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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June 22, 2008

Starting Down the Road to Serfdom

Filed under: books, capitalism, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:22 am

As promised, I picked up Friedrich A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” from the most socialist of institutions the library.

The book’s aim is ambitious.  It sets out to show how socialistic institutions, such as public schools, libraries, medicare, medicaid, social security, etc. invariably lead to totalitarian regimes like the Nazis and Soviets.  Hayek asks “have not the parties of the Left as well as those of the Right been deceived by believing that the National Socialist party was in the service of the capitalists and opposed to all forms of socialism? (pg 6)”

Yes, deceived by the facts.  Nazism was in service of the capitalists.  It was not in service of Hayek’s conception of free-market capitalism, but it was capitalism nonetheless.  I don’t think any one claimed that Nazism was opposed to all forms of so-called socialism.  Certainly, they were interested in the general welfare of the members of the Nazi party.  One of the reasons Hitler was so loved by the business leaders in this country was because he banned Trade Unions.  This move can hardly be construed as an action of a socialist.

I was somewhat disappointed that Hayek doesn’t provide a time-line for when governments will fall into totalitarian collapse.  He just continually assures us that they will.  Soon.  In a generation or two.  Just wait, you’ll see.

Among his more bizarre allegations was the apparent difficulty of getting his book published.  It was a conspiracy he assures us.  It wasn’t until editors at Reader’s Digest condensed his book and published excerpts to a warm reception that a publisher was willing to publish it in the United States in full.  One would think that this story has enough cognitive dissonance to make Hayek’s head spin.  I’m always surprised by those who advocate a doctrinal adherence to free-market principles in every aspect of the economy (even to go so far to argue that any variation of the principles leads directly to a totalitarian regime), bemoan its injustice as it presents obstacles to dissemination of their ideas.

Hayek also bemoans the fact that people don’t properly refute his main thesis.  To wit, as Christopher Hitchens said, “what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  The strength of any argument rests on the evidence supporting it and its logical consistency.  Hayek can present a perfectly consistent argument, but so far, he uses the most loaded examples imagniable.

This brings me to labels and definitions.  Hayek presumably thinks that socialism is state ownership of the means of production.  The answer of course, is that state ownership of the means of production can be socialism, but it is not necessarily socialism.  Civics matter.  It is socialism if the means of production are controlled democratically.  If the means of production are not controlled democratically, it is something else, but the one thing it certainly isn’t is socialism.  Without this fundamental understanding, his argument is nothing more than a straw-man.

To Hayek, a state, is a state, is a state, regardless of the particular system of government.  However, Hayek assures us that any collective ownership of resources or implementation of services will lead to totalitarianism.  His solution to this situation is therefore to hand all resources and implementation of services to unaccountable private entities.  The possibility of a few of these private entities becoming dominant and eventually colluding is apparently impossibly in Hayek’s conception, in direct opposition to historical experience.

States, by their very nature, have a tendency to drift towards totalitarinism.  The founders of this nation recognized that problem and instituted a government with separation of powers, limited power, checks and balances, periodic elections, etc.  There are a few issues, in retrospect, they probably didn’t get right, such as election financing, the voting schemes employed and term limits.  Thankfully, they also gave us the ability to correct those imperfections.

Therefore, Hayek’s thesis is absurd on its face.  Did the Roman Republic fall because of socialism?  Did Greek democracy?  No, it is nature of all government to implode.  It is human nature.  Hayek’s solution is to capitualate all economic power to fundamentally unaccountable private tyrranies in the vain belief the power will remain dilute (another historical fallacy).  This ensures we remain free.  Free to find yourself in a world where the only option for your survival is to rent your labor power to a capitalist.  In this view, totalitarianism and Hayek’s “freedom” are virtually indistinguishable.

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