Unlike Sean Hannity, you don’t see me calling for the end of liberalism

Final reactions to reading Hayek:

  1. Hayek states, more or less, that the core of any totalitarian movement consists generally of the stupid and brutish types. This unaccountable bit of intellectual snobbery seems to overlook the fact that the early converts and leaders of most of these movements that I know of tend to be petty intellectuals, whether they be failed painters like Hitler, failed poets and philosophers like Mao or failed lawyers like Lenin. The thugs that often accumulate around them from an early stage seem more like opportunists, certainly without the planning ability or long-term goals that can start a true megalomaniacal organization in motion. Indeed, a certain degree of intelligence seems requisite to formulate and persevere with a strategy that stands in revolt against liberal society, alongside ruthlessness and the loyalty to men and ideas that comes from fanaticism. These qualities are the core of any such movement and are certainly distinct from the common loutishness of the brown- or blackshirts. But Hayek in other places seems to be aware of this, noting that the very nature of a totalitarian state seems to select for those who have the desire and ruthlessness to impose their own objectives on all those around them.

  2. I don’t find the moral difference between liberal and dictatorial societies to be essentially the difference between normative and teleological ethics. It is not a matter of totalitarian rulers not having moral values but of being the sole ones vested with moral authority both as the interpreters and objects of ethics. In a liberal society everyone has or should have a free space of action to which they can apply their own code of conduct, but in a totalitarian society no such space exists, which proves catastrophic because, as Hayek suggests, those inclined to abuse authority are most likely to succeed in such a society.

  3. Hayek says things like “freedom can be had only at a price and…as individuals we must be prepared to make severe material sacrifices to preserve our liberty.” For some members and in some cases that may be true, but if it were true in aggregate that there is a necessary trade-off of liberty versus prosperity of this nature it would greatly weaken the value of a liberal society. I understand that he is counselling a certain amount of stoicism as regards the economic system in the face of misfortune, but the evidence indicates to me that economic and political liberty prosperity are strongly correlated and are in fact practically synonymous for society as a whole. One considerable aspect of economic liberty is precisely the opportunity to achieve prosperity, and it seems to me one of the follies of socialism, at least in the pre-war period, was to dissociate the two, a view which Hayek seems to be implicitly endorsing for some strange reason (granted he had at this time perhaps only had the opportunity to observe the oppression and not the poverty wrought by Nazism and communism).

p.s. It seems to be the conventional wisdom that the immediate object of Hayek’s criticism is dated because, whatever the indirect pressures of redistributionary policies and the welfare state, direct state management of major industries is over except in a few backwards outposts like North Korea. It may be true that the citizens of the major countries do not tolerate this anymore in the management of their own affairs, but certain cases like this one suggest that some, perhaps many, are in favor of central planning in areas outside their boundaries that they can dominate. If I were even more cynical than I am I might suggest that the combination of high environmental standards levied by Western countries on foreign products, protectionist economic policies and direct administraton of “aid” in conjunction with the ruling oligarchies of poor countries were deliberately designed to effectively re-colonize the Third World by reducing it to a state of total dependence in such a way as to seem to keep the wealthy countries’ leaders’ hands clean. In any case, the effect would be substantially the same.

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