Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Rational Delusion

I just came across a nice essay from 2005 by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion to mark the occasion of a new edition of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, published by the University of Chicago as part of an ongoing release of Hayek's collected works. In it, Mr. Kimball discusses the rational delusion, the belief that messy human society can be improved upon by a central plan rationally derived and imposed from on high. That the historical record of such plans, from Robespierre to Lenin to Mussolini (who once noted that “the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become”) to Pol Pot does not inspire confidence does not at all lessen the appeal of controlling human affairs through The Grand Plan, as the drive for a supranational organization to control global warming, among many other trends, makes clear.

Perhaps it is inevitable that in freedom are sown the seeds of freedom’s destruction. Mr. Kimball argues:
Hayek, like Tocqueville, saw that in modern bureaucratic societies threats to liberty often come disguised as humanitarian benefits. If old-fashioned despotism tyrannizes, democratic despotism infantilizes. “It would,” Tocqueville writes,
resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves… . It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living? … [This power] extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; … it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Echoing and extending Tocqueville, Hayek argued that one of the most important effects of extensive government control was psychological, “an alteration of the character of the people.” We are the creatures as well as the creators of the institutions we inhabit. “The important point,” he concluded, “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 analysis is confirmed everywhere, from the hectoring grandees of the EU seeking to centralize more and more of European life under its umbrella, to the continuing public importance of Al Gore (who once told The New Yorker that he saw American society as an exercise in parallel processing, with individuals and then local governments the subcomputers, all feeding information up to the main computer of the U.S. government, which would use it to improve the lives of the American people), to the attempts of both major U.S. political parties to win elections by promising more and more government stuff to appropriate away life’s little vicissitudes. I mean, really: is there no longer a constituency for arguing that the proper approach to farmers’ or small businessmen’s woes is to make them, and the rest of us, once again free men by eliminating the vast government apparatus that expropriates productive wealth to redistribute to those who persuade enough of us that their claims are worthy? Is there no audience in modern America for the idea that gigantic levels of government spending and regulation, with the enforcement powers needed to prop it up and whip the disobedient people subject to it into shape, are not just expensive, or destructive to economic growth, but an actual danger to the foundations of a free society?

Hayek died in 1992, having lived just long enough to see the fall of the last great Western totalitarianism. I wonder what he would’ve made of the relentless growth in government that has occurred since the Wall fell, not in the poor countries once throttled by big government but now moving toward freedom, but in the very cradle of limited government – the West, and Anglo-America in particular. The societies that have most solved many of history’s major problems – starvation, poverty, pestilence – are those where the problems to be solved are ever more minor (how many days of vacation – the concept itself unknown for most of history – we should get as a “right,” e.g.), and yet the government machinery allegedly needed to solve them ever-more elaborate and intrusive. It is a sort of democratic race to the bottom – an attempt to win elections by having the state trample onto more and more of the private sphere to make life easier and easier. All the while, our tax rate moves ever farther beyond the rate paid by actual serfs, who used to fork over a third or so of their crops to the manor. ‘Twould be a sad irony if the very prosperity enabled by a free society made freedom itself intolerable to the people who once knew it.



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