Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

July 27, 2008

The Road to Serfdom

Filed under: books, capitalism, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:21 am

As promised, I read The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.  I checked it out from one of the primary socialist institutions in this nation, the library.  From the due date sheet at the front of the book, it looks like I was not the only one to have this idea.

Generally when I walk into a library, I have a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  It is a profound remorse that I am physically incapable of reading all the knowledge that is contained on those many selves.  What am I missing out on, I ponder.  The Road to Serfdom cured me of this affliction.  I consider The Road to Serfdom a typical book in the library.  Wildly heralded in certain circles, Friedrich Hayek is an influential thinker.  But the book itself is the epitome of mediocrity.  How can something be so bland and lack of meaningful flavor?  First, it has to try really hard.

Hayek expressed his amazement in the introduction that the book could be successfully abridged, as it was for Reader’s Digest, while keeping the core argument intact.  This is like marveling over the ability of people to breath.  The primary problem is one of definitions.  The book does not define socialism, totalitarianism, fascism, collectivism, etc. except to say they are the same thing.

In addition, I take some offense to the pretense of the book.  Hayek argues that a planned economy is the road to serfdom, not a road to serfdom.  Hayek must have expressed surprise when he discovered that serfdom existed as a social relation and did not come about the way he describes in his book.

The book itself is a conglomeration of muddled paranoia.  To show it as such, we need to do what Hayek refused to, and provide reasons why totalitarianism is bad.

Totalitarianism can be thought of as a mass system of slavery.  But that definition is a little bit lax, because what is slavery?  What distinguishes coercive slavery from wage slavery?   Obviously, we need to dig a little bit deeper.  Slavery is bad because the worker is not given a choice of his profession.  So far so good, except for the fact capitalist society doesn’t offer an absolute choice of profession either.

To get more concrete, let’s say we have a totalitarian society in which everyone is a millionaire book critic.  The problem with the totalitarian society doe not exist for those who enjoy being book critics, but rather those who despise it.  Hayek argues that those who despise being book critics should have a choice to do whatever they want.  In order for these contrarians to be happy, the society has to be set up so that people and freely associate and trade.  This way, our dissatisfied book critic can embark on a career as a shoe shiner if he/she so chooses.

Hayek also argues that it is important that the market is not planned.  A society can’t have quotas on the number of book critics or shoe shiners.  In Hayek’s view it is better for impersonal forces to rule, having a planner set out how many shinners or book critics there shall be will inevitably lead to cronyism or suspicion.  Without a doubt, there is an undeniable transparency to just letting someone try and fail.  Again, these are all arguments for a free market, and they are all good as far as they go.  But we would be remiss if we did not bring some Marx into the mix.

Marx argued that there are specific historical conditions of modern industrial society.  At the outset, there are people who find their lot in the life where the only thing they have to sell is their labor-power.  Marx also argued that it is the nature of the capitalist system to drop the price of commodities, thus forcing the adoption of industrialized processes throughout the economy.  It is also in the capitalist’s interest to make the work unskilled, thus guaranteeing the largest possible labor pool.  This is combined with other perversities such as extending the working day, increasing productivity and keeping wages to mere subsistence.  This guarantees the capitalist the highest amount of profit by minimizing the amount of compensation the worker gets as the result of the proceeds of his labor.

The key revelation by Marx is that capitalist society didn’t spring up out of the blue.  There are definite historical conditions.  It isn’t like the rich of one era voluntarily ceded their wealth to the mobs that won their freedom.  Even in America, who came to own what chunks of land was a function of what a King or Queen handed out.  The notable thing about the American revolution is not what changed, but rather, how much remained the same economically.  There was no wealth redistribution.  The publicly supported westward expansion is best understood as a land grab.  It is this land grab that offered settlers independence at the expense of the aboriginal people.  However, this independence is particular to the epoch it takes place in.  Productivity increases undermined this independence, thus there are people who only have their labor-power to sell for survival.  If that isn’t serfdom, I don’t know what is.

The coercive force comes about somewhat differently.  We have the pretense of fairness because the same rules apply to everyone, however a certain segment of society is forced to submit because they find their only independent means of survival criminalized.

Ergo, there will always be compromises on someone’s freedom.  The question is merely one of extent.  Do we want someone’s freedom to be determined by the conditions of their wealth or do we provide freedom more or less equally, independent of wealth.  In short, do we allow the economic conditions to dictate the politics, or the  politics to dictate the economics?  If a libertarian is to be consistent, one must oppose concentrated power in all forms, including concentrated wealth.  This means regulation and therefore planning.  The alternative is, well, actual serfdom.

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