As a lifelong liberal, I have belatedly undertaken an effort to understand the thinking of libertarians. An early project was the reading of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in spite of the over-heated title, the book presents a rational argument.
It is a polemical book; as an Austrian refugee living and teaching in London in the 1930s, Hayek began to develop his argument in 1931, driven “by my annoyance with the complete misinterpretation in English ‘progressive’ circles of the character of the Nazi movement.” (The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents: The Definitive Edition edited by Bruce Caldwell, p. 53. All citations refer to this edition.).
The flaw he saw was the progressive argument that although the German character made the Hitler regime quite unpleasant, the central economic planning at its heart was in itself a great idea. In Hayek’s contrary view, the brutality of the German, Soviet, and Italian regimes was the inevitable result of socialist thought, not an expression of the flawed national characters of those countries.
The Road to Serfdom is a history of ideas arguing that the decades of socialist theorizing among European intellectuals had led inevitably to the totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and the USSR. Whether one accepts his general historical interpretation or not, his analysis of the dangers of central planning contains a lot of good sense.
It is important to emphasize that “central planning” is his primary target. As he said in his Preface to the 1976 edition of the book, “At the time I wrote, socialism meant unambiguously the nationalization of the means of production and the central economic planning which this made possible and necessary . . “ (p. 54).
Hayek was opposed to centralized government control of the economy but not to all government interventions in the economy nor to a government “safety net” for its citizens. In his introduction, Caldwell notes that during the 1930s Hayek often spoke to groups of business people, to whom he argued that what is needed is a set of rules defining what government activities are legitimate and which are illegitimate; “You must cease to argue for and against government activity as such” (p.20), he advised them.
Further, in his chapter on “Security and Freedom” he notes that there are two incompatible kinds of security for individuals: “first, security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all; and second, the security of . . . the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others. . . .” It is a choice between “the security of a minimum income and the security of the particular income a person is thought to deserve. . . . “ He continues, “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.” (147-48)
In other words, this sacred text of libertarianism supports the provision of a guaranteed “security” for all. It does not argue that such a governmental guarantee is inconsistent with freedom. What Hayek objects to most vehemently is not a government guaranteed minimum but government actions that provide “a privileged security of particular classes,” which probably would include agricultural subsidies that pay millions to industrial farming operations, family “charitable” foundations that serve the founding families, laws that prevent the federal government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical firms, and tax laws that protect extractive industries, such as petroleum, from the inevitable depletion of the resources they extract.
The Road to Serfdom is most pertinent to contemporary American political life in his analysis of the intellectual process that leads to totalitarianism. It is a detailed and subtle argument in which Hayek sets forth the nature and affects of totalitarian propaganda. All states use propaganda for various purposes, but “in a totalitarian state . . . all propaganda serves the same goal—all the instruments of propaganda are coordinated to influence the individual in the same direction.”(p. 171) Totalitarian propaganda, he argues, “cannot confine itself to values but must extend to questions of fact.” (p 172) Since the values dominate (the ends justify the means), facts must be made to conform to those values. The great casualty of this process is truth itself, and “There is consequently no field where the systematic control of information will not be practiced and uniformity of views not enforced. This applies even . . . to all the sciences, even the most abstract.” (p176).
In the U.S. of today that description does not apply to the government.
It does apply, however, to the political right. It is the right that has developed the carefully controlled flow of information for its adherents. It is the right which flamboyantly refuses to allow its ideas to be limited by facts. It is the right that consciously and systematically sustains campaigns of misinformation.
Against that context one other of Hayek’s observation is immensely disturbing: he noted in the early 1940s that “the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in England and America, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class.” (p. 215). Such a class does exist in the United States today, and, as in Germany in the 1930s, it is the group most caught up in the closed world of right wing fact-free discourse.
In Hayek’s analysis the road to serfdom in the United States is now being paved by the Tea Party-Right, not the Democratic Party..
Hi Dick — Oddly, I was just thinking of you, and your post arrives! It was a very useful clarification to me. You should try submitting it to the Huffington Post. We’re off to Europe in a week for a month.I’m still giving talks on dignity/rankism at universities. — Bob
I’ve intended to call for a chat. I went through a phase when I found that trying to write out my ideas depressed me so much that I had to stop.
I had an amusing exchange with one Timothy Sandefur over reading the Declaration of Independence. He’s a libertarian attorney associated with the Cato Institute. What I learned is that the libertarians seem to cover the fundamental elitism of their view by seeing the Declaration as privileging freedom over any other human rights, and then rooting freedom in property rights so that the latter trump the former.
I have lost track of your email address. Would you please send it to me?