious logic—is an important one in today’s world, as libertarian and capitalist ideas are moving more into the mainstream, being discussed more frequently in publications throughout the Western world, but still remain largely misunderstood by those who see liberals’ insistence upon letting the market work as some mysticist assumption ungrounded in empirical observation. Hayek highlights that they are indeed based in a strategic logic, but one that maintains a belief in the ability of markets to provide man’s needs.
From there, however, Hayek proceeds down a shakier path, again criticizing those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism and defining liberalism along strictly economic lines, making no reference to the fundamental values of liberals and showing his own liberalism as based primarily on a pragmatic approach. He writes,
“It is important not to confuse opposition against this kind of planning with a dogmatic laissez-faire attitude. The liberal argument is in favor of making the best possible use of the forces of competition as a means of co-ordinating human efforts, not an argument for leaving things just as they are. It is based on the conviction that where effective competition can be created, it is a better way of guiding individual efforts than any other” (27).
He further argues that “where it is impossible to create the conditions necessary to make competition effective, we must resort to other methods of guiding economic activity” (27), supporting our understanding of his earlier defense of antitrust regulations. His warning of the dangers of a mixed economy and the destructive effects of trying to combine liberalism and socialism is valid. However, he doesn’t clearly or adequately address the fact that the destructiveness of a mixed economy stems from its statist, coercive elements, and that while the leaders of private industry may use the coercive power of government to enrich themselves in such an economy, it is ultimately the force of government and the political principles it follows that allow the system to exist, enabling such injustices.
Instead, he poorly allocates the ultimate responsibility for a mixed economy, writing that
“the universal struggle against competition promises to produce in the first instance something in many respects even worse, a state of affairs which can satisfy neither planners nor liberals: a sort of syndicalist or ‘corporative’ organisation of industry, in which competition is more or less suppressed but planning is left in the hands of the independent monopolies of the separate industries… By destroying competition in industry after industry, this policy puts the consumer at the mercy of the joint monopolist action of capitalists and workers in the best organized industries” (30).
True though this description may be in some respects, its emphasis on private businessmen as the primary drivers of the process evades the fact of which side makes the whole collusion possible. Private businessmen of a certain kind—the kind that thrives not on productivity but on political pull—can and do act as the accelerants and perpetuators of a mixed economy. They cannot, however, bring it into being. The responsibility for that lies with a country’s political officials, whether in the legislative, executive, or judicial branch. It is through an abandonment of the legal principles of capitalism that businessmen and legislators have either the occasion or the cause to collude.
Hayek goes on to make several statements that will likely surprise strict adherents of liberalism, writing “Nor is the preservation of competition incompatible with an extensive system of social services—so long as the organisation of these services is not designed in such a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields” (28), and endorsing the idea of naturally occurring market failures. “The functioning of competition,” he writes, “not only requires adequate organisation of certain institutions like money, markets, and channels of information—some of which can never be adequately provided by private enterprise“ (28), suggesting that such instances must be met by governments practicing “the very necessary planning which is required to make competition as effective and beneficial as possible” (31).
Ironically in the context of later debates between classical liberals and mainstream political culture, Hayek argues that roads offer an example of a good that cannot be provided by market forces. Thus, every liberal who has endorsed the potential for market provision of transportation services only to hear political moderates suddenly become crusaders for the transportation sector, passionately demanding “What about the roads?!” has Hayek to credit for endorsing this line of thinking.
Hayek goes on to even endorse broader regulations, with the sole cited criterion for judgment being whether the regulation distorts the market by treating producers differently, or whether it equally infringes upon all:
“Any attempt to control prices or quantities of particular commodities deprives competition of its power of bringing about an effective coordination of individual efforts, because price changes then cease to register all the relevant changes in circumstances and no longer provide a reliable guide for the individual’s actions. This is not necessarily true, however, of measures merely restricting the allowed methods of production, so long as these restrictions affect all potential producers equally and are not used as an indirect way of controlling prices and quantities” (27).
True, policies that apply equally across the board at least have the benefit of not being narrowly discriminatory in their oppression, but they also have the distinction of violating the rights of all producers. If an intrinsicist notion of “competition” and not rights, however, is the standard to be maintained, it is not surprising that Hayek lands at this conclusion.
If it can then be said, following the logic of Hayek, that some regulations are necessary, what is the standard for determining the conditions under which it is proper? He gives us an indication:
“Economic liberalism is opposed, however, to competition being supplanted by inferior methods of co-ordinating individual efforts. And it regards competition as superior not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known, but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority” (27) [emphasis mine].
In this passage, Hayek reveals his defense of competition (and, thus, of economic freedom) as based on a belief in its superior abilities in coordination, its efficiency, and, almost tautologically, the fact that it does not involve coercive action. The last condition is an act of circular reasoning, as Hayek states, to word it differently, that a system not guided by coercive action is superior because it is not guided by coercive action, without referencing any particular standard of the good that would make such an argument functional. His other expressed standards, however, tell us something of his political values.
Elsewhere, he writes of the need for regulations “[t]o prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements,” arguing that such use of preventive law “is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.” One is then brought to wonder: if a regulation or any other use of preventive law can be said to promote competition, is there some other standard that it must meet, some other moral test it must pass to merit enforcement? Hayek would tell us there is not, writing that “The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose” (28) [emphasis mine].
We can thus see Hayek’s defense of liberalism as a largely pragmatic, utilitarian one and not one based soundly or primarily in a moral argument. In line with this, he pursues what can be interpreted as an intrinsicist approach to valuing “competition” and policies that promote it. Certainly, competition is a value agreed upon by all who value freedom in economics, but the failure to tie it back to what competition offers individuals and to root the defense of it in the political freedom and material well being it provides gives us only half a defense.
Competition is, after all, not a value in and of itself, but a process by which men can pursue their own self-interest, hindered only by their own limitations. In the words of Ayn Rand, “Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal.” Elsewhere, she elaborates
“The concept of free competition enforced by law is a grotesque contradiction in terms. It means: forcing people to be free at the point of a gun. It means: protecting people’s freedom by the arbitrary rule of unanswerable bureaucratic edicts… There is no way to legislate competition; there are no standards by which one could define who should compete with whom, how many competitors should exist in any given field, what should be their relative strength or their so-called “relevant markets,” what prices they should charge, what methods of competition are “fair” or “unfair.” None of these can be answered, because these precisely are the questions that can be answered only by the mechanism of a free market.”
Alan Greenspan, writing in his early years, makes a similar observation on the subject that may point out from where Hayek is deriving this emphasis on “competition”:
“Competition” is an active, not a passive, noun. It applies to the entire sphere of economic activity, not merely to production, but also to trade; it implies the necessity of taking action to affect the conditions of the market in one’s own favor.
“The error of the nineteenth-century observers was that they restricted a wide abstraction—competition—to a narrow set of particulars, to the “passive” competition projected by their own interpretation of classical economics. As a result, they concluded that the alleged “failure” of this fictitious “passive competition” negated the entire theoretical structure of classical economics, including the demonstration of the fact that laissez-faire is the most efficient and productive of all possible economic systems. They concluded that a free market, by its nature, leads to its own destruction—and they came to the grotesque contradiction of attempting to preserve the freedom of the market by government controls, i.e., to preserve the benefits of laissez-faire by abrogating it.” (“Antitrust”)
Whether this is in fact the context of Hayek’s focus on “competition” as the ultimate goal to be pursued is uncertain, but it reveals both a misplaced focus and, yet again, the propensity to look at matters of political ideology through the lens of economic reasoning, failing to adopt the necessary concepts to make an effective, complete defense of capitalism.
Along those same lines, even in those instances where Hayek seems to be on the right track, there is a conspicuous absence of concepts that one would expect from a defender of liberalism. For instance, he offers a valid argument on the need for legal structure in functioning capitalist systems, writing that competition “depends above all on the existence of an appropriate legal system, a legal system designed both to preserve competition and to make it operate as beneficially as possible” (28). As true as this is, what is striking is that his assertion of the need for appropriate laws rests entirely upon the question of competition and effective operation, and not on any more fundamental principles or political values of a higher order.
Such navigating around the task of making principled arguments appears to be a recurring theme in The Road to Serfdom thus far. It is intriguing and disappointing that after an introduction and three chapters of Hayek, dealing with questions and issues as fundamental as the intervention of government in economics, individualism versus collectivism, and the dangers of socialism to a society, we have not once read the word “rights” in any of Hayek’s arguments. It is difficult to fathom how one could effectively address subjects that deal with such fundamental questions without even mentioning what are and are not man’s rights.
That Hayek has not even mentioned rights once suggests that the notion is so far outside of his intellectual framework as to not have occurred to him (doubtful), or that he has some aversion to a rights-based argument to freedom, or does not have a certain view himself as to what man’s rights are. Indeed, were he to be consistent as a skeptic, Hayek would be unable to maintain a consistent and objective notion of man’s rights, and would thus have to either advocate rights as floating abstractions not grounded in man’s nature, or resort to arguing that rights are debatable and subjective.
Hayek’s third chapter proves to be roughly what we expected: stronger and less contradictory than chapter one, but not as successful as chapter two. He occasionally makes valid points that we can translate into the present day. “The dispute about socialism,” he writes, in a passage that could be applied as truly to the statist elements of both parties in the United States in 2013 as to England in the 1940s, “has thus become largely a dispute about means and not about ends” (24). However, the pragmatic, utilitarian approach Hayek takes to counter it sounds much more like the moderate defenders of capitalism in the US today, Republicans who argue for “free markets” because they “work” without the slightest mention of their ethical superiority, than like the paragon of liberal intellectual thought that Hayek is portrayed to be. Whatever Hayek’s abilities as an economist supporting liberal economic policies—and they are remarkable—his force as a political theorist and defender of liberalism is lacking. In tandem with the author’s reputation as an economist, this deficiency threatens to encourage those who seek to defend liberty to invest too heavily in the wrong kind of argument, potentially crowding out more worthwhile ones. Just as in monetary economics “the bad money chases out the good”, so in political philosophy a chiseled, fool’s gold defense of freedom stands the risk of jeopardizing that which it seeks to uphold.
Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and themendenhall.com, where he is also editor.
This piece commences a series of analyses on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For those unfamiliar with the work, first published in 1943, it details the famed Austrian economist’s observations, drawn from having lived in Austria in the years after World War I, witnessing firsthand the culture of political ideas that preceded and led to the rise of Nazism there, and then, some decades later, living in England, teaching at the London School of Economics, and observing the rise of similar ideas at work in English political culture at the onset of her own period of experimentation with socialism.
Britain was, at the time, feeling the onset of what would become a set of devastating postwar economic ailments: the loss of many colonies—sold off one by one to finance the war, severe physical destruction (though not as bad as on the Continent), a trade imbalance skyrocketing the prices of much-needed American goods, and an economy of permits and privation in basic commodities. The end of the war would bring the sweeping 1945 victory of Labour and greater troubles with the onset of the Brain Drain, a period of bitter class resentment, and nationalizations of industry. Shortly after the second edition of The Road to Serfdom was printed in 1946, England was facing strikes, falling exports, and almost £200m lost every week as dollar convertibility was introduced in 1947.
In the midst of it all was a growing culture of socialism in both major parties. As Hayek wrote, “the socialism of which we speak is not a party matter, and the questions which we are discussing have little to do with the questions at dispute between political parties” (3). Though Labour would be its more avowed exponents, the fundamentals of socialist ideology were well enough embedded so as not to be challenged at any basic moral or systematic level by either side. What’s more, many Britons would see this as a proud new political and economic identity for a Britain without an empire. Historian Norman Stone writes,
“the British were pleased with themselves, supposing also that their example was one to be widely followed as some sort of ‘third way’ between American capitalism and Soviet Communism… combining the ‘economic democracy’ of Communism and the ‘political democracy’ of the West: socialism without labour camps…. People who argued to the contrary [such as Hayek—ed.] were in a small minority… but even in the later 1940s these supposedly half-demented figures were starting to have reality on their side. It struck with a ferocious blow, in the second post-war winter. The money began to run out, and the government became quite badly divided as to priorities.”
It is easy to imagine how remorsefully vindicated Hayek must have felt in those first few years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom—affirmed and disappointed in the way that all those who warn of impending danger are wont to feel.
Though the book would be praised by proponents of liberalism from the time of its publishing to the present and cause a stir among his peers in academia, policymakers would be, as they ever are, roughly a generation late in feeling the aftershocks of this groundbreaking statement. By the time began its creep into the political lexicon, Hayek had moved on from the LSE, going on to teach at the University of Chicago (in its Committee on Social Thought, as the School of Economics vehemently opposed his hiring under their banner), the University of Freiburg, the University of California, and the University of Salzburg, where in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Since the onset of the 2007 recession, sales of The Road to Serfdom, along with other works that challenge the fabric and assumptions of modern Western philosophy, political culture, and economics such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, have skyrocketed. In 2010, 66 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.
As this and other such works grow in popularity, it is important to take a second look at them, assessing both their virtues and faults, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. The analysis that follows sets out to do just that. It is an overall favorable assessment, as this author agrees with many of Hayek’s basic political premises. However, for that reason, it will also more scrupulously critique and highlight perceived flaws, ambiguous wording, platitudes, and those floating abstractions common in political treatises that, though they seem plausible at first glance, prove deeply flawed when translated into concrete practice. Though these analyses will strive to give an adequate overall summary of what Hayek himself writes, the reader is encouraged to read Hayek’s words along with these critiques and to judge for himself their validity.
It is broadly understood that those concerned with the cause of liberty must be vigilant in our criticisms of its destroyers, but it is no less essential—if not more so—that we be judicious toward those authors and works on which we base our own beliefs, as every philosophy is a structure and every flaw in that structure a weakness. The closer our faults are to our foundations, the greater our vulnerability. As more and more libertarians and capitalists turn to works such as Hayek’s to form understandings and shape their beliefs, let us look carefully to what ideas we are resting upon. We have nothing to lose but our contradictions.
Note on citations: all page references, unless otherwise stated, are based on the February 1946 edition published by George Routledge & Sons LTD.
Hayek’s introduction effectively sets the tone for the rest of the work by illustrating his own unique perspective, having come “as near as possible to twice living through the same period—or at least twice watching a very similar evolution of ideas,” (1) then giving us a brief summary of what wisdom that twice-lived experience has offered him: an understanding of the linkages between the spread of socialist ideas, the various debates it engenders in countries operating on similar philosophical premises, and the eventual rise of dictatorship.
The summary of events transpiring in the half-century leading up to World War II that Hayek describes is perhaps most powerful and most distinctive for its recognition of the role of ideas in man’s life. Hayek superbly recognizes the consequential nature of ideas in human life, writing “If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognise the danger in time can we hope to avoid it” (2).
In this short passage, just a few paragraphs in, Hayek has already distinguished himself from the long and destructive philosophical and political tradition of determinism and, more subtly and implicitly, by viewing the connection between man’s ideas and actions, rejected the mind-body dichotomy, which has long divided philosophers and intellectuals between those who concerned themselves with the workings of man’s mind, dismissing his physical actions as inconsequential marginalia, and those concerned with man’s physical nature but who view the content of his mind as meaningless.
These abstract philosophical notes are crucial, allowing us to establish several inferences as to what misguided political camps and ideologies Hayek will successfully avoid being mired in. By denying the metaphysical premise of determinism (whether in its environmental or genetic forms), Hayek embraces the concept of free will and the essential premise that ideas matter, inviting us to commence his work with the presumption that what wisdom we glean from it individually might be actionable and applicable in our own lives and experiences. This quickly separates him from the philosophical premises of the Left (or, to indulge a common but unbearably ironic label, “progressivism”), whose policies largely rest upon some variant of determinist metaphysics, leading them perpetually to the conclusion that man, left to his own free will, is doomed to irrationality, but that the ideal society is achievable through the right amount of systematic tweaking and statist controls. It already begins to become clear what premises lead Hayek to become the symbol of liberalism he is today.
In embracing the importance of the mind and the function of ideas, however, he does not assume a mysticist rejection of reality. To the contrary, he presents to us the implicit proposition that the “ideas we have created” will have very real consequences, and that to change our fates we must scrutinize and perhaps alter our ideas and those of our culture. It rests on the recognition that man is not immune from his own illogic and that, to paraphrase Rand, while the practice of reason may be evaded, the consequences of evading reason cannot be. This acknowledgment separates him from the premises that underlie much of conservative political thought, also concerned with the perfection of man, but oriented toward controlling his thoughts and beliefs, viewing the force of government as a means of instilling values in the minds of its people to produce a more moral citizenry.
Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a warning, and all warnings are fundamentally rejections of the determinist premise. What’s more: it is an intellectual warning connecting certain ideas and beliefs to their metaphysical consequences. While common logic, particularly among those who recognize the practical benefits of liberty, would suggest that that which one values should be left free to flourish, to the contrary, both progressives and conservatives seek to control those aspects of man which they most value—progressives, man’s body; conservatives, man’s mind—relegating its opposite to a status of expendability.
If all philosophy can be thought of as the great duel between two men—Plato and Aristotle—both sides of the political spectrum in Hayek’s time, as in our own, are operating on a fundamentally Platonic premise that divides man’s physical and spiritual nature. True liberalism is fundamentally a diversion from this view in favor of the Aristotelian view of man as a unified entity, to be treated and thought of as such, his life and fate as his own, and his right to dispose of them as he sees fit unchallenged. Thus, Hayek, as an exponent of such liberalism, whether he recognizes and describes it as such himself, begins with this philosophical framework. Whether he maintains it in the chapters to come is a separate question, but his grounding is thus far solid.
Wasting no time, Hayek soon enters the fundamental comparison of his book: that of the ideological roots of Nazism and the rise of socialist thought in Britain precisely at a time when the two nations are at war.
Much equivocating in classrooms, editorial pages, and student coffee shops has transpired in the last seventy-plus years as to the differences between Nazism and true socialism, with socialist apologists quibbling about how Nazis abused what was a noble ideal in socialism. Most engage in such momentous evasions and distortions as to treat socialism and fascism as in any way opposites, portraying what is in fact a genus-type distinction as fundamentally inimical, when they are, in fact, merely differences in application of the same basic premises.
Hayek tolerates none of this, observing,
“Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies… As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny” (3).
Indeed, one cannot help but feel that little has yet changed in Western intellectualism when Hayek describes the parallels between Germany after World War I and England during World War II: “There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious ‘realism’, and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends’… It does not affect our problem that some groups may want less socialism than others, that some want socialism mainly in the interest of one group and others in that of another. The important point is that, if we take the people whose views influence developments, they are now in this country in some measure all socialists” (2-3).
More familiarity ensues when Hayek notes how Germany was once held in England and other Western countries as an ideal to be pursued and how that idealized conception has since been transferred elsewhere: “Although one does not like to be reminded, it is not so many years since the socialist policy of [Germany] was generally held up by progressives as an example to be imitated, just as in more recent years Sweden has been the model country to which progressive eyes were directed” (2). One so often sees the case of Swedish socialism invoked as a statist ideal in today’s world, since the recession of 2008, but it is often forgotten how old this example is—mentioned here by Hayek in the 1940s, discredited for its proclaimed cultural superiority by Ayn Rand in the 1960s, but still going strong as part of statist mythology today.
In support of his parallel, Hayek rightly rejects the concrete superficial details of German National Socialism to which the broader abstraction of ‘fascism’ is so unproductively and irrationally married in the minds of most who refer to and write of it. More than any other ideology, the word ‘fascism’ has attained a pejorative quality that has overcome its literal meaning and distorted the popular understanding of it to such an extent that most today will readily proclaim that they reject it, but remain utterly incapable of defining it. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedias are similarly unhelpful, as much victims of the disintegrated epistemology of their times as those who reference them.
(This is not the place to go into a fuller explanation of the meaning of fascism, but those interested would do well to refer to my previous essay on the subject, “Understanding Fascism”.)
Thus, in Hayek’s understanding of National Socialism will be found no deterministic German racial explanations, recognizing both the influences of German fascist thought on the English and the early role played by Thomas Carlyle and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Scot and an Englishman, on the formation of fascist ideas.
A cautious approach is wise here, as while no racial explanation to the effect that some innate German-ness led to National Socialism can be held as rational, the role of culture and philosophy in German society is indispensable to understanding its rise. Hayek goes on to write, “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism. It was the prevalence of socialist views and not Prussianism that Germany had in common with Italy and Russia—and it was from the masses and not from the classes steeped in the Prussian tradition, and favored by it, that National-Socialism arose” (7).
True as much of that is, to say “the socialist element produced totalitarianism” is perhaps only to scratch the surface by acknowledging that one political idea was connected to another It does not explain why the socialist element was accepted in the first place. For that, one must look to German culture. To that end, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels offers an incomparable philosophical genealogy of Nazism that would serve as a necessary complement to Hayek’s work, assuming Hayek continues down the path he is setting out here.
Perhaps the most detrimental statement in Hayek’s introduction is said rather in passing. After having written that “by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes watch similar phases of intellectual development… They suggest, if not the necessity, at least the probability, that developments will take a similar course” (1), “some of the forces which have destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here” (2), and “our chance of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger” (2-3), Hayek betrays the premise upon which he has built up his whole work by conceding, “All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my argument mainly on such parallels” (3).
Certainly it must be admitted that parallels between such developments are not deterministic or without mitigating factors, not immune to changes in trajectory. But to suggest that they “are, of course, deceptive” is perilously asserting a skepticist rejection of the principle of causality and the recognition in earlier statements of the role of ideas. Hayek would do well to apply the same social scientific rigor to the subject of politics that he does in economics, recognizing that just as effects of supply and demand on prices are assessed by holding constant certain variables, so the effect of ideas presumes a measure of ceteris paribus, but this does not negate the principle demonstrated by such models or demand of the author some token measure of self-doubt.
In all, Hayek’s introduction is strong and offers much to think about, hope for, and consider proceeding onward into his analyses. His overall support for the importance of ideas, propensity (if somewhat unconfidently) toward conceptual integration and a comparative approach to political ideologies, and positive views of individual man and political freedom make for a promising start. Hayek even provides sound reasoning for why England should be interested in engaging in such self-critical analysis, arguing,
“[T]his will enable us to understand our enemy and the issue at stake between us. It cannot be denied that there is yet little recognition of the positive ideals for which we are fighting. We know that we are fighting for freedom to shape our life according to our own ideas. That is a great deal, but not enough. It is not enough to give us the firm beliefs which we need to resist an enemy who uses propaganda as one of his main weapons not only in the most blatant but also in the most subtle forms. It is still more insufficient when we have to counter this propaganda among the people under his control and elsewhere, where the effect of this propaganda will not disappear with the defeat of the Axis powers… It is a lamentable fact that the English in their dealings with the dictators before the war, not less than in their attempts at propaganda and in the discussion of their war aims, have shown an inner insecurity and uncertainty of aim which can be explained only by confusion about their own ideals and the nature of the differences which separated them from the enemy. We have been misled as much because we have refused to believe that the enemy was sincere in the profession of some beliefs we shared as because we believed in the sincerity of some of his other claims” (4).
Likewise, we begin to see his potential faults: a propensity to begin at the level of politics without looking more deeply toward philosophical and cultural ideas, and a creeping skepticism that may lead him to an unconfident defense of his comparative approach and, thus, the warning he seeks to achieve with it. Whether these virtues and potential faults continue, only time and further reading will reveal, but as for the introduction, Hayek hits all of his marks: providing context, provoking questions and challenges, establishing a conceptual framework, and enticing our curiosity. A solid start to a modern defense of classical liberalism.
“[C]ontemporary theory […] has, among other things, been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory—or better still, theoretical discourse—is also, I want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which postructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very significant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here.”
—Fredric Jameson, from Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a defining work about definition—specifically, about what “postmodernism” is. Rather than reducing postmodernism to one quality or characteristic, Jameson lays out several qualities or characteristics as manifest in works of literature, architecture, painting, and so forth. To say that postmodernism is a single thing is to ignore various flows, assemblages, networks, contradictions, tensions, and trajectories summoned forth by this slippery signifier. It is, in short, to be non-postmodern.
Jameson dislikes postmodernism and does not set out to be postmodern, even if he is, or cannot help but be, postmodern; he seeks to describe postmodernism in order to generate a working, demarcating explanation. Criticizing the “camp-following celebration” of the postmodern aesthetic, the “current fantasies about the salvational nature of high technology,” and the “vulgar apologias for postmodernism,” Jameson views the postmodern as penetrated and constituted by late capitalism. For Jameson, the postmodern is less a political program than a moment in time with certain defining characteristics; the postmodern is not an ideological agenda, but something we are in, whether we like it or not.
The trouble with describing the postmodern, as Jameson suggests in the passage above, is that it can refer to various phenomena, from artistic and cultural developments to social and political organization. One thing seems clear from the prefix “post”: postmodernism replaces (or displaces) the modern. It comes after. Therefore, postmodernism must be marked by a break from its predecessor. What this break is, and how it materializes among social forces, determines what postmodernism means, or at least what it looks like.
“Contemporary theory” or “theoretical discourse,” which has arisen alongside mass mechanical reproductions in the arts as well as commodity culture in every realm of human experience, and which, moreover, is neither unified nor uniform, is a product of postmodernism. This “Theory” (with a capital T) is splintered into numerous methodologies and logics, but generally holds that meaning is fluid, fragmented, and indeterminate. That statement does not do justice to the nuance and complexity of the subject.
At any rate, one has, as Jameson points out, trouble defending the “truth” of postmodernism’s “theoretical insights” because “the very concept of ‘truth’ itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon.” Jameson rejects a wholesale and unquestioning commitment to poststructuralism, which he tends to conflate with postmodernism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Jameson sees in the postmodern the propensity toward domination, a decidedly essentialized (and essentializing) category of discourse. Too much reliance on the postmodern, according to Jameson, leads to relativism or nihilism. Jameson does not use those terms, but he does say that if “we do not achieve some general sense of a cultural dominant, then we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable.”
Representing an arguably conservative shift away from other theorists—conservative with regard to ontology or metaphysics, not social politics—Jameson seeks to recover concepts like “dominance,” which are central to Marxist criticism, by arguing that critical theory such as poststructuralism is symptomatic of capitalism itself. Accordingly, we ought to study postmodernism as a result of capitalism’s rise to maturity. In this respect, Jameson revives Marxist criticism, which in many ways stands in contradistinction to postmodernism. Marxist criticism, after all, seems to subsume and encompass other theories, especially those that purport to explode all meanings; it is overarching and paradigmatic. It cultivates ideas about fixed categories—like dominance—that signify definite and resolved concepts.
Although what or who dominates is always changing, the idea of domination remains relatively stable. Marxism is therefore incompatible with postmodern theories that would do away with any and all “historicity”—to say nothing of essentializing concepts such as the bourgeois or even the self. For Jameson, Marxist theory remains useful and instructive. It is not just the constant play of simulacra or the mere trace of signification. Rather, it offers a viable and effective method for critiquing globalized consumer culture and ideology, both of which are evident in the frantic insistences on the superiority of the postmodern condition.