The Book of Masters and Slaves

July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Road to Serfdom (Hayek, Friedrich)

Tractatus Reagano-Philosophicus?

I am bemused by the number of people I meet who have never heard of Friedrich Hayek, leave alone read his best known book, ‘The Road to Serfdom’. Mind you, Hayek was no common or garden variety of university academic. He has under his belt, one of the highest civilian honors of the United States – the Presidential Medal of Honor, as well as the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics. The Queen of England invited him to tea, and the Pope consulted him on matters of importance. Margaret Thatcher carried his books around in her purse. Milton Friedman went as far as to say that Hayek “undoubtedly influenced the climate of opinion that ultimately brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union“. And as for Ronald Reagan, he even listed Hayek as among the two or three people who most influenced his philosophy. I decided that this man deserves to be resurrected, if only to throw light on that most arcane of subjects: Ronald Reagan’s philosophy.

Having read the book, I will say this: The Road to Serfdom is a very annoying read. This is a devious, insidious annoyance I am talking about, like an unscratchable itch, difficult to pin down on a single thing and yet…there. Let me see if blogging aloud can help figure out exactly what irks me about this book.

Hayek’s main beef in The Road to Serfdom is with totalitarianism and central economic planning – and on the face of it, he has a point. Having seen what the Indian Planning Commissions managed to fail to achieve for their people over the second half of the 20th century, I do not need to be convinced of the inefficacy of the mechanism, but at the time Hayek wrote the book (1941-43), Stalinism, Fascism and Nazism rubbed shoulders with liberal democracy as viable models for the modern state, and the Fabian Socialists were clamoring shrilly for more state control and socialism in Britain as well. Hayek, in order to repudiate them, attempts to show that state control and central planning led directly to totalitarianism, and that Britain was best served by sticking to her liberal democratic, capitalist and individualist traditions. Totalitarianism corrupts those in power, he explains patiently, and they spread falsehood and propaganda in a bid to perpetuate their power. The people are coerced and cajoled into obeying the arbitrary whims of an overlord, rather than following their own judgment. That, to Hayek, is the end of choice, the demise of individualism and thus the death of freedom.

A fervent democrat myself, I agree with Hayek’s observations on dictatorship, but methinks the professor doth overstate the case against planning a tiny bit too much, once again from the Indian experience, where the Five Year Plans have led, not to totalitarianism, but merely to total irrelevance and public ridicule of the planning process.

We of the 21st century, we who know so much more, we hold these facts to be self-evident: that all men may be equal in some systems, but that the poor do not have an awful lot of choice or freedom under any system. Everywhere, the poor are manipulated and influenced, either by brute force and bayonet, or by the more subtle methods of pricing and taxation, advertising and demagoguery. We know too, that relative inequality is a fact of life, and while we can argue about where to draw the line, there are large parts of the world where the poverty is absolute and beyond debate; where the business of daily survival trumps any attempt to improve one’s lot. And we know this too: that on average, the rich are better at making (and holding on to) money than the poor; it follows, therefore, that over time, left to themselves, the gap between them will only grow wider. Any attempt to reduce the gap, other than voluntary philanthropy, is a restriction on the freedom of the rich to do what they are good at, to do what they want, to grow even richer. And this, I strongly suspect, is precisely the freedom whose loss Hayek is ultimately concerned about.

In fairness, Hayek knows this, too. He acknowledges that adequate protection against the worst privations is a necessary pre-requisite to libertarianism (which he calls ‘liberalism’ – isn’t it wonderful how the word changed in meaning within a single generation?), and he writes only for the people of Western Europe and America, who have already been able to guarantee their people this level of security. In fact, he rebukes British socialists thus:

If the English proletarian is entitled to an equal share of the income now derived from England’s capital resources, and of control of their use, because they are the result of exploitation, so on the same principle all the Indians would be entitled not only to the income from but also to the use of a proportional share of the British capital. But what socialists seriously contemplate the equal division of existing capital resources among the people of the world?

Do not ask too loudly for what you feel you are owed, says Hayek to the British factory workers, because others worse off than you may hear, and ask us both for what we owe them. It is in all our interests that we let sleeping dogs lie, and enjoy what we have. Which is a sane enough piece of advice, if you disregard the needs of the people at the very end of that exploitation food chain.

And so, ultimately, Hayek’s problem with socialism appears to be built upon this fear, this unspeakable horror, that the poor and exploited at the bottom of the heap in Asia and Africa, should come knocking on the doors of the civilized rich one day, seeking their pound of flesh hoarsely and insistently like so many invading body-snatchers. His suggestion to form a loose federation involving the nations of Western Europe and the United States (as opposed to a Federated Union of the entire world) appears to point to the same end.

Am I reading too much here? Am I being unreasonably vituperative against a man whose main thesis is, after all, merely the utter unsuitability of totalitarianism, and of socialism only because it leads to totalitarianism?  Maybe so. However, I find disturbing references on the internet (try this or this, or this for instance) to Hayek’s excellent relationship in the 1970’s with General Augusto Pinochet, the libertarian dictator who ruled Chile with an iron hand after deposing the democratically elected, but radically socialist Salvador Allende. When asked to comment, Hayek is reputed to have declared a personal preference for a ‘liberal’ dictatorship over socialist democracy, insisting that personal freedom in Chile was actually higher under the dictator than under the earlier democratic government. In short, totalitarianism and serfdom are fine, as long as they aren’t socialist in nature, or perhaps, as long as the serfdom was someone else’s.

In even shorter, Hayek held views about Chileans that were the exact opposite of what he tries to convey to the British in The Road to Serfdom. Which makes either Hayek’s book, or Hayek’s life, a monstrous lie and a waste of time.

Alexis de Tocqueville, whose meditations on America and democracy have been reviewed in these pages, had once surveyed the troubled landscape of South America and said:

“The people dwelling in this beautiful half of the Western Hemisphere appear stubbornly determined to tear out each other’s entrails; nothing can divert them from such an end…When i turn to consider them in this state, alternating between misery and crime, i am tempted to think that despotism would be a blessing for them. But these two words will never be linked in my mind. “

Hayek, by a long stretch the lesser of the two men, succumbs easily to this temptation. As long as the wealth of his race and class is not threatened, he has no problems with the enslavement of the rest of humanity – in fact, he recommends it. The moment his interests and those of his aristocratic class are brought into focus, he waxes eloquent about freedom and democracy.

I now know why this book makes me  so mad.


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§ One Response to The Book of Masters and Slaves

  • ravi says:

    Timely thoughts (since libertarianism is gaining fashionability these days, with the end of the global Obama phenomenon). Socialists of course would respond to Hayek that this sort of divide and conquer approach, making “petty bourgeoisie” of them, is exactly what internationalism and solidarity are aimed against. Saying is one thing and doing another, and unions, as we know, are these days at the forefront of xenophobia (“the foreigners are stealing our jobs”).

    There is that sort of pragmatic understanding of the limits of intentional collective action. As science and mathematical analysis march on, it gets more difficult to argue that solutions can be obtained better via untrammelled and undirected competition than through careful thought and empirical analysis/validation. Rather, it seems to me, the pragmatic person, argues that while we may know exactly what needs to be done to bring about a desired result, getting it done is a different problem altogether, and game theory and associated disciplines tell us that a system that attempts to get things done by a single central organisation is ripe for abuse. Like you, I too find little to quarrel about with this caution. We want to lower infant mortality and know that female literacy is one of the best ways to achieve low infant mortality rates. We are aware of the danger that politicians will line their pockets from any social program that attempts to increase female literacy, and thus we are open to defensible alternatives.

    What I suspect is that libertarianism, in Hayek and in many of its modern proponents, is fuelled by different passions. For one, as you write, it is the “freedom of the rich” that is being defended by Hayek and others. On a more ideological front, there is, I think, a fundamental difference between libertarianism and liberalism, as they stand today. For the modern libertarian, liberty is so independently defined (pun unintended) that it stands in conflict with any attempts at achieving universal goals (which can, therefore, at best be a by-product of the pursuit and exercise of individual freedoms — one is greatly indebted to Ayn Rand for making these implications manifest in the most vulgar sense). It is this commitment, I think, that greases the slide from pragmatic warnings about socialism’s tendency towards totalitarianism to the support of right-wing neo-liberal experiments in Latin America and thirld world playgrounds.

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