In lieu, I presume, of a reply to my previous posts disagreeing with him on Hayek and Judt, Tyler Cowen links to this post by Kevin Vallier on Bleeding Heart Libertarians which frames the debate thusly:
Every once in a while folks in the political corner of the blogosphere start talking about Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom. As Matt Yglesias said Monday, lots of people, conservatives and liberals alike, say that Hayek believed that any welfare state inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Then some people who have actually read Hayek reply that he always supported social insurance, safety nets, public goods provision and many forms of regulation. Then confusion ensues.
… Obviously Farrell and Judt’s claims are over the top due to their use of various “of any sort” “unequivocally” “at all” and “Hitler” modifiers … instead of beating up on them, let’s use our collective annoyed-by-someone-on-the-internet energy in a constructive fashion: to see what we can learn about Hayek’s real arguments against socialism and the welfare state. … Caldwell concludes, rightly, that Hayek was right about this. But he points out that Hayek’s criticism of the welfare state is subtler and involves two claims. The first problem with the welfare state is that it is a philosophically slippery target. … when Farrell reads this, he concludes that Hayek basically made the same claims about the welfare state and socialism, namely that both institutions will lead, eventually, to totalitarianism, even if the socialism gets us there sooner than the welfare state. … In my last post, I pointed out that even the later Hayek defended a universal basic income … Thus, Hayek supported what we typically call a welfare state throughout his career. … In my view, then, Hayek’s target is not “the welfare state” as such, that is, not a social insurance or safety net state, but rather a state based on a robust conception of distributive justice applied to its economic components … Hayek’s critique of the welfare state simply falls out of his broader conception of the legal order of a free people. … So let’s distinguish between two kinds of welfare states: the welfare state of law and the welfare state of administration. Hayek’s preferred welfare state is limited by his insistence that the law be regulated by clear, public, general principles rather than administrative bodies.
Hayek opposes the welfare state of administration. … But the second problem with the welfare state of administration is that it contains an internal dynamic that pushes in a socialist direction. … Of course, this is not totalitarianism by any means. For one thing, if citizens affirm even modest economic freedoms (as most members of liberal democracies do), then they will resist this accretion effect before things get too bad. And that’s the pattern we see: even in Scandinavian countries, people resist regulation due to their concerns about efficiency and, yes, concerns about property rights (sometimes more effectively than we supposedly libertarian Americans). …
Hayek overplayed his hand by arguing that the tinkerer’s welfare state will inevitably lead to totalitarianism, but not by much. The most free and economically successful liberal democracies hybridize welfare states of law and welfare states of administration. They’re hybrids largely due to the fact that most citizens of liberal democracies endorse elements of both liberalism and socialism. But if citizens of liberal democracies gave up liberalism entirely and stopped minding regulation so much, then I think the dynamic of the administrator’s welfare state would lead to significant authoritarianism that, while not totalitarian, would be uncomfortably close.
There are a couple of things going on here. First – the question of whether Hayek argued in favor of some kind of basic income scheme. This is, in fact, agreed to by all parties – hence my suggestion in the original post that “Hayek clearly believes that there are non-statist, non-paternalist ways of achieving some (if not all) of the same ends.” But the reason why Hayek sees this as allowable, as Vallier acknowledges in his own defense of Hayek, is that it is not statist – it involves coercion, but does not have the statist logic that Hayek views as pernicious.
Which brings us to the second, and more important point. Vallier can bring up the “Swedish welfare state is not all-overpowering because of citizens’ natural inclination to liberty argument” on his own behalf if he wants to. He cannot use it as a general defense of Hayek, for the simple reason that it flatly contradicts Hayek’s own arguments. To quote the relevant bit from Hayek again, filling in the ellipses so as to make it quite clear that I’m not patching together some kind of Frankenstein’s monster from disparate chunks of his thought:
… Of course, six years of socialist government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points: that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people.
This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations. The important point is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives.
This means, among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.
The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time and the people not only throw out the party which has been leading them further and further in the dangerous direction but also recognize the nature of the danger and resolutely change their course. There is not yet much ground to believe that the latter has happened in England.
Yet the change undergone by the character of the British people, not merely under its Labour government but in the course of the much longer period during which it has been enjoying the blessings of a paternalistic welfare state, can hardly be mistaken. These changes are not easily demonstrated but are clearly felt if one lives in the country.
In Illustration, I will cite a few significant passages from a sociological survey dealing with the impact of the surfeit of regulation on the mental attitudes of the young. It is concerned with the situation before the Labour government came into power, in fact, about the time this book was first published, and deals mainly with the effects of those war regulations which the Labour government made permanent:
At school, in the place of work, on the journey to and fro, even in the very equipment and provisioning of the home, many of the activities normally possible to human beings are either forbidden or enjoined. Special agencies, called Citizen’s Advice Bureaus, are set up to steer the bewildered through the forest of rules, and to indicate to the persistent the rare clearings where a private person may still make a choice…[The town lad] is conditioned not to lift a finger without referring mentally to the book words first. A time-budget of an ordinary city youth for an ordinary working day would show that he spends great stretches of his waking hours going through the motions that have been predetermined for him by the directives in whose framing he has had no part, whose precise intention he seldom understands, and of whose appropriateness he cannot judge…The inference that what the city lad needs is more discipline and tighter control is too hasty. It would be nearer the mark to say that he is suffering from an overdose of control already…Surveying his parents and his older brothers or sisters he finds them as regulation bound as himself. He sees them so acclimatised to that state that they seldom plan and carry out under their own steam any new social excursion or enterprise. He thus looks forward to no future period at which a sinewy faculty of responsiblility is likely to be of service to himself or others…[The young people] are obliged to stomach so much external and, as it seems to them, meaningless control that they seek escape and recuperation in an absence of discipline as complete as they can make it.
Is it too pessimistic to fear that a generation grown up under these conditions is unlikely to throw off the fetters to which it has grown used? Or does this description not rather fully bear out De Tocqueville’s prediction of the “new kind of servitude”
after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
What De Tocqueville did not consider was how long such a government would remain in the hands of benevolent despots when it would be so much more easy for any group of ruffians to keep itself indefinitely in power by disregarding all the traditional decencies of political life.
Perhaps I should also remind the reader that I have never accused the socialist parties of deliberately aiming at a totalitarian regime or even suspected that the leaders of the old socialist movements might ever show such inclinations. What I have argued in this book, and what the British experience convinces me even more to be true, is that the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.
If mild doses of Speenhamland and Beveridge have had such pernicious consequences on the moral constitution of the stalwart yeomen of England, what then would we expect from Sweden, after decades of the more vigorous physic of Meidner and his acolytes? More succinctly – one cannot rescue the argument of someone who specifically and explicitly claims that welfare statism ineluctably creates a sheep-like public, by smuggling the contention that the spark of economic freedom can never be quenched in the hearts of free citizens. Hayek doesn’t “[overplay] his hand … but not by much.” He is flatly empirically wrong. For Hayek, the only way in which the spirit of the people can counteract the enervations of welfarism is by re-asserting itself, throwing out the socialists, and resolutely changing course, before it is all too late. More succinctly still – if we want to talk about people who are annoying on the internets, I personally find it quite annoying to be accused of not reading Hayek, by someone who doesn’t appear especially interested himself in reading the emphatic and unequivocal words that Hayek has himself used to express his views on the topic.
On points of general politesse – it is not contra Vallier, ‘over the top,’ to talk about Hitler with respect to explicit and extended claims that the welfare state will lead to Nazi/Stalinist authoritarianism. Godwin’s law indeed applies here, but at t=0. On this, see further how Bruce Caldwell, whose reading Vallier relies on, and who is hardly unsympathetic to Hayek, relates Hayek’s argument about the welfare state to “jackboots and gulags.” Vallier suggests that I, and Matthew Yglesias, should start from the position of “charity” – the charitable reading here, contra Vallier, is that Hayek’s claims on welfare-statism are separable from, and perhaps contradictory to, his arguments elsewhere. We should distinguish between the things that Hayek got right (e.g. much of his critique of state planning), the things that he got wrong but that still have some worthwhile thoughts (e.g. his arguments about evolution), and the things that he got wrong, but are not worth further investigation except as a species of intellectual pathology (e.g. this). As dsquared said in comments to the original post :
really, the only sensible thing for Hayekians to do with “Road to Serfdom” is to treat it like Marx and “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”, or Einstein and “god doesn’t play dice”, or Keynes and eugenics or Heidegger and “more or less everything” and just say that it was a clear error but obviously doesn’t invalidate the whole rest of his work.
It’s rather odd that the Hayekians don’t seem willing to acknowledge that the Master might sometimes have been wrong – indeed, it suggests a distinct element of personality-cultism.
(Updated when I realized that I had not, in fact, included all the material in the ellipses)
Update 2: Kevin Vallier replies and is still, I think, quite wrong. First – he says that Hayek did too think that “people can resist the welfare state of administration’s road to serfdom via cultural resistance.” But this is, I think (and like him, I have read the passage multiple times), a misreading of what Hayek is saying here. Hayek doesn’t rely on the “spirit of political liberty” to do the work on its own – he claims that this spirit can prevail if people take action in time by throwing out the socialists and fundamentally changing the course of politics. This is because his argument is very clearly an institutional determinist one – as his minatory picture of the future makes quite explicit, he believes that welfare state and other regulatory institutions will, over time, sap the independence of the population so that they will become easy prey for authoritarians. The ‘spirit’ can start the process of resistance, if it inspires people to take action in time. But it does not serve itself as an enduring bulwark against welfare socialism. Hayek is quite specific. Second: he may, if he likes “continue to insist that [Farrell’s] original claim – that Hayek claimed that Swedish-style welfare states as such lead inevitably to totalitarianism – is wrong.” But however much he insists, he needs to reconcile this claim with e.g. Hayek’s statement that:
At the time I wrote [The Road to Serfdom], socialism meant unambiguously the nationalization of the means of production, and the central economic planning which this made possible and necessary. In this sense Sweden, for instance, is today very much less socialistically organized than Great Britain or Austria, though Sweden is commonly regarded as much more socialistic. This is due to the fact that socialism has come to mean chiefly the extensive redistribution of incomes through taxation and the institutions of the welfare state. In the latter kind of socialism the effects I discuss in this book are brought about more slowly, indirectly, and imperfectly. I believe that the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same, although the process by which it is brought about is not quite the same as that described in this book.
Slowly. Indirectly. Imperfectly. But “the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same.” This seems pretty definitive to me. Vallier’s interpretation seems indefensible. Hayek did believe that welfare state socialism was going to end up in the same place as direct economic-planning socialism, and he explicitly stated this belief in his writings. To be clear: you could, if you were a libertarian so inclined, try to rescue something from the wreckage, and tone down his predictions so as to make them instead, identifications of trends, much in the same way as Marxists have tried to rescue some of Marx’s less inspired predictions. Alternatively, you could claim that Hayek was arguing about the very long run, and that we simply haven’t seen the final desuetude of the welfare state yet. But you can’t say that Hayek didn’t believe that welfare states lead inevitably to totalitarianism, because he did demonstrably believe exactly this thing. Perhaps a more “imperfect” form of totalitarianism, but still, “very much the same.”
On three smaller points. Vallier suggests that The Road to Serfdom was “Hayek’s introduction to his most popular and least scholarly work” (with the implication that we should extend some charity to his claims here). This is a disputed point – I’ve had some correspondence from Andrew Farrant and Ed McPhail over the last few days which touched on this in passing, and suggested that this is an ex post rationalization by latter day Hayekians – their take is that The Road to Serfdom was explicitly aimed at the intelligentsia.
Further to this, he argues that when you think a:
really smart and important social philosopher and economist said something pretty dumb about a topic on which he was an expert, you should doubt your own judgment first.
I’m neither a philosopher nor an economist, so perhaps I’m biased – but I’ve read far too many smart and important philosophers and theoretical economists (including philosophers and economists whom I am far more ideologically sympathetic towards than I am to Hayek) make stupid empirical claims to feel at all inclined to grant this kind of latitude. In my experience, both philosophers and theoretical economists often tend to employ factual material rather disrespectfully, treating it merely as a means to illustrate ideas that they already have arrived at through more abstract forms of speculation. Sometimes, this can have intellectually bracing results – it can force you to look at the world in new ways, and hence have enormous value. But very often, it leads to bizarre and baroque intellectual constructions. The appropriate attitude to empiricizing philosophers and theoretical economists is one of cautious skepticism – with a reasonable degree of probability, they have interesting ideas about how the world actually works; with a lower degree of probability they have useful ideas; and with a lower degree still, they have right ideas. It certainly isn’t one of deference, beyond the usual kinds of deference one should demonstrate to other participants in conversation.
Finally, and most trivially – it’s genuinely terrifying to be told that Crooked Timber was being read by an assistant professor when he was an undergraduate. We’ve been at this for a long time, and become a sort of institution I suppose, but it still feels weird to be reminded of it.