Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Road to Serfdom in Retrospect: Then and Now

In 1944, Hayek published The Road to Serfdom as a battle cry against collectivism and an affirmation of core liberal principles. It was such a smashing success that in 1945 Reader’s Digest published a condensed version. According to John Blundell, “Hayek thought it impossible to condense but always commented on what a great job the Reader’s Digest editors did.” It is in this spirit that I feel justified in reviewing some of Hayek’s claims from the condensed version.

There is a tension that runs throughout Hayek’s narrative between planning and equality its supposed welfare improving effects. The latter was the excuse for the former at the time of the original publication. Much of Hayek’s efforts are directed toward the act of planning. Thus, Hayek makes the extreme version of planning his focal point. This is well embodied in one of the jacket notes from the first edition of The Road to Serfdom:
In a planned system we cannot confine collective action to the tasks on which we agree but are forced to produce agreement on everything in order that any action can be taken at all.
Having lived through two world wars and observing the rise of collectivism in its most egregious forms in Italy, Germany, and the U.S.S.R and in its softer forms in the U.K. and U.S., Hayek was justified in his concern. He had observed collectivism at its climax. In those forms, the freedom of the individual had been practically extinguished.

The greater danger, one that remains today, that Hayek also identifies is the employment of a particular end to justify actions that subvert institutions which guarantee individual liberty:
There is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves ‘the good of the whole’, because that is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done.
There is no getting around that the common good will be used as justification for any action, no matter how materially or politically constructive or destructive. How much credence society lends these stated ends, as opposed to the likely results of particular action or legislation, is a function of general skepticism. It is especially important that intellectuals, those nodes that guide public sentiment, exercise skepticism in their evaluation of political programs and mature discretion in promotion of interventions that transform long lived institutions. A stable set of “rules of the game” regarding the use of force, i.e., the action of government, constrain that force and make it more predictable. It allows individuals to make plans and feel secure in those plans. This is the core of Hayek's argument. He writes:
Nothing distinguishes more clearly a free country from a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law. Stripped of technicalities this means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announce beforehand – rules that make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge. Thus, within the known rules of the game, the individual is free to pursue his personal ends, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts. 

Throughout the remainder of his career, Hayek wrote in defense of "rules of the game" and it is this part of his legacy that is most applicable to the modern intellectual landscape.

No end is so important that it should justify swift and massive alteration of the "rules of the game". For example, if the zeitgeist of a generation, particularly my generation, carries with it a cry for equality as the highest end, as the most moral principle to be attained at any cost, then the stability generated by “rules of the game” may be placed at risk. It is for this reason that those interested in a prosperous future, especially those who generate ideas and those who reformulate and distribute them, must consider the impact of particular policies and ideas on these rules. If an end is to be accomplished, it must be according to rules agreed upon. If the rules are altered, they must be changed systematically. It is not the crazed dictator that we need to fear in 2014. It is the employment of high-minded ideals that supposedly justify the subversion of these rules. And for this role there is no shortage of candidates.

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