A Message for His Era, Research Time, 27/01/2015

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning to start reading the foundational work in the popular political influence of Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. Well, I started, and I’m already pleasantly surprised.

Some background. For just less than three years, I was internet friends with two hardcore right-wing libertarian conservatives, who eventually broke off their relations with me after they became convinced that I would never change my political beliefs to become a hardcore right-wing libertarian conservative. 

At the time, I thought some of their beliefs were legitimately kind of crazy. The most notable example, given what I’m going to talk about today, was that they genuinely believed that any institution through which the government directly acted in any economic sphere would grease the slippery slope to the complete totalitarian takeover of the economy and the destruction of democracy and individual liberty.

Despite his baldness, he is not to be mistaken for
Jack Layton.
Here’s an example of the extremity I mean. On the first anniversary of Jack Layton’s death, G the libertarian posted a photo sincerely memorializing him as a historically remarkable figure in Canadian history. The photo was of Vladimir Lenin. Although this was a joke in bad taste, he was also expressing his serious belief that Jack Layton was a totalitarian because Layton wanted government programs to provide services to the poor and homeless.

For the last couple of years, I thought such beliefs were genuinely ridiculous. But reading about the ideologies underlying the global networks of conservative think tanks that began with meetings Hayek and Milton Friedman organized at Mt. Pelerin, Switzerland gave me pause. 

According to Donald Gutstein’s account of the goals, priorities, and perspectives of organizations like the Fraser Institute, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, and Civitas, many of the most influential conservative intellectuals actually believe that welfare services like food stamps and government subsidies to homeless shelters actually are totalitarian in character. So I raised the priority level of my engagement with Hayek’s work.

I found, at least in the early stages of reading The Road to Serfdom, a very different kind of Hayek than the image Gutstein painted. So far, I’ve only read the editor’s introduction to my edition (part of the collected volumes series of Hayek’s works), and some of Hayek’s own introduction to the 1956 edition. The Road to Serfdom was originally published in Britain in 1944, and later that decade, an extremely abridged version was published in America through Reader’s Digest, and this much shorter volume became a popular sensation.

I haven’t yet managed to compare the Reader’s Digest version of the book to the complete one, but given the way Hayek talks about the popular reception of his ideas, I think I can hazard a solid hypothesis. Hayek, in his 1956 introduction, clearly and emphatically states that he does not actually believe that any form of government intervention in the economy is totalitarian or opens the doors to such a change. He believed that government intervention in the economy should be limited, but the intense anti-government rhetoric of modern libertarians was nowhere near how he actually pitched his work.

The young Hayek's major concern was
preventing democratic governments
from falling into totalitarianism
through the necessary social controls
for national economic planning.
Hayek himself considered The Road to Serfdom as an attack on the political movement, common in the totalitarian, the fascist, the authoritarian, and the democratic states of the West, to plan the economy. There really was a strong current in all political parties of the time that the government should nationalize all sectors of the economy and manage the entire country through scientific planning institutions. A centralized bureau would set prices, order manufacturing in all sectors, and distribute goods to the population.

This kind of activity Hayek called socialist, and he explains it as the meaning behind his sarcastic dedication of The Road to Serfdom to “the socialists of all parties.” Contemporary libertarian politics seems to have taken Hayek’s opposition to this kind of massively comprehensive government economic nationalization and planning to apply to any government attempt to regulate economic development, help raise people out of poverty, develop tax systems to combat inequality, or enact sensible environmental legislation and criminalize ecologically destructive activity.

No government (apart perhaps from North Korea) seeks this kind of total control over the economic activity of its entire country anymore. Bruce Caldwell admits as much in his forward, written in 2004. Hayek himself says so in his 1956 introduction. Even by then, the mania for total centralized planning of the entire economy had passed out of popular political consciousness in Western democracies. 

The political pressures of the Cold War probably had more to do with that than Hayek’s work in particular, but the repercussions of Hayek’s influence have gained an equal, if not greater power than the old form of confrontational international politics.

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