Still Lurching Along the Road to Serfdom

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom — or, at least, a mythical version of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom — has long been a common bugaboo of the Right-wing brain: All government regulation is collectivism is socialism is communism is totalitarianism. You know the lyrics to that one, no doubt.

There’s an analysis of Hayek in Dissent magazine by Jesse Larner that I found interesting. To some extent it supports a blog post I wrote about Hayek awhile back. Larner writes,

In Road, he [Hayek] thoroughly, eloquently, and convincingly demolishes an idea that virtually no one holds nowadays.

The core of Road is an exploration of why a planned, state-managed economy must tend toward totalitarianism. If this is one’s concept of socialism, it could hardly survive a fair-minded encounter with Hayek.

As I wrote in the old post, I have never in my life met a fellow American who seriously proposed establishing a planned economy, in which government controls all production and distribution of income. The Right continues to rail against us Lefties as if that’s exactly what we propose.


BECAUSE THEY understand so little about the thoughtful left (and former association doesn’t translate into knowledge; Horowitz and his cohort, like the earlier generation of converts led by Irving Kristol, still think of the modern left as a crypto-Castroite conspiracy), it is hard for many on the right to acknowledge that as a critique of socialism, Hayek’s ideas are limited rather than devastating.

Larner writes that Hayek saw “collectivism” only as something government imposes, and didn’t understand that collectivism can be “a spontaneous, nongovernmental, egalitarian phenomenon.” This parallels my gripe with libertarians who cannot perceive that oppression can come from powers other than the federal government. This is a rigidly linear view of human society.

In fact, power manifests in many ways and in many hands, and whoever has power is capable of oppressing others. So the Right, in the name of “liberty,” opposes government authority to impose limitations on the power of corporations to exploit ordinary people. They run away from an imaginary “serfdom” imposed by government and toward a very real “serfdom” imposed by corporatism.

Also in the name of “liberty,” the Right wants to place limitations on what We, the People can do with our own government to solve problems. Again, this doesn’t make us freer or less oppressed, because it takes power away from the people and gives it to monied interests even less answerable to us than government.

Anyway — the Larner article is worth reading.

14 thoughts on “Still Lurching Along the Road to Serfdom

  1. The older I get the more I am convinced that in all things there must be balance, an equilibrium if you will. Everything from economies to an eco-system in the natural world, when out of balance they don’t work optimally – in fact they eventually collapse. Laissez-faire capitalism and communism are the extremes of economic systems and thus unworkable.

    (It reminds me of the now extinct dodo bird, an animal whose reason for existing nobody could defend. But apparently it had a reason to exist because in its eco-system there was a tree whose seed was uncrackable except by the dodo bird. So when the bird became extinct, the tree became extinct and eventually the whole micro-system collapsed.)

    I like the story of the Buddha out roaming the countryside seeking nirvana and collecting devoted followers in the process who thought him the most holy of holies because he was quite literally starving himself to death.

    One day he collapsed, near death, under the shade of a tree surrounded by his seated followers at a respectful distance. Soon a shepherd girl came along, saw the Buddha, went to him and told him that she would bring him her dinner as soon as she could.

    Eventually she returned, sat down under the tree beside the Buddha, put his head in her lap and fed him her dinner. His followers were horrified and deserted him. The Buddha, on the other hand, was given to recognize that the simple gesture of kindness the shepherd girl had shown him as all that is devine. The story goes that it was then that the Buddha reached nirvana.

  2. The closest, outside of wartime, that the USA has come to a centrally planned economy is Nixon’s Wage and Price Controls. What party was Nixon in, BTW? Was he a liberal? Cause I have a memory and I don’t think so; I kinda think he was a rightwinger.

  3. “This parallels my gripe with libertarians who cannot perceive that oppression can come from powers other than the federal government.”
    The opposite is also true. Well designed government laws add to freedom, not restrict it. National healthcare would make us more free, not less –not chained to some job we hate because we can’t change health insurance. Social security keeps us, particularly the poor among us, from be tied to labor until the day we die. The poor especially were a lot more free after FDR and sizable government programs than before. Libertarians can’t see that, I have no idea why.

  4. The trouble with Hayek is his binary thinking. All collective action does NOT lead to totalitarianism. In fact, folks who never engage in collective action are, at best, primitive hermits.

    The truth is, some things are collective by their very nature–health care, infrastructure construction and maintenance, energy production and distribution, etc. Some things are individual by their very nature–choice of sex partners, creating small enterprise, decorating the interior of one’s house, etc. The key to a successful society is to understand the difference and have differing philosophies for collective vs individual behavior. In this respect, Hayek’s writings are utter failures.

    See also:

  5. I’ve argued with countless libertarians about the small government meme. They never adequately explain the nature of the thing that will fill the void vacated by government. Everyone knows from high school physics that when a vacuum is created something fills the vacated space.

    Neither do they do justice to any explanation of how this replacement authority, be it corporations or something else, will not have more degrees of separation from all that sappy of, for and by the people nonsense from the Constitution. Ooops, sorry that was Gettysburg address.

    If we must throw off the yoke of tyranny one more time then so be it as long as we once again recapture the meory of why it was done the say it was the first time. It might also help if liibertarians had a relistic grasp of history.

  6. It seems to me that libertarians pride themselves on being ‘rugged individualists.’ Individualism is a moral, political or social outlook that stresses independence, self-reliance and individual liberty. The individualist is opposed to external interference by society or the state or any other group or institution.

    To me, individualism is a form of solipsism. A solipsist says that only he matters. Bernard Shaw said that if someone says that he is a solipsist, throw a book at his head. If he ducks, he’s a liar. The libertarian would have us believe that he does exist and can exist independent of the rest of us. Of course, should a book thrown at his head result in a nasty concussion, he would expect a doctor to treat him.

  7. We actually have seen quite a few cases of libertarianism in action – Sudan, for example. The entities that fill the power vacuum caused by lack of a legitimate, stable, and properly financed central govenment are normally called “warlords.”

  8. It’s not quite so much that the right wants to place limits on what we can do with government. It’s that the right wants the government to grant certain rights.

    Remember that the entire concept of property is based upon force. “I own this, by which I mean, if you try to use it in a way I don’t allow, I will hurt you in some way, if I am able to do so.”

    The right wants the government to use force to protect and expand the rights of property owners, often at the expense of everyone else.

    Part of the problem is that the entire notion of property is broken today. The world has changed to the point that a lot of things we used to take for granted can’t be taken for granted any more. It used to be that, if you owned land, you could store what you wanted on it. Now, we know that you could store toxic waste that could poison the water table. But libertarians will fight for the right to do exactly that.

    It gets even more complicated when you realize that, really, everything we have comes from the stuff of the earth and the sun (modulo meteor strikes 🙂 ). Who owns the earth? If we all, collectively, own the earth, then some recognition must be made of the rights of that collective ownership. That should give us the right to quite a lot of good governance. We’re not restricting property rights; we’re asserting our collective ownership in the earth, and our rights to justice in the distribution of the wealth of the earth.

  9. There seems to be a major bind spot on the right with respect to collectivism. Limited liability corporations are a state recognized form of collectivist action, and they are enshrined in our constitution. At the time, the whole idea of such collectivist entities was regarded as radical. The usual arrangement required that members of the business collective put their own personal assets at risk as is still done at Lloyd’s, the insurance firm. Meanwhile, every other form of collectivist action, including the mother-child bond, seems to rankle these folks.

    Wage-price controls aren’t associated with the left or right. Both Stalin and Mussolini had rigorous wage and price controls. The difference, Fortune magazine argued, is that Stalin wanted to be your plumber. That is, Mussolini didn’t care how plumbing was done, as long as the state controlled the hours and wages. Stalin, in contrast, wanted to control every aspect of the job.

  10. Limited liability corporations are a state recognized form of collectivist action, and they are enshrined in our constitution.

    They are? Enshrined in the Constitution? Are you sure?

    And all along I thought that the Constitution did not even mention corporations.
    I certainly don’t find the word “coporation” herein

    The business lobby’s eternal campaign to conflate the ideas “freedom”, “democracy”, and “capitalism” seems to have succeeded remarkably well.

  11. In fact, limited-liability corporations as fictitious persons, with all the legal rights of actual persons but strictly limited legal responsibilities, came into being in the US through a court reporter’s misinterpretation of the case documents in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad

    Before 1886, corporations did not have the rights of persons.

  12. For a smart and sympathetic reading of Hayek from someone on the left side of the political spectrum, read Cass Sunstein’s wonderful book “Infotopia” where he examines the intersection between epistemology and social psychology. While I think his notion of deliberation in the book is too narrow, the point he makes is that Hayek was correct that information is scattered throughout any population, that centralized decision-makers will only have a part of the scattered information needed to make sound decisions, that social pressure will keep dissenters from speaking up, and that markets can in some situations aggregate dispersed information better than small deliberative groups which are open to social pressure. The accuracy of prediction markets compared to expert predictions show that there are certainly certain sorts of situations in which markets are superior, but the non-naive question Sunstein examines is “what are those conditions?”

  13. Read Karl Polanyi’s wonderful ‘The Great Transformation’ for an account of social democratic ideals and an implicit refutation of von Hayek (though Hayek is definitely right that an over-centralised anything is clumsy and inefficient).

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