…lest you become a Hayekian also.
I laughed when a friend gave me The Road to Serfdom for my birthday. I had been a determinedly vaguely left-wing person for years now, why on earth would I read anything from the high priest of evil capitalism?
“Open-mindedness,” she said. I realised that part of the point of university was the whole ‘challenging preconceptions and considering new ideas’ thing, so decided to make my main man Fred top of the reading list.
Things started well. The introduction was full of irritating lazy capitalist arguments, and dodgy reasoning, and I think until about the second chapter, things stayed that way. I was seething like I hadn’t seethed in a while, which was quite pleasant. Then it all went to pot. Hayek started making sense. His arguments were simple and pretty undeniable, and you couldn’t really resist following their logic inexorably to the conclusion that he was right. I’m sure you’ll appreciate what a world-shaking blow this has been. Not only was I forced to concede that he wasn’t an idiot (I mean, he was only a Nobel Prize winning economist, what does he know?) but that he was also talking a lot of sense.
What helped the most with this was the values and ideals he chose to defend and the disadvantages of collectivism he chose to highlight were not the usual ones. It wasn’t the traditional neo-liberal mantra of “public bad, private good”, not quite. The key advantage of the market, which I hadn’t really considered, and he makes a lot of in the book, is that it is neutral in a way that human power can’t be. So while inequality is always resented, it is easier to bear if it is an the result of impersonal forces than the decision of planners, because they will have had to, for whatever reason, actively choose to disadvantage one person or group in favour of another. I don’t want to get into a paraphrase of the book too much, because my expression of his arguments won’t have the same persuasiveness as his, but the other point I’d like to repeat here was how economic planning is incompatible with democracy. Seeing as economic planning requires a defined goal, it requires a consensus as to what that goal should be which is quite impossible to attain. When democratic politicians fail, as they must, to agree on a plan for the economy, calls are likely to mount to take economic planning out of their hands in favour of a more decisive leader.
But as I say, with room to breathe and develop, his arguments are far stronger, more thorough, and developed, so don’t take my word for it.
I think quite soon I’ll have to look up some leftist critiques of Hayek just to see if I can be brought back into the fold, but at the moment, while my revulsion at right-wing politics persists, I am more suspicious than I’ve been in a while of big-state nationalising socialism (which, in my view, Hayek unfairly equates with all socialism). In fact, I feel an anarchist phase coming on again.
Two other interesting things occurred to me during the book. One is that the majority of the people he quotes to show the worrying political discourse that was taking hold of Europe at the time (with British authors echoing the arguments of their German counterparts twenty years earlier) are entirely unknown to me, while Hayek has clearly lived on. Which made me feel like maybe Hayek was picking on the weak, I don’t know. Keynes went entirely unmentioned, which, considering how frequently they are set up as supreme intellectual adversaries, seems bizarre.
Also, I was struck by the possibility that Hayek would be no more a fan of Thatcher and Cameron than of Attlee and Miliband. Which, in terms of maintaining my vicious political prejudices, was quite reassuring.
Now, I think I am all the more determined to make my detour back into my Premiere French Literature class and resupply at the fountains of Voltaire and Camus. International and national politics are doing my head in and just generally leading me to despair. So I feel like doing a sort of Descartes thing – stripping away everything I’m not really sure I can believe in or support until I reach something I’m absolutely certain of, and then starting again from there.
Or I’ll keep up my attempt to care about football again until I become a legit football fan, and then boom, who needs politics?
“Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
Both of these writers are aware of this, more or less; but since they can show no practicable way of bringing it about the combined effect of their books is a depressing one.”
Review by Orwell: The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek / The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus Observer, 9 April 1944
As ever, Orwell seems right on the money.