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The Classical Liberalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Western Philosophy on January 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

“The less government we have, the better.”[1] So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or libertarian. His is a pastoral libertarianism that glorifies nature as a source of insight and inspiration for those with a poetical sense and a prophetic vision.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.”[2] “Throughout his career,” Neal Dolan adds, “Emerson remained fully committed to the Scottish-inflected Lockean-libertarian liberalism whose influence we have traced to his earliest notebooks.”[3] An abundance of evidence supports this view. Dolan himself has written an entire book on the subject: Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). Emerson extolled the “infinitude of the private man”[4] and projected a “strong libertarian-liberal emphasis”[5] in his essays and speeches. He was not an anarchist: he believed that “[p]ersonal rights, universally the same, demand a government framed on the ratio of the census” because “property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning.”[6] Nevertheless, he opined that “[e]very actual State is corrupt”[7] and that, if the people in a given territory were wise, no government would be necessary: “[W]ith the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary.”[8] One need only look to one of Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for proof of his libertarianism.

“Self‑Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”[9]

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”[10] and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most creative faculties. Such self‑realization has a spiritual component insofar as “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”[11] and “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”[12]

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate productivity. “Wild liberty develops iron conscience” whereas a “[w]ant of liberty […] stupefies conscience.”[13] History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good‑humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”[14] Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”[15] We ought, that is, to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,” Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”[16]

Self‑Interest and Conviction

For Emerson as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their self‑interests, including self‑interests in the well‑being of family, friends, and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”[17] Or: “Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”[18] It is in everyone’s best interest that each individual resides in his own truth without selling off his liberty.[19] “It is,” in other words, “easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.”[20]

It is not that self‑assurance equates with rightness or that stubbornness is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks; only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are needed to achieve success. Because “man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows,”[21] self-reliance enables cooperative enterprise: “Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end.”[22] Counterintuitively, only in total isolation and autonomy does “all mean egotism vanish.”[23]

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,”[24] how should he treat the poor? Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to‑day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting‑houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.[25]

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,” he elaborates.[26] Emerson is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible, unsustainable, or exploitative business activities.

It is not moral to give away a little money that you do not care to part with or to fund an abstract cause when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you give money to people or causes with which you are familiar,[27] and with whom or which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must mean to give morally—and have something to lose. The best thing one can do for the poor is to help them to empower themselves to achieve their own ends and to utilize their own skills—to put “them once more in communication with their own reason.”[28] “A man is fed,” Emerson says, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”[29] Emerson’s work ethic does not demean the poor; it builds up the poor. It is good and right to enable a poor man to overcome his conditions and to elevate his station in life, but there is no point in trying to establish absolute equality among people, for only the “foolish […] suppose every man is as every other man.”[30] The wise man, by contrast, “shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits as wide as nature.”[31] Such separation and gradation are elements of the beautiful variety and complexity of the natural, phenomenal world in which man pursues his aims and accomplishes what he wills.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”[32] Much ink has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean, in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has simply nothing to do.”[33]

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity. Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”[34] “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.”[35] This man does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive institutions; he is “by necessity anti‑authoritarian and anti‑governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”[36] He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian you may not accept the endorsements and propositions here as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless, there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become what Emerson called a “retained attorney”[37] who is able to recite talking points and to argue the predictable “airs of the bench”[38] without engaging the opposition in a meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and interact with others lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”[39] We can stand together only by first standing alone. Thus, “[w]e must go alone.”[40] You must “[i]nsist on yourself”[41] and “[s]peak the truth.”[42] You must channel your knowledge and originality to enable others to empower themselves. All collectives are made up of constituent parts; the unit benefits from the aggregate constructive action of motivated individuals. Emerson teaches us that if we all, each one of us, endeavor to excel at our favorite preoccupations and to expand the reach of our talent and industry, we will better the lives of those around us and pass along our prosperity to our posterity.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 567.

[2] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 40.

[3] Neal Dolan, “Property in Being,” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011), p. 371.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, correspondence in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982). This quote comes from Vol. 7, p. 342.

[5] Neal Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), p. 182.

[6] Emerson, “Politics,” at 560.

[7] Emerson, “Politics,” at 563.

[8] Emerson, “Politics,” at 568.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 259.

[10] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 260.

[11] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[12] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[13] Emerson, “Politics” at 565-566.

[14] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 259.

[15] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[16] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[17] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[18] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[19] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 274.

[20] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 275.

[21] Emerson, “Politics,” at 566.

[22] Emerson, “Politics,” at 567.

[23] Emerson, “Nature,” in Emerson: Essays and Poems, p. 10. The original reads “all mean egotism vanishes” rather than “vanish.”

[24] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[25] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262-63.

[26] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 273.

[27] “Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog,” Emerson says. Emerson, “Self Reliance,” at 274.

[28] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 276.

[29] Emerson, “Nature,” at 13.

[30] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[31] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[32] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[33] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[34] Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), p. 51.

[35] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[36] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[37] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[38] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[39] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[40] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 272.

[41] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 278.

[42] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 77.

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Transcendental Liberty

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on January 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay originally appeared here in The Freeman.

“The less government we have, the better.” So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a  man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of  Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or  libertarian.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that  “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist  or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at  times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.” An  abundance of evidence supports this view. Emerson was, after all, the man who  extolled the “infinitude of the private man.” One need only look at one of  Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for evidence of his  libertarianism.

“Self-Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism  ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree  of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity.  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your  private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its  ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each  individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily  or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a  definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”  and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most  creative faculties. Such self-realization has a spiritual component insofar as  “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” and “no law can  be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt  rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate  productivity. History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and  authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more  affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous  impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of  voices is on the other side.” Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to  badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” We ought, that is,  to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere  apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,”  Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”

Self-Interest and Conviction

For Emerson, as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their  self-interests, including self-interests in the well-being of family, friends,  and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract  political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my  constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Or: “Few and mean as my gifts  may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of  my fellows any secondary testimony.”

It is not that self-assurance equates with rightness, or that stubbornness  is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition  precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks;  only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are  needed to achieve success.

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all  opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,” how should he  treat the poor?  Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my  obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell  thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent,  I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is  a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for  them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;  the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain  end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief  Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar,  it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or  charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to  prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. He  is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally  simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible,  unsustainable, or exploitative business activities. It is not moral to give away  a little money that you do not care to part with, or to fund an abstract cause  when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you  give money to people or causes with which you are familiar, and with whom or  which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never  moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must  mean to give morally—and have something to lose.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of  little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Much ink  has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean,  in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a  person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great  but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a  consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many  ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very  consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has  simply nothing to do.”

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming  individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity.  Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”  “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants  to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter,  the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional  standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.” This man  does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive  institutions; he is “by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental,  irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is  precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”  He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian, you may not accept the endorsements and propositions  in this article as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and  Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its  affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you  do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own  impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have  reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to  consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of  course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom  facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless,  there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition  among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in  treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable  transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become  what Emerson called a “retained attorney” who is able to recite talking points  and to argue predictable “airs of opinion” without engaging the opposition in a  meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and  interact with others, lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of  any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from  the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test  of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s  opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he  who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of  solitude.” Let us stand together by standing alone.

Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Introduction

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 9, 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 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.

Introduction

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.

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