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Good defence of liberal democracy from the dark 1940s
on 5 July 2007
First published in 1944, Hayek's polemical work is a defence of classical liberalism in the face of totalitarianisms of both right- and left-wing hues. The author deplores all sorts of `collectivism', that is departures from such aspects of liberalism as the free market, individualism and the minimal state. Thus, conservatives such as Bismarck (responsible for business cartels) share the dock with communists such as Lenin. In a chapter entitled `The Socialist Roots of National Socialism', Hayek argues that collectivist achievements such as the welfare state and the war economy paved the way for the collectivism of the Nazis: `Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.' (p. 4). This is a mirror image of the classic Marxist argument that Fascism, far from being a reaction against the upheaval in the capitalist economy in the 1930s, was in fact the logical culmination of capitalism, the last redoubt of the bourgeoisie.
Intriguing an argument as it is, I think Hayek over emphasizes the socialist element of National Socialism: as far as I know Hitler was quite happy to allow German capitalists to make large profits as long as they agreed to economic planning. Also, the German Workers' Party adopted `National Socialist' and `Workers' in the title only to attract working class votes, and not out of any enthusiasm for Marxism. Hayek would probably object that planning is planning regardless of whether capitalists are allowed to make profits or not.
This, of course, is the central conceit of the book and its Achilles heel: that all planning is bad and precipitates the onset of totalitarianism: `There is no other possibility than either the order governed by the impersonal discipline of the market or that directed by the will of a few individuals...' (p. 205). This argument is disingenuous. While Hayek recognizes that there are degrees of classical liberalism - he eschews what he calls the `dogmatic laissez-faire attitude' (p. 37) - he fails to concede that there are likewise degrees of collectivism. As a work of prediction, 'Serfdom' proved very wide of the mark, for although various postwar European governments instituted what Hayek would refer to as `collectivism' and `planning', they operated within the framework of liberal democracy, private property, and individual political liberty.
In spite of such objections, given all I had read about it, I was expecting Serfdom to be worse than it was. Given the atmosphere it was written in, the book's thesis is actually quite progressive. Maybe that's why such progressives as John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and George Orwell either gave it favorable reviews or were sympathetic to its argument. As a defence of liberal democracy, Hayek's polemic is indispensable.