On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.


A short note on the Holy Roman Empire, “democracy,” and institutions

At the heart of Europe […] lay a hugely complex and fragmented political entity which resisted the ‘modernizing’ trend of national state formation, and preserved medieval arrangements conceived as rooted in antiquity: the Holy Roman Empire. After three decades of bloodshed retrospectively known as the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), the Empire had achieved a somewhat precarious equilibrium in which hundreds of semi-autonomous imperial estates co-existed under the loose authority of an emperor and a college of princes. Disparaged as a multi-headed monster by many […,] for Leibniz the Holy Roman Empire remained a preferable alternative to national and absolutist states. In his mind, the Empire offered an ideal of shared sovereignty in which limited territorial autonomy could be combined with a central imperial authority, and the main Christian confessions could cohabit peacefully in a balanced, representative Reichstag. Alongside his more famous works on logic, metaphysics, and mathematics, Leibniz wrote innumerable memos and proposals advising rulers on how to strengthen and re-order the Empire into a stable, supra-national political structure which could protect and promote common interests while maintaining local self-determination in territories and imperial free cities. In short, Leibniz regarded political unity in diversity under a supra-national authority as a better path to peace, prosperity, and stability in Europe than the ascendancy of competing national states.

This is from Maria Rosa Antognazza, a philosopher at King’s College London, writing for Oxford University Press’s blog.  (h/t Barry) Check out this map of the outline of the Holy Roman Empire in 1600 AD (it is superimposed onto the outlines of today’s European states):


It reminded me of this map I produced a couple of years ago showing the GDP (PPP) per capita of administrative units in Europe. What the map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

And here is a map, thanks to Vincent, of GDP per capita in European regions. What his map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

Wow, right? Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic are poor today, but the rest of what was once the Holy Roman Empire is very prosperous. So, two lines of thought here. One, socialism is really bad for people. It not only destroys economies and political and civil liberties, it also destroys institutions.

The second line of thought is to wonder aloud a bit more about institutions and their long-term viability. The first question that needs to addressed is “what are institutions?” Today, many scholars use “democracy” and “property rights” as generic answers when explaining to the general public what good institutions are, and they are not wrong, but they don’t do justice to the concept of democracy (or property rights, for that matter). I think a better term might be “representativeness,” or “constitutionalism,” or “republicanism.” Anything but “democracy.” Democracy implies rule of the people, but this doesn’t describe what has happened in the West, in regards to political equality and economic growth (both are uneven, but undeniably real).

“Democracy” sounds better than “political institutions favoring separation of powers and coalition-building in parliamentary settings, as well as the inclusion of people who don’t pull the levers of statecraft (through the voting mechanism),” but this shorthand has obvious negative unintended consequences: many a demagogue will use the term democracy to mean something quite different from what actual self-governance requires institutionally.

There is more to the Holy Roman Empire than just path dependency (albeit stretched to its limits). For instance, you’d have to explore why representative institutions in the HRE eventually failed. My quick guess would be that HRE’s neighbors (Russian Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, Scandinavian kingdoms) were pretty ruthless and thus made it impossible for more formal constitutional institutions to take deep root and flourish in the heart of Europe. Instead, because of HRE’s unruly neighbors, the Empire was forever in flux between a loose alliance of petty states and a confederation.

Minarchism, Anarchism, and Democracy: A Shared Challenge

Minarchism–basically as small a government as we can get away with–is probably the most economically efficient possible way to organize society. A night watchman state providing courts of last resort and just enough military to keep someone worse from taking over.

The trouble (argues my inner anarchist) is that if we’ve got a government–an organization allowed to force/forbid behaviors–we’re already on the slippery slope to abuse of powers through political trading. Without an entrenched culture that takes minarchism seriously it’s only a matter of time before a) the state grows out of control and you’re no longer in a minarchist Utopia, or b) a populace unwilling to do their part allows violent gangs to fill the power vacuum.

Having a government at all is a risky proposition from the perspective of someone worried about the abuse of that power. Better not to risk it at all.

Anarchism relies on the right culture in a similar way. This is clear to critics of anarchism (basically it’s just the minarchists who are willing to take anarchists seriously at all) and is the crux of an important argument against anarchism. Without the right culture, what’s to stop people from just creating some new government? Nothing at all.

In fact, we face the same problem in the military-industrial-nanny-state complex of our imperfect real world. For any government–or lack of government–to work, the ideological framework of the people living in that society has to line up properly. To the extent people are ignorant, distracted, short-sighted, biased, or mean-spirited, we get governance that reflects those flaws.

If we want to live in a better world, we can argue all day about what sort of government we do or don’t want. But ultimately we have to work on improving the culture, because the median voter is still in charge.

Nazism: left or right?

One of the greatest controversies on the Brazilian internet these last few days was to define Nazism as either left-wing or right-wing. I even wrote something about it in Portuguese, and although I really tried my best not to be controversial, I was amazed by how divisive the issue seems to be. So here is my view on this issue, now in English.

Is Nazism a left or right wing political movement? The first thing I believe we need to consider to answer this question is what is right and left? The answer (surprisingly simple in my view) is that right and left are words. Words are signs we use to describe things, but as (I guess) most linguists will say, words don’t have any objective connection to the things they describe. For example, there’s no special connection between the word “cat” and that fluffy animal that drinks milk and chases rats. It is just a convention that in the English language we call that animal “cat,” and not “alligator” or “hot dog.”

However, when we say that there is no objective connection between words and stuff, that doesn’t mean that words are simply random. Words only work in a linguistic context, so there is no use calling a cat anything else if you want to communicate properly. The English language (as any other language, except for Esperanto) was not invented by any specific person. Languages are actually a spontaneous order, something that economists in the Austrian School really enjoy talking about. So, if you want to communicate well, you have to join the party (or the conversation).

With all that said, we need to admit that the word most often used to describe Nazism politically is right-wing. Actually, far-right. The point in discussion (that so many people in Brazil just don’t seem to get) is if this description makes any sense. You see, other groups classified as right-wing are conservatives and liberals (classical liberals, to be more precise). So the question is: why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common? Going back to the example of the cat, there is a reason why you can call both a lion and a tiger a cat (or a feline): they both share several characteristics. It may be just at the eye of the beholder (although evolutionary biologists will say something different), but a lion has much more to do with a tiger than with a frog. So it seems fair to include lions and tigers in a small group where frogs don’t belong. So, the question is: is it fair to include conservatives, classical liberals and Nazis in the same group? Why?

I know there are reasons why all these groups are generally classified together. I know that left and right are terms that go back to the French Revolution. I know how these terms are generally used. All I’m saying (with Friedrich Hayek, David Nolan, and many others) is that we should reconsider the way we typically classify political groups.

Dinosaurs were classified as reptiles. And then people realized they were closer to birds. I guess it was a shock when someone first said that a Velociraptor has more to do with a chicken than with a Komodo dragon, but it seems to me (as an outsider of paleontology) that this is common wisdom now. Similarly, maybe we should have the courage to reconsider the way we classify Nazis. Leftists, of course, won’t like this. But neither do conservatives like being called fascists. Are leftists tasting their bitter medicine? Maybe. But I believe they should give us a good explanation why Nazis should be considered right-wing. I haven’t heard any.

Is Socialism Really Revolutionary?

A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).

I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.

This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.

According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.

Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”

Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.

Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.

Some Thoughts on Best of Enemies

I’ve been making an unnatural effort to stay abrest of American politics the last few months and I’m reaching the end of my rope. A while back I added Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal to my queue, and now seemed like a good time to watch it. I don’t know much about either but based on some vague recollection of offhanded comments by older professors, I expected I would be watching political discussion with class and/or depth.

I would not. 

While both are eloquent and poetical, neither seemed to offer much more than insults for each other. Their bickering was entertaining. But it was not enlightening. They were a fancier version of a modern poli-tainmemt show. 

The world’s definitely going to hell in a hand basket, but it always has been.

Update: I just finished the movie. The producers have a clear message: Buckley/Vidal was the beginning of the end. They are ending the documentary with clips of both men expressing skepticism at the wisdom of their now famous 1968 debates.

Vidal (in the 10th debate):

I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they’re set up, there’s almost no interchange of ideas, very little, even, of personality. There’s also the terrible thing about this medium that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of somebody, and they think that they’ve figured out just what he’s like by seeing him on television. 

Buckley (in some other context):

Does television ruin America? There is an implicit conflict if interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.

There’s also a clip from this gem:

Update 2: I fixed some grammar and missing words after initially posting… Still figuring out the Android app for WordPress…

The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience II

Some months ago I posted a text on the connection of the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. About it, fellow Notewriter Mark Koyama tweeted:

“Disagree or at least the effect of the Reformation on freedom of conscience was indirect. Just read Luther or Calvin on religious freedom!”

I’m not sure what he means. What should I read that Luther or Calvin wrote? Please, be more specific. I read a lot of Calvin and a little of Luther, but I maintain my point: there is a strong connection between the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. I may, however, agree that this connection is indirect.

When Max Weber connected the protestant ethics to the “spirit” of capitalism, he was very careful to say the following: John Calvin and Martin Luther couldn’t care less about economics. The salvation of the soul, and only that, was their concern. Nevertheless, the ideas they preached set in motion a process that resulted in the development of modern capitalism. My observation about the connection between the Protestant Reformation and Freedom of Conscience is similar to that: maybe we will not be able to find in Luther or Calvin an advocacy of what we understand today as freedom of conscience. But it is my firm understanding that we will find in them the seeds for it. Actually, it’s more than that: we would find the seeds for it in Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he already established the separation of church and state. The Apostle Peter did the same when he said that “it is more important to obey God than men”, and so did the Apostle Paul when he established limits to the power of secular authorities in his epistle to the Romans. We could go even further and find seed to it in the prophet Samuel, when he warned the people of Israel of the potential tyranny of kings. All this was somehow lost when, from Constantine to Theodosius I, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and also when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. The wall between church and state was severally breached.

So, again, I never actually said that John Calvin or Martin Luther were, to our modern standards, champions of religious freedom. That’s a statement I never made. Both were opposites of the Anabaptist and wrote extensively against them. Granted, some Anabaptists were very much the 16th century version of ISIS (important! I’m in no way putting an equal sign between these two groups! Please, don’t misread what I write), and I’m actually really happy those two opposed them. But other Anabaptists were peaceful (such as the Mennonites) and suffered along. We can also mention the bitter opposition Luther had to Jews at one point in his life. But regardless. What I said is that the religious freedom we enjoy in our world today is to a great degree a product of the Protestant Reformation. As much else in history, this is not a clear cut transformation, but a gradual one.

What I proposed was technically a counterfactual: no Protestant Reformation, no freedom of conscience as we know today. Of course, history has one big problem with counterfactuals: we can never rewind the tape of history and then play it again changing just one detail. But I believe that, as much as we can compare History to a more empirical discipline, we can say that without the Protestant Reformation we would not know freedom of conscience as we know today. As I mentioned in my first post, this was not a clear cut passage in history. When we talk about causality in history, very few things are. What I meant is that the Protestant Reformation was to a major degree the breaking point that lead to our modern understanding of freedom of conscience.

But what was the Protestant Reformation, anyway? The Protestant Reformation was mainly a religious movement in Western Europe that lead to the break of the unity of Western Christianity. It was not a perfectly cohesive movement. When we talk about “Protestants”, the group that best fits this description are some Lutheran princes that “protested” against the anti-Lutheran policies in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1520s. But very soon the name protestant began to be used to describe any non-catholic group that appeared in Western Europe in the 16th century. From that we have four main protestant groups: Lutherans (called simply evangelicals in Germany and other areas in Europe), Reformed (or Calvinists, after the major influence of John Calvin over this sect), Anabaptists and Anglicans (who sometime don’t even like to be called protestants).

Martin Luther and John Calvin may have been the great stars of the reformation, but they were most certainly not alone. Just to mention a few, we can remember Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer William Farel, Thomas Cranmer and John Knox as great leaders of the reformation. These men were united in their opposition to the Pope in Rome, but had many disagreements among them. Certainly they knew what united them and where they disagreed. But they were not wish-wash about what they believed. But still we can notice the desire to tolerate differences and unite on essentials. Philip Melanchthon, a great friend to Martin Luther and also a great early Lutheran theologian would be an excellent example of this attitude. Zacharius Ursinus, the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism would fit just well.

Extremely early on in the history of the Reformation we have Martin Luther on the Diet of Worms stating that “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Yeah, some people may contest that he never uttered these words, and that the whole episode is but a myth. Regardless, it came to encompass the spirit of the Reformation as few other moments.

Some may say that I have a very stretchy definition of the Reformation, but in general, when I think about it, I define it chronologically as a period that goes from Luther to the Westminster Standards, so, about a century and a half of religious transformations in Europe. In that way, Luther was just the start of this religious movement. Calvin was already a second generation reformer. Many theologians would follow in the next century or so. Each one would build on the knowledge of the previous generation, coming, among other things, closer to our modern understanding of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. That’s why we may be unable to find much about religious freedom in Luther or Calvin (as Mark seems to claim in his tweet), but we already find a whole chapter on it in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Between Luther and the Westminster Assembly we had many notable events. For instance, the Augsburg Peace of 1555, that already granted some level of religious freedom to Catholics and Lutherans in Germany. It was not a perfect agreement, so much so that it couldn’t avoid the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), ended by the Peace of Westphalia. This peace agreement took religious liberty to a new level. Very importantly, as Daniel Philpott already observed: no Protestant Reformation, no Thirty Years War, no Peace of Westphalia, no International Relations as we know today. I could add no secular states and no religious freedom and freedom of conscience as we know today. We also had the English Reformation, with the Puritan Reformation in between. From England to the other side of the Atlantic the story was even more interesting, with puritans and nonconformist seeking for a place where they could exercise their religion freely.

I’d like to remember also that one of the mottos of the Reformation was “Ecclesia semper reformanda est,” the church must always be reformed. There is a classical period of the Reformation, stretching from the 16th to the 17th century, or from Luther’s 95 Theses to the Westminster Standards. But the Reformed (or more broadly, protestant) churches didn’t stop there. We still have important developments in protestant theology in the following centuries, and even today. Maybe John Calvin and Martin Luther are not the best way to look for a broader version of freedom of conscience. But the religious movement they helped to start, building on their foundations, helped more than anything I can think of to establish what we know today as freedom of conscience. In my last post I mentioned John Wesley. But I could just as well mention William Penn, Roger Williams and many others. William Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania, to where many people (Catholics included) fled in search of freedom of conscience. Roger Williams, a Baptist, was the original source for the concept of “wall of separation” between church and state, that years later, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson would quote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

Anyway: as I mentioned several times already, very few changes in history are clear cut. It is also pretty trick to identify causality in history. But I believe that, as far as we can go with that, the Protestant Reformation was a major changing point to what we have today as freedom of conscience, a freedom as basic as one can get in a classic liberal society.