July 30, 2008

There’s nothing to shake your residual faith in journalists than to see a news report of an event in which you took part, or read a media account of yourself (especially a friendly one that unwittingly links you to the sort of person you’ve spent your life opposing). But a column by Andrew Kohut in Tuesday’s New York Times in praise of protest votes reported a statistic which rings true to me. Citing a Pew poll, Kohut says “€œfewer Republicans than Democrats say it really matters who wins the presidential election (62 percent vs. 70 percent). And while 74 percent of Democrats say they are satisfied with the candidates, only 49 percent of Republicans feel this way.”€

Yep. The Pew study nails it. Now, a small percentage of those Republicans may well be neocons who know that the fix is in, who’ve watched Obama crawl on his hands and knees over broken glass before the peacemongers of AIPAC, and are confident that he’s just as likely to “€œbomb-bomb Iran”€ as Mad Jack McCain. But they can’t amount to more than a few percentage points. Your average Fox News jingoist doesn’t think that many chess moves ahead. That’s why he’d rather play Risk”€”where the critical territory to control is”€”you guessed it”€”the Middle East.

No, I’m sure that most of that 38 percent of Republican voters remembers things like McCain’s support for amnesty, his 2006 vote (joining both Clinton and Obama) to grant illegal aliens retroactive Social Security benefits, and his squeamishness about attacking Sen. Obama on any subject at all”€”except the most losing issue in G.O.P. history since Prohibition, the Iraq War. They recall the years he spent getting “€œhappy-endings”€ from starstruck leftist reporters who loved a “€œmaverick,”€ and the back-stabbing he regularly performed on social conservatives. With me they wonder whether the outcome of this presidential election is much more important than the question of who won the Westminster Dog Show. (A beagle, I’d like to remind you.)

Reading this report coincides with some research I was doing recently about the history of the conservative movement in America, and the importance of Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. (Find a nice illustrated version of the book’s argument here.) The critical significance of that book was in part its timing; when Hayek wrote, there were very few prominent thinkers who flouted the liberal and socialist consensus that a centrally planned economy was the obvious answer to the “€œcontradictions”€ within capitalism, which they blamed in vulgar Marxist style for the rise of fascism. The Darwinian nature of competition they linked in some vague way with the pseudo-scientific eugenics of the Nazis, and prescribed as a cure for the persistent “€œinefficiency”€ of the market economy a massive dose of “€œrational”€ planning by government experts. Indeed, the market economy”€”like other “€œbackward”€ institutions such as the patriarchal family and the Christian church”€”was one of the final frontiers that Enlightened reason must conquer, on the road to creating a worldly paradise. I know, it’s hard to believe today that nearly the entire intellectual establishment of the West could think that bureaucrats embodied efficiency and reason. It’s as plausible to us today as the theory that sweaty underwear, left in darkness, spontaneously generates baby mice. (I think all us bachelors can reassure the ladies on this one.) But in time of war, when you’re watching your government accomplish something like rearming a nation almost overnight, and storm across two oceans to crush its enemies, it might be easier to think that militaristic planning could solve problems like urban squalor and infant nutrition.

Hayek knew better. He was well-acquainted with Mises’ devastating analysis of socialism, which proved that in principle it could never meet human needs. Moving beyond the merely practical goal of avoiding poverty and misery, he argued”€”as did his philosophically more profound associate, Wilhelm Röpke“€”that socialism was a system unworthy of man, since it treated him as forever infantile. Indeed, Hayek’s analysis forced the men of his generation to face the fact that when fascism and National Socialism set themselves up as radical alternatives to a free society and market, they weren’t kidding. Hayek showed that their credentials as “€œrational”€ planners of economic life were at least as good as Stalin’s. Indeed, it was as much their accumulation of economic power as their political police that guaranteed their domination of everyday life. Every step taken by a state to “€œsocialize”€ or nationalize property, he argued, should be seen as what it is: A power-grab by the government that diminishes the sphere of free private decision.

So far so good. I have just a single quibble with Hayek: His choice of a title. Perhaps his modernist bias made him imagine the Middle Ages as one of the worst imaginable eras in human history. (Fans like me of Monty Python’s Holy Grail call this the “€œBring Out Your Dead!“€ school of historiography.) That was how the history of Europe had been taught in his day. But Hayek really ought to have known enough about historic serfdom to rethink his title selection. While a serf’s freedom of movement was restricted (and who traveled much in those days, unless you were on a pilgrimage or a Crusade?), he was guaranteed the use of his land, which custom and law protected from confiscation. He paid a mere 10 percent of his produce to the landlord (Where do I sign up?), and was completely exempt from military service. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the murderous Revolutionaries in France declared war on all of Europe, that politicians would get the idea that they could force an entire country’s male population into uniform. A serf confronted with a draft notice would have wiped his behind with it, and handed it back. As we all should do.

I think if Hayek were alive today, and looking at the tax rates, regulations, national debt and increasing restrictions on free expression we face, he wouldn’t be warning about the road to serfdom. He’d be using Mapquest to try to find the on-ramp.


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