Ever since the election, I, like many of my fellow Democrats, have been trying to make sense of just what the hell happened. It’s clear to me that I, like many of my fellow Democrats, have been completely asleep at the wheel. So I’ve taken it upon myself to embark on a crash course in political science. I’m starting with Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For no particular reason except that, of all the books I requested from the library, it arrived first. And, of course, it’s clear (to me, anyway) that I need to understand Neoliberalism better.
I’m not yet done with the book. But my initial reaction is that The Road to Serfdom just doesn’t hold up very well. First of all, Hayek equates Socialism with a planned economy. That may be partially true. But I would argue that what he means is actually Soviet-style Communism, not Socialism. Perhaps that’s merely a semantic shift that’s happened in the 60 years since the book was written.
Second, the way Hayek discusses a planned economy is absurdly all-or-nothing: the entire economy is planned or none of it is. Which is patently ridiculous, both practically and theoretically. Look at, for example, Sweden and France: these are what I’ve seen called “mixed economies,” where some areas of the economy are planned and some are not. Indeed, Hayek himself even discusses some areas in which market competition breaks down, such as, “certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories,” and government regulation is necessary. He would perhaps say unfortunately necessary, but he is quite clear that central control is necessary in some cases. Now, Hayek was no dummy, he clearly understood that mixed economies are possible. And yet in the rest of the book he treats a planned economy as some sort of monolithic thing. Like I said, I’m not done with the book yet. So I’m not sure what’s going on here. Is this just sloppy thinking on Hayek’s part? I kind of doubt it. Or is he engaging in some sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and I simply haven’t gotten to the part where the other shoe drops?
Finally, Hayek’s use of the word “freedom” is troublesome. He draws a distinction between “freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men” and “freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us.” In other words, freedom from authority vs. freedom from want. Hayek sets these definitions of freedom in opposition, the former being what he calls liberalism, the latter socialism. Now, I’ll grant you, the Founders probably meant the former when they were drafting up the foundational documents of the United States. But they were breaking away from a king, pretty much the ultimate in human authority. I would argue that in the early 21st century, that notion of freedom is not tenable, and maybe it never was. Yes, certainly, everyone should be free of duress. But let’s face it, anyone who has a boss is subject to the arbitrary power of other men. Anyone who interacts with another person in a position of authority is subject to the arbitrary power of other men. Anyone who interacts with another person, period, is subject to the arbitrary power of other men. I would even go so far as to argue that Hayek’s version of freedom from authority is not even possible in a world that has, you know, other people in it.
Not to mention the fact that there’s coercion and there’s coercion. I mean, there’s coercion by force, or duress. But there’s also the softer coercion of social structures. If you didn’t have to go to work every day to put food on the table and a roof over your head, would you? You could make a pretty fair argument that social structures are coercive by their very nature. So, given that other people exist, and we all live in society, Hayek’s freedom from authority is really a pipe dream. It may be that Hayek’s freedom from want is also a pipe dream: living in society creates “the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us”. But at least that’s a tractable problem. We may never be able to entirely eliminate poverty and want, but there’s certainly no shortage of empirically solid mechanisms for moving in that direction. And again, Hayek was no dummy, he surely understood this, even if efforts in poverty reduction were not as well-developed in his time. So again, I have to wonder, is Hayek just being sloppy, or is he leading his reader down the garden path?