Judt and Hayek

by Henry on May 11, 2012

A few months ago, Tyler Cowen “argued”:http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/02/tony-judts-new-book-thinking-the-twentieth-century.html that Tony Judt had been unfair to Hayek in his final book.

it doesn’t show Judt in such an overwhelmingly favorable light. He is cranky, unfair to his intellectual opponents, and he repeatedly misrepresents thinkers such as Hayek on some fairly simple points. …

One does not have to agree with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom to find this an unfair characterization:

Hayek is quite explicit on this count: if you begin with welfare policies of any sort — directing individuals, taxing for social ends, engineering the outcomes of market relationships — you will end up with Hitler.

But is that actually so unfair? I meant to follow up at the time, and never quite got around to it. Then, yesterday, I re-read “Hayek’s own introduction to the US edition”:http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2012/05/the-1956-preface-to-friedrich-von-hayeks-the-road-to-serfdom.html.

bq. That hodgepodge of ill-assembled and often inconsistent ideals which under the name of the Welfare State has largely replaced socialism as the goal of the reformers needs very careful sorting-out if its results are not to be very similar to those of full-fledged socialism. This is not to say that some of its aims are not both practicable and laudable. But there are many ways in which we can work toward the same goal, and in the present state of opinion there is some danger that our impatience for quick results may lead us to choose instruments which, though perhaps more efficient for achieving the particular ends, are not compatible with the preservation of a free society.

bq. … 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.

bq. 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. … 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. … 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” …

bq. 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.

You can certainly argue that Judt is too sweeping when he says “welfare policies of any sort.” It would undoubtedly have been more accurate if he had said “welfare state policies of any sort,” as Hayek clearly believes that there are non-statist, non-paternalist ways of achieving some (if not all) of the same ends. The conditions under which Judt was writing (or more precisely dictating) go some very considerable way towards mitigating this inaccuracy.

However, even if Hayek qualifies his claims in the first paragraph quoted, he’s changed his tune towards the end. He very explicitly claims that the paternalist welfare state is creating the conditions under which (unless the policy is changed or reversed) totalitarianism will blossom, reducing the populace (as described in the bit of Tocqueville that Hayek quotes) into a “flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd,” which will surely sooner or later come under the control of “any group of ruffians.” More tersely: Welfare Statism=Inevitable Long Term Moral Decline=Hilter! ! ! !

Hayek surely had his moments of brilliant insight, but this wasn’t one of them – for all his protestations of anti-conservatism it’s a fundamentally conservative, and rather idiotic claim. I don’t think that Judt was being unfair at all.