08 February 2010

Reading Report: The Road to Serfdom

When I told my libertarian co-worker that I liked the idea of socialism, he didn't even try to argue with me. The next day, he just handed me this book: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek. Though I do appreciate the perspective of this co-worker, it did feel a bit like proselytizing. Still, I could not deny that I was actually excited to read this book. I always tell myself that I should read books of opposing viewpoints to understand the minds of others, but it takes me so long to read that I often wither from my heroics when choosing my next project. Here was a book of historical import, thrust into my hands at a very opportune time, as I was just finishing up The Black Swan. Staring at the cover, I tried to predict the contents, imagining myself with a smirk as I flipped each page, acknowledging and disagreeing with every point. By the time I finished reading the second chapter, this was no longer the case.

Hayek's method is unabashed dismantling of all things collectivist and it is sharply convincing. Though the book was written in 1944 and centers around Germany and Russia as examples of states that started out socialist and crossed a tipping point into totalitarianism, the themes of what is bad about socialism are universal. If I were to sum up the book in a sentence, it would be this: Once you take a single step towards collectivism, each subsequent step begets another until you've given up all your personal freedom to the state. There was a voice in my head the whole time, downplaying the author's alarmist slippery slope logic, but I could not get myself to deny its truth. Sprinkled between the shredded ruins of socialist ideology, Hayek reinforces his points with solid liberal principles that claim to do nothing but protect a few precious things: life, liberty and individual sovereignty.

Collectivism is the result of a society that is not content to put up with the petty inconveniences of individualism. They say, "Competition has taken us this far, but we can only become a higher society if we organize toward a common good." I admit that I was at this specific state of mind when I wrote my diatribe against capitalism last year (that nobody read because it was 3500 words). I had just watched Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" and was seething with hatred toward corporations and banks who seemed to have hijacked our state and economy. What I did not realize at the time was that these monopolistic entities had come to power with the help of anti-competitive measures, un-liberal loopholes bored into the legislature. I feel now that my reaction should not have been to embrace socialism, but to point out the flaws in our capitalist system that go against liberal principles.

The main point that Hayek tries to get through is that individual freedom is more important than any other cause. When I came to understand this, I felt like I had just betrayed an old friend. I have always identified myself as a liberal, holding individual freedom above all other virtues, but I had been seduced by my own idealized selflessness. I had felt that, through socialism, I could share the benefits to which I am privy with those who need them and cannot afford it. I had seen socialism as a group effort to get our future headed in the right direction, but Hayek sees it much, much differently.

First, we observe, collectivism is a march toward a common goal, but we cannot be convinced that this goal will satisfy everyone who is obligated to carry the burden. It is one thing to be screwed by fortune, it is quite another to be screwed by the state. Second, a greater equality requires arbitrary treatment of all individuals, which is a flagrant offense to the Rule of Law. In a liberal society, the Rule of Law (rule, in the sense that a king rules a kingdom) is a state in which laws and their implications are known beforehand so that an individual can make a judgment on whether to obey them or not. In a society where the Rule of Law is ineffective, individuals are subject to arbitrary charges, with arbitrary consequences, for arbitrary causes. Third, financial planning (from the government perspective) is necessary to escape the "inconveniences" of liberal capitalism. That is, in order to ensure stability, we must take a measured approach to market entry, wages and regulations. The reality of this is that there is no way to plan just a little; it eventually becomes a total conversion, with measures being taken in every area to batten down the hatches. Planning leads to complete financial oversight by the state, which is no more stable than capitalism and far less fun. Finally, factoring that socialism takes power away from the individual and gives it to the state, and that socialism is a reaction against slow-moving democracy, a typical socialist leader will be one who claims to be able to plain get things done. Beware this man, as the ends always justify the means to a government that subsists on collective groupthink.

During the reading of this book, I picked a few fights with this viewpoint to get some arguments on the record. Many responses centered around the success of small "democratic" socialist societies scattered throughout the world, but nobody could point to a current socialist country of any consequence that wasn't currently corrupt. While Wikipedia lists only a few countries as socialist, there are socialist policies that exist in many democratic governments. Some, like Iran, appear from the outside as republics, but are run internally by too-powerful governments. As I examined each of Hayek's points on socialism, I recalled some stirring similarities in the methods invoked by George W. Bush's administration of the USA. Recently, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals, my alarm was so great that I couldn't even piece together a blog post without sounding like a crazed conspiracy theorist. When I take a look at the free world imagined under classical liberalism, I start to regret ever hoping for the government to protect me from the evil corporations. They are becoming one and the same.

When I asked my co-worker about the Supreme Court ruling and what it means for lobbyists and their influence on government, his response surprised me. I was expecting him to be as livid as I was about the ruling, but his focus was really where it should be. He gave a good example of what all liberals should be focused on: the basics, the big picture, the principles. He said, "It isn't the ruling that worries me. It wouldn't mean anything if the politicians didn't have so much power in the first place." And so I realized my initial error of reacting to the issue instead of referring to the lesson of the ideology. As a course of action, we should not be trying to counter the law. We should be fighting for our voice to be heard, to re-establish this country as a democratic republic with representatives of the people, not the power.