Comparing fruits

I have been reading The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich August Hayek recently, quite a reasonable book I find, though one, like John Locke’s work on education, that seems to have suffered the peculiar fate that its ideas have become so influential and entrenched that now they seem anodyne and commonplace. In order to retrench their merit, it perhaps helps to remember that, just as Rousseau was arguing 100 years after Locke that the best education for children was to let them run free through the woodlands (much as perhaps Rousseau’s own abandoned children did), so Paul Samuelson’s book Economics, undoutedly the most influential American economics textbook of the last half-century, in every edition up to the late ’80’s claimed that the Soviet Union proved the capacity of a command economy for dynamism and growth. And so the Haykian thesis that not only prosperity depends upon economic autonomy and the free allocation of resources but also political freedom continues to be well-taken. However, two subsidiary issues trouble me from the very beginning, quite apart from my uneasiness with the vagueness of his terminology, particularly grandiose and multi-faceted terms like “power” and “freedom,” which particularly when discussing complicated historical phenomena make almost any position endlessly debateable. However, I am at pains to reconcile myself to it by keeping in mind that the work is largely polemical, a political pamphlet more than a detailed discussion.

I can’t think of a relatively politically free society that is not commensurately economically liberal, but I am not sure that political freedom is a necessary pre-condition of economic liberalism. Hayek seems to imply that it is when he says of Europe’s commercial development: “The…elaboration of a consistent argument in favor of economic freedom was the outcome of a free growth of economic activity which had been the undesigned and unforseen by-product of political freedom.” Even in connection with this particular case this is quite a debateable point, and while I might agree that British commercial growth, especially in Scotland, did largely follow upon political liberalization and greater autonomy for regions and citizens, for Europe as a whole I think it is considerably less true. The first true commercial state in Europe was the Byzantine Empire, which was as oppressive intellectually and politically as any in the world, with its absolute imperial despotism and rabid enforcement of Christian orthodoxy. The commercial states of Italy largely came about due to its subsequent collapse and the disappearance of Constantinople as the world’s great center of trade. Because the Italian city-states were (at least technically) subject politically to the Holy Roman Empire through the 17th century and intellectually and financially to the Catholic Church, it was only with the money that they received from trade that they were able to fight or pay off their feudal and ecclesiastical enemies. Thus political freedom certainly accompanied the growth of free trade, but it could hardly be called an antecedent. And as a general statement, I think there are even more profound challenges to the theory. The great example today is of course China.

It seems to me that the Chinese have become more free since the advent of the market there (though no doubt less than was hoped), and that this will continue as the country becomes wealthier, if nothing else because money is power in a commercial society and power can obtain a degree of freedom. One might even speculate that if political liberalization does not continue apace then economic growth will slow or even stall. Right now I think the Chinese economy is still in replicant phase, largely reproducing technology and models that already exist in the West. With a certain base of competency and a concentration of resources and energy this is in some ways the simplest phase of economic expansion–even the Soviet Union industrialized in about a decade under Stalin’s lash. But without a great deal of latitude for entrepreneurs this will not probably be sustainable when one gets to the stage of the Western nations, where continued growth depends largely on invention and experimentation. But whether this be or no, political freedom cannot be held to be an antecedent, much less the cause of the economic explosion, even if the market inherently means a degree of freedom in economic affairs.

The second issue is not really an empirical one, but more a matter of valuation. Hayek is very keen to note the importance of individualism for both economic prosperity and political freedom, even going so far as to call it the essential feature of Western civilization, which is true as far as it goes but is still much over-simplified. In any case, he particularly notes Britain and the Low Countries as being for a long time the firmest bastions of individualism in the world. On a personal note, however, I have been to Britain, Belgium and Holland in the course my European travels and find them to be the most disagreeable countries in Europe. Graffiti, trash, crass commercialism, crime and general social hostility are the worst in Europe, and in the case of crime at least that is in fact objectively correlated. They are the most violent countries in Europe if not the world, with the most immigrants and the most meager attempts at assimilation. I find American cities just as bad, but am more comfortable on the whole in the U.S. because the country is less urbanized than those others and so the problem is less universal. In other words, the individualism so lauded by Hayek has a very distinct dark side, one which corresponds to a degree of social atomization I have seen nowhere else in the world and now find a little shocking. I have a feeling from Hayek’s language, particularly his condemnation of “antisocial privileges,” that he would in no way condone this and probably only advanced his notion of individualism in conjunction with the rule of law and on condition that a sense of voluntary obligation to one’s fellow man should replace and prevent coercion. It is nonetheless, whatever Hayek may have believed in or hoped for, the result of a philosophy of individualism without responsibility or obligation which has produced this reprehensible situation, and strangely enough, perhaps it is, just as with Marxism, an underestimation of the selfishness of man which is at the root of the failure. The callous indifference of middle-class life in the West is disappointing enough, but (along with Dalrymple) I find the wasteland of malignant hostility inhabited by the underclass here more appalling even than the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, to the point that I could not call it a true community or even a functional component of the larger society.

p.s. Let me anticipate one objection which I am almost certain is coming. It will be said that the salient feature of the Western underclass is the omnipresence of the welfare state, which seems to be anything but individualist, particularly given how Hayek himself summarizes the promises of “freedom” made by the later socialists, which is more or less a perfect description of welfare policies:

“The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed.”

And so this is true in a way. For the non-welfare recipients in society, it definitely functions as a simple collectivist coercive policy. However, three points in response:

  1. Every country I have been to has some form of welfare, but this does not produce the same levels of violence and hostility in Sweden, in Germany or in Russia that it does in America or Britain or Holland.

  2. The phenomenon of social atomization is not limited to the underclass, it just reaches its most extreme form there, another reason that it seems to me as much of a cultural phenomenon as an economic one.

  3. One has to consider the way in which the welfare state divides people into two societies. As I said, subsidizing it is certainly an unwelcome imposition for me, but my true objection to it is the effect it has on the recipients. One can imagine that the most absolute form of collectivism would posit no rights, only obligations for the individual. The most extreme form of individualism would posit only rights and no responsibilities. The latter is more or less the case in the anarchic yet subsidized world of the Western underclass. The violence and lawlessness that ensue is I feel partly a natural result of the attitude of a class of people who in return for receiving enough to live on comfortably (relative to the rest of the world) are pretty much required to continue breathing, and consequently they evince about as much sense of social obligation as the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy. Thus welfare is in effect collectivist but philosophically I think it is, while paternalistic, ultimately a perversion of individualism that posits a rather excessive conception of everyone’s economic rights. Just as Hayek demonstrated that the political spectrum is a circle in which the opposite extremes of Nazism and communism almost exactly resemble each other, so the extremes of theoretical individualism and collectivism can result in the near-identical elevation of people to positions of corrupting privilege or power over others. As Aristotle said, virtue generally lies at an equal distance between opposite vices.

4 Responses to “Comparing fruits”

  1. Andy Stedman Says:

    “The most extreme form of individualism would posit only rights and no responsibilities.”

    I don’t think that’s coherent. Individualism is personal responsibility. If I have no responsibilities–not even to myself–then my only means of survival is to depend on others–to make them responsible for me, which is decidedly not individualism.

  2. shonk Says:

    Like Andy said, it’s incoherent to stipulate rights without concomittant responsibilities. For example, if you have the right not to be murdered, then I have the responsibility not to murder you.

  3. Curt Says:

    Individualism is personal responsibility. If I have no responsibilities–not even to myself–then my only means of survival is to depend on others–to make them responsible for me, which is decidedly not individualism.

    Right, but when I say responsibility I have in mind obligations to others, because I feel that the concept of “obligation to oneself” is generally just another name for self-interest, and when it’s not I find it often to be really an obligation to others in disguise (welfare being a perfect negative example). However, it’s true that my definition is incomplete without mentioning that in an absolute form of individualism the individual would be neither under obligation nor dependence upon others. In this sense welfare is of course a perversion, but the reason I only provided a partial definition is to highlight the fact that, in my opinion, what makes the institution in particular, and our society as a whole to a lesser extent, so virulent is the lack of any sense of obligation to others, which I regard as a grave moral deficiency. In this sense it would perhaps be more accurate to call it a nasty hybrid of individualism and collectivism, but I was mainly at pains to point out that our social problems are not solely attributable to collectivism.

  4. Curt Says:

    Like Andy said, it’s incoherent to stipulate rights without concomittant responsibilities. For example, if you have the right not to be murdered, then I have the responsibility not to murder you.

    Which is exactly why the welfare state is so fucked-up–see above. The ultimate effect is to create a class of people who often literally do get away with murder–see Dalrymple. That this group of people today is the underclass rather than the aristocracy is of course one of the great ironies of modern history.

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