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Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 5, “Planning and Democracy”

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 20, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

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 article is the sixth entry in a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Previous chapter analyses can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, 2, 3, and 4.

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.

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