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.

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“Apparently they have been whispering while others have been shouting obscenities and interrupting guest speakers.”

This is an observation found in the ‘comments’ threads of economist Mark Perry’s blog, Carpe Diem, on a post he did about the reaction of students at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to their president’s remarks about Donald Trump.

(I’m not going to summarize it here, because you are all probably familiar with this storyline. You can read Perry’s whole post here.)

I wanted to highlight that this comment basically summed up my political experience on campus. I am by no means a conservative, but there was no way in hell I was going to pipe up in class discussions on alternative understandings of “neoliberalism” or even play the role of contrarian. Doing so would have hurt my GPA. It would have resulted in a loss of social standing. It would have invited accusations that I was racist, or sexist, or – gasp! – conservative.

So instead I started this blog and talked about sports or homework with my peers.

My guess is the guy who left this comment was a libertarian or conservative in college back in the 70s or 80s. Michelangelo recently blogged about his experience on campus, but has anyone else found that this is the norm on campuses in the West?

I understand that conservative and libertarian groups like to get obnoxious sometimes, by carrying out public demonstrations like “affirmative action bake sales” or whatever, but the fact that these don’t work (they do help promote a culture of toleration on campuses, albeit in an indirect manner, so I guess I should be thankful for that, but if this is the case then the drum-beating and chanting done by Leftists on campus does the same thing for me in this regard) in convincing the other side of their wrongness suggests that the quiet whisperers are the better thinkers.

Liberty or “Security”: An Old Debate, A Familiar Straw Man

Ho hum. Jacques wants his government to do three things in the name of fighting Muslim terrorism (not to be confused with other, more numerous kinds of terrorism): 1) allow for an armed, perpetually-on-alert military to be active on US soil, 2) allow for a surveillance state that can do as it pleases in regards to Muslims only, and 3) initiate ideological quotas for Muslim immigrants.

The entire ‘comments’ thread is well worth reading, too. Dr Amburgey, who came from the same doctoral program as Jacques, brings the quantitative fire; Dr Khawaja, the qualitative. Jacques has responded to each of them.

The absurdity of Delacroix’ argument speaks for itself. I will come back to it shortly, but first I want to address a couple of his points that are simply made in bad faith. Observe:

(Yes, Mohammed did behead every man of a vanquished enemy tribe on the battlefield. Incidentally, they were Jews. The Prophet then “married ” their wives, he raped them, in others words. Bad example? Talk about this genuine part of Muslim tradition?)

Murdering and raping Jews is a “Muslim tradition”? I am sure this is news to Uighurs in China and the Javanese of Indonesia. I think there is a good case to be made for a present-day Arab cultural chauvinism that rests in part on what could be called “Muslim tradition,” but this is not a nuance that Jacques – the retired college professor – cares to address. I wonder why. If we’re going to go back to the 7th century to find cultural defects, can anybody think of something nasty that was going on in what is now France at the time? In what is now the US? What an odd historical anecdote to include in an argument.

Here, too, is another whopper:

One article of faith among literalist Muslims is that government must come from God. That’s why the Supreme Leader of the Shiite Islamic Republic is explicitly a cleric, couldn’t be an elected civilian or a general. This belief also explains the search for a Caliphate among Sunni jihadists, a polity where administrative and religious powers are one and the same.

What is a “literalist Muslim”? Nevermind. The government of Iran, its structure, is based on Plato’s Republic, not the Qur’an. The “Supreme Leader” Jacques identifies is based on the notion of a philosopher-king, not a Shiite cleric. This was done to protect the new dictatorship from its many enemies, including those loyal to the old dictatorship (the one supported by the United States; the one that Washington installed after helping to remove a democratically-elected Leftist government during the Cold War). The rhetoric of the Iranian dictatorship is explicitly religious, but in reality it’s just plain, old-fashioned despotism.

In a similar vein, “Sunni jihadists” (to use Jacques’ term) do not search for a Caliphate because of a belief that government should come from God, but instead look to a mythical Caliphate that they believe existed from the 7th to early 20th centuries as inspiration for creating a society that cannot be pushed around by murderous Western governments. Pretending that Arab Sunnis want to create a Caliphate in order to strengthen the link between government and God can only be described as “dishonest” when it comes from the mouth of a sociologist with a doctorate from Stanford.

At best, it could be argued that Jacques is simply making these types of points because they are pervasive throughout American society, and thus we – as libertarians of all stripes – have our work cut out for us. Now that I think about it, Jacques’ argument is so silly that it has to be an exercise in critical thinking. Nobody of his stature could say something so stupid, right?

Those are just two examples of, uh, the misrepresentation of reality by Jacques. There are many more, and I don’t think he got those myths from an academic journal. He got them from Fox News. That’s not good. That means libertarians are not taking advantage of their right to free speech, like conservatives and Leftists do. Why aren’t you blogging more often?

I’d like to turn back to his policy proposals. Here they are again:

  1. an armed, perpetually-on-alert military on US soil,
  2. a surveillance state that can do as it pleases in regards to Muslims only, and
  3. ideological quotas for Muslim immigrants.

The first two proposals look like they were copied directly from the playbook of the Third Reich (I hope you’ll reprimand me in the ‘comments’ section if you think I am being overly dramatic, or strawmanning Jacques’ argument). Just replace “US” with “Germany” and “Muslims” with “Jews” and voila, you have an answer for your Muslim (“Jewish”) problem. (RE Policy #3: National socialists, of course, don’t like anybody immigrating to their territories, whereas Jacques, in his infinite kindness and wisdom, seeks only to allow those who think like him into his territory.)

Again, Jacques’ argument is silly. It is both vulgar and unintelligent. It is misinformed. And yet I have to ask: Who is winning the PR battle here, conservatives on the one side or left-liberals and libertarians on the other?

Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping toward destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interest of everyone hangs on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.

That’s from Ludwig von Mises, the libertarian Austrian (and Jewish) economist who had to flee his homeland as the Third Reich took power. Speak your mind!

From the Comments: Intervention, Blowback, and Bad Faith

I find the debate they’re having somewhat confused. Your response to Kling is on the right track, but I would question the terms of the debate from the outset.

The relevant question is whether US intervention produces armed resistance, and whether that resistance counts as blowback. It does, on both counts. Whether that resistance/blowback counts as “terrorism” by some narrow definition is really beside the point. And whether the resistance is morally justified is yet another issue altogether.

Kling mentions US intervention in Latin America and claims that there’s been no “terrorism” in response. How would he characterize the Cuban-Soviet precipitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a response to the Bay of Pigs invasion? Soviet positioning of nuclear weapons system was meant to strike fear in us (and did). “Fear” is a synonym for “terror.” The Cuban-Soviet policy was a response to our intervention. That’s blowback.

Re Asia, you’re right to adduce the Saigon counterexample you come up with, but that understates the relevant point. The relevant point is that the whole Tet Offensive was blowback for our intervention! The NVA and Vietcong may not have attacked the mainland of the US, but they killed more Americans than Al Qaida did, so again, I don’t see the point of a narrow fixation on a particular tactic, terrorism.

While we’re at it, why not try US intervention in…the US? Think Wounded Knee 1973 and generally, the armed confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the FBI in the mid 1970s (which most Americans regarded as terrorism on the part of the Indians). AIM regarded Indian reservations as occupied land and acted in kind. That was blowback for our Indian policy.

This is not to deny that terrorism can arise from causes unrelated to blowback or perceived blowback. Nor is it to deny that Islamist terrorism may have distinctive features. But it’s very misleading to suggest that Middle Eastern terrorism is sui generis, and confusing to distinguish “Middle East” and “Asia,” as you correctly point out in your post.

This is from Dr Khawaja (of Policy of Truth infamy). I found the dialogue somewhat confusing, too. I think the fact that economists, who are used to thinking in terms of costs and benefits, were stepping outside of their comfort zones (something I wish more of them would do, by the way) goes a long way towards explaining why there is so much confusion.

Yet I also think that there is much to learn from narrowing the terms of the debate. Kling wants to talk about “terror” rather than “armed resistance,” and I think it’s good to meet him on his own terms. This way it is easier to knock down ignorant arguments for all to see. Dr Khawaja broke down a complex misunderstanding (or simply Kling’s bad faith) in a straightforward manner, but sometimes I find that arguing on Mr Bad Faith’s own terms  – knowing full well that his argument is being made in bad faith – leads to useful outcomes. Jacques, for example, has become noticeably less hawkish since he first tried to pick on me. He has not necessarily become more dovish mind you, but he has become much more cautious about promoting US militarism abroad.

Sasquatch and Liberal Academe

I have spent thirty years in academia as a teacher and as a scholar. If you count the embarrassingly long periods I was a student, it adds up to much more time. After retiring, I am full of thoughts and ideas about academia. I feel almost no remorse at all but there is a lot of regret in my heart. It’s regret about what I did not do, mostly. Much of it is regret about the times I kept my mouth shut. I also feel retrospective curiosity. Strangely, the curiosity is growing with the years from my last day in academia. Much of the curiosity is about the following issue:

Why do very intelligent, cultured, well-informed people do and say strikingly stupid things?

Before I spout off anymore about academia, I must make clear my position about Sasquatch, the elusive, giant northern American forest ape. It’s sometimes quite unscientifically referred to as “Bigfoot,” or “Big Foot.” Worry not, the two lines of pondering in this essay will soon merge, I can assure you. At any rate, I think there is no Sasquatch. I am sorry that is what I think. I hope I am wrong. I would be glad to turn on a dime on that one, as soon as the evidence warrants.

I have a former colleague, a man younger than I who is a full professor in the best school of one of the best universities in the world. The man is pretty much an academic star. By the way, I am well-placed to know that his stardom is well deserved. It’s not always true of academic stardom. Some academic stars have skillfully manipulated themselves into their reknown on the basis of absurdly inflated modest intellectual achievements. Often, it’s absurdly inflated, thin achievements associated with a super-normal capacity for being seen at academic conferences. (I could name names but this time around, I won’t.) I can’t resist a digression here: It used to be said that Stalin became dictator of the Soviet Union because he would stay after the meetings to sweep the room when the Bolsheviks were illegal. The very fact that it’s possible to fake scholarly star quality at all is a potent sociological commentary on academia in itself. Continue reading