THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 379, August 6, 2006
"Absolutely Shockingly Amazing"
On the "Road" Again
Credit The Libertarian Enterprise
I just finished re-reading The Road to Serfdom (TRtS) by F. A. Hayek. This is the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, published in 1994, which I bought using the Amazon.com link on the TLE home page (for those of you readers who might want your own copy, or one to give away). I enjoyed it much more this time; I first read it over 20 years ago, and I learn more each time I read it.
The thrust of the book is Hayek's warning to Britain and America that trends he witnessed in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century were evident in those two countries prior to and during World War II. These trends will not be news to most libertarians: the corruption of language by socialists (or statists, if you preferto me they are one and the same) to advance their cause, the denigration of individualism and praising of any sort of collectivism (remember the flap with the Seattle school board Web site?), and the growing sense of entitlement, reinforced by the media and inculcated in the young, who are forced to attend government schools, to name but a few.
This book is well worth reading, at only 263 pages in the trade paperback, because it will give you a sense of historical perspective and will almost certainly strike a chord as certain passages make connections with current events. In fact, this phenomenon is what caused me to write this.
I recently had a conversation with a co-worker that centered mainly on the concept of individualism. He asserted that individualism was probably fine in a frontier-type setting, but the modern world was too complicated for this, and cooperative (if not communal) effort was required for survival. I asked him what brought him to this conclusion, but received the usual blather about how obvious it was, how "we all share the planet" and so forth. I wish I had had this quotation from the beginning of Chapter 4:
"We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become."
This Chapter is "The 'Inevitability' of Planning", planning being used in the sense of government planning rather than what you or I might do as individuals. The type of planning that initiates force, to be precise.
I'm sure that many of you have had similar experiences, but the point is that this blatant propaganda, with nothing but bald assertions to back it up, has been seeping into the world view of most Americans for many decades. I am fifty-five years old, and I remember how upset I was when I heard crap like this in high school (late 1960s) and college; I'm still upset when my daughter reports even more blatant abuse of the facts from her public school classes now.
Brief digression: Yes, my daughter (Summer) attends public school. For one thing, we happen to live in a school district that is very good on a national scale. A second point is that Summer is a strong-willed person, very individualistic, who is not going to just accept what anyone tells her. I have always had to prove my assertions to her on almost any topic. Can't imagine where she got that trait. Finally, she is active in a number of extra-curricular activities (soccer, orchestra, plays, etc.) and has a close circle of like-minded friends, most of whom have a fine contempt for the socialist pabulum that some teachers try to spoon-feed them. And she knows she would have to work harder if I was the one giving the assignments.
Part of the problem that many people have with the idea of individualism is that, as mentioned above, the socialists have slyly corrupted the meaning of the word until most people associate the concept with being a loner, an eccentric or a recluse. Or some kind of dangerous nut. To the contrary, individualism is just wanting to be free from the initiation of force. As Hayek puts it on page 66 of TRtS:
"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 values existscales 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 . . ." (emphasis added)
To be fair, I wouldn't call Hayek a libertarian. He couldn't quite seem to make the leap from understanding that while "planning" always leads to some form of totalitarian rule, government will always lead to "planning." And since there is scant chance of there being a national consensus about what economic goals should be adopted (much less political and foreign policy goals), such "planning" will have to be made through the political process. That is, by log-rolling, bribery, lobbying, corruption, etc., the whole special-interest minuet. What is more, those who rise to the top in "planning" departments will be those with nothing approaching what we individualists might describe as morals. As Hayek notes on pages 165-167 (and other places), the planners must be willing to carry out the plans without respect for anything but the plan. Those planners who let their conscience interfere with the plan will not last long, and there are always unscrupulous people waiting for the chance to occupy such a powerful position.
So, when someone tries to claim that socialism (by whatever name) is more moral than individualism, ask them who will decide what goals are to be pursued? Who will draw up the plans? Who will ensure that the plans are carried out, despite the inevitable resistance? And who will execute the dissenters? I'll leave you with one more quote from TRtS, from the beginning of Chapter 5:
"The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it."
We seem, in these modern times, to have no lack of such dangerous people. Next week: the cult of self-esteem and its mirror-image, hubris.