Who’s Afraid of Friedrich Hayek?

A favorite essay.

TODAY, THESE observations are merely obvious. Yet it is worth pointing out that Hayek understood at least one very big thing: that the vision of a perfectible society leads inevitably to the gulag. Experience should have taught us by now that human societies are jerry-built structures, rickety towers of ad hoc solutions to unforeseen problems. Their development is evolutionary, and as in biological evolution, they do not have natural end-states. They are what they are continuously becoming. Comprehensive models of how society should work reject the wisdom of solutions that work and deny the legitimacy (indeed, from Lenin to Mussolini to Mao to Ho to Castro to Qutb, deny the very right to exist) of individuals who demonstrate anti-orthodox wisdom. Defenders of these models are required by their own rigidity to invent the category of the counterrevolutionary.

To Hayek, this is what socialism, communism, and collectivism—he makes little distinction between them—mean: the dangerous illusion of perfectibility. The only kind of socialism he considers in Road is state-managed, perfect-society utopianism, in which the direction of the economy and all of its inputs and outputs are planned, with the accompanying political and moral degradation that Hayek demonstrates quite convincingly. In many ways, the warnings in Road prefigure those in 1984 and have the same intimate feel for the totalitarian state. This focus on state-led socialism should not be particularly surprising in 1944, and perhaps Hayek (like Arthur Koestler, in a different but not unrelated way) deserves some credit for warning European idealists about the true meaning of the major romantic movement of the postwar period. But other visions of socialism, and other socialistic traditions, were certainly available to Hayek when he wrote. The absence of any consideration of more libertarian, less top-down approaches (the socialisms of Luxembourg, Kropotkin, Proudhon, many others; or of the possibility of nontotalitarian models of social democracy, like those that emerged in Europe after the war) should alert the reader to Hayek’s limitations. Admittedly, Kropotkin’s ideas had little impact on the world of 1944, Stalin’s a great deal.

The omission of these other viewpoints is important nowadays, because Hayek’s ideological descendants often assume, either sincerely or disingenuously, that in a world very different from that of 1944, socialism by definition still means state control of the economy in the interest of perfecting social relations. To Hayek, as to such diverse right-wingers as Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher, William F. Buckley, Thomas Sowell, or Phil Gramm, collectivism is defined as something imposed and policed by the state. It is the Borg Hive, the submersion of individual will and agency to the greater good.

For thoughtful democratic socialists, this line of attack is surely an amusing or infuriating distraction. Yes, when they feel like it, right-wingers can dig up someone like “Maoist economist” Raymond Lotta of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who will argue that a completely planned economy is more efficient and more just than the market. Former leftist turned left-basher David Horowitz, for example, loves to do this kind of thing, in the same way that Dinesh D’Souza, with equal intellectual seriousness, recently blamed the attacks of September 11, 2001, on cultural liberalism. But how relevant is the RCP to the ongoing American political debate? Does it represent any school of democratic socialism? The RCP quite explicitly despises liberal democracy.

Dissent Magazine: Who’s Afraid of Friedrich Hayek? The Obvious Truths and Mystical Fallacies of a Hero of the Right

3 Comments

  1. This is laughable stuff as an account of Hayek’s actual work.

    Laughable.

    This writer has never read Hayek. Or no more than 5 or 6 words of his work.

    Laughable. Laughably inaccurate. Laughably unengaged with Hayek’s actual words and works.

    Laughable.

  2. Ransom, you write like a libertarian.

  3. Nuh-Uh!

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