Why the Worst Now?

The Road to Serfdom’s publication was one of the intellectual and political turning points of the 20th century. The bloom was starting to come off the rose of socialism and Hayek explained why—in clear, crisp, and precise language and in a spirit of respect for those who had believed or still believed in socialism. I’m grateful to Greg Weiner for providing both a stimulating Liberty Forum essay and an occasion to reread Hayek’s 1944 book, which I found even more compelling than I did when I first read it more than three decades ago. I also found it surprisingly relevant to today’s politics.

Weiner seeks to extract from a book occasioned by Hayek’s observation that socialist central economic planning is incompatible with liberal democracy more general insights that might help to explain the choice we faced in this election, between two major party candidates who exemplified (albeit in their different ways) overweening confidence in their own powers and a corresponding disregard for the rule of law. One Internet “meme” I saw during the campaign, incidentally, pictured the two of them with the caption: “Surely there must be some easier way to identify the two worst people in the country.”

The winner of the contest is acknowledged even by his backers to be extraordinarily—almost indescribably—vulgar and crude, willfully ill-informed, ignorant of the most basic principles of American government, dishonest, disrespectful of the normal standards of civil behavior, given to making threats of retribution using state power against named persons judged insufficiently supportive, and impulsive, erratic, thoughtless, and shamelessly immoral. From George Washington to Donald Trump: what happened?

I consider Weiner’s attempt to explain Election 2016 through the analyses presented in The Road to Serfdom and later The Constitution of Liberty an intriguing, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort. Although I find his general approach quite congenial, I do not think the 2016 American presidential election is well explained on the basis of Hayek’s thesis. Other factors seem to me sufficient to account for Trump versus Clinton, as well as Trump’s victory over Clinton, without invoking the explanations offered by Weiner.

Were his explanations operative, why did they take hold now and not at some time in the past, and why not in other, even more “social democratic,” polities? Why did the worst not get on top in earlier elections in the United States or in other countries with larger governing bureaucracies? Did the United States reach a tipping point recently, occasioned by, perhaps, general government consumption as a percent of GDP? That metric, which substantially corresponds to welfare statism, is high, but as a percentage of GDP it is not at historical highs.

That said, although I am not convinced by his thesis, I fear very much that the conditions Weiner identifies as operative in the Trump election will become much more common, even the norm, as a result of his election and of the very aggressive consolidation of power that I expect he and his Gauleiters will undertake in an effort to remake the American republic on the model of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Hayek’s chapter entitled “Why the Worst Get on Top” was focused on the dynamics set in motion by attempts to institute central planning, which was a great threat to liberty when Hayek wrote. Central planning is not as ambitious today as it was when he lodged his critique. Part of the credit in fact goes to The Road to Serfdom, which helped to launch a movement that effectively opposed socialism, understood as

the abolition of private enterprise, of private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of a system of “planned economy” in which the entrepreneur working for profit is replaced by a central planning body.[1]

Hayek’s efforts helped to avoid the fate of people subjected to that vain attempt, so well described in practice by Francis Spufford in his 2010 historical novel Red Plenty.[2] As Weiner notes, the argument was not primarily that tyranny is inevitable (a myth effectively dispatched by Bruce Caldwell in his 2004 intellectual biography of Hayek[3]), nor did it have to do with government action per se. The Road to Serfdom was focused, and focused very effectively, on the dangers posed by central planning.

Even if one were to follow Weiner in downshifting, as it were, Hayek’s analysis from the political dynamics set in motion by central planning to his “perception of the inherent tendency of statist systems to promise the undeliverable and to seek overweening power vainly to attempt it”; even if one were to agree that “Why the Worst Get on Top” is concerned “not with planning so much as with power”—one is still faced with the above-stated questions regarding the applicability of Hayek to Americans’ latest choice of a President.

Bannon and Trump seem intent on giving The Road to Serfdom the old college try.

How did Trump get the nomination? I see no inevitability here. Had there been seven Republican candidates, rather than 17, he would have been far less likely to have won the Republican primary. As for the Democratic Party, had Hillary Clinton not blocked all potential challengers other than a cranky socialist, a more palatable candidate (or at least one untainted by involvement in a gigantic “pay for play” shakedown involving the power of the State Department, the vast power of a potential presidency, and donations to a family foundation) might have been nominated in her stead.

Given the low esteem in which Clinton was generally held and the fact that a mere 79,646 votes cast in three states decided the election for Trump, it’s safe to say that A) Clinton was very vulnerable, and B) Trump barely eked out a victory. (That sets aside Clinton’s sizeable margin in the popular vote, which doesn’t count in determining who gets to wield so much power.) Enough mainstream Republican voters, who still had some attachment to limited government and the U.S. Constitution, were willing to vote for someone who, although never embracing the language of limited government and free enterprise, promised to “drain the swamp” and cut back the regulations that have choked the economy like swamp weeds in an outboard motor. What was remarkable was that the Democratic Party nominated one of the few Democrats who could not beat Trump, while the GOP nominated one of the few Republicans who could have lost—and almost did—to Clinton.

To be sure, there are some intellectual/ideological sources of Trump’s victory in the contest for the GOP nomination, as he was able to dominate the debates with his Reality TV bluster and his lack of serious knowledge of the world (for example, railing against the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the grounds that it “was designed” to enable “China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone,” despite China’s not being a party to the TPP). Such populist bluster attracted some votes to him, probably more than it drove off, given the alternative in the election.

It is also worth noting that there is a global movement for authoritarian populism, but I do not see it as rooted in the dynamic set in motion by central planning. It’s rooted, I believe, far more in social polarization and media fragmentation in the United States and Europe and in Kremlin sponsorship of illiberal ideas and effective exploitation of sources of discontent, but that is a broader topic I have addressed elsewhere.

Trump’s populist appeal was more decisive in getting him past the 16 primary competitors than in his general election win, as, in my opinion, at least, Clinton was very vulnerable to defeat by virtually any Republican. (Despite his boasting of having won the popular vote and having secured a “landslide” in the Electoral College, Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes and his Electoral College margin was 46th out of 58 elections.)

Where I think Weiner’s analysis has greater purchase and where I found it quite insightful is not in explaining what happened at the polls, but in painting a dire picture of what may happen in the not so distant future. To recognize the change that Trump is likely to implement in the Republican Party he is taking over, compare the quotations Weiner gave from Trump’s convention acceptance speech to Ronald Reagan’s in 1980:

Ronald Reagan: “I ask you not simply to ‘Trust me,’ but to trust your values—our values—and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom.”

Donald Trump: “I am your voice.” “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

What is going on is not merely the working out of the logic of the situation (to use Karl Popper’s phrase) that Hayek had limned, but the eruption of an ideology of authoritarian populism.[4] And it now has the greatest bully pulpit in the world and the resources of two major states, the Russian Federation and the executive branch of the United States of America.

Jan-Werner Müller, in his interesting recent study of populism, identifies the distinguishing feature of populism as the claim that “they, and only they, represent the people.”[5] Donald Trump raised that theme repeatedly. Of an Indiana-born federal Judge, Trump declaimed “He’s a Mexican,” and thus unqualified to be a judge in a case involving Trump; Judge Curiel, because of his heritage, is not one of us. As an aside offered after a discussion of endorsements during the nomination contest, he stated, “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.” Those are expressions of an ideology that divides the people into the real people and the others. I fear that it will become far more central to American political conflict.

Following the Kremlin’s lead in this, as in other matters, President Trump recently claimed that “people, countries want their own identity” as a foundation for political developments in the coming years. In his inaugural address he intoned, “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Combined with his economic nationalism and the crude misunderstanding of international trade he brings to the White House (according to which all imports are subtractions from national income), such overt collectivism portends an international arena in which infliction of harm will trump pursuit of mutual advantage.

Along with the normalization of conflict and the substitution of negative sum games for positive sum games (and it is worth recalling that negative sum games can still involve net winners, as Trump and his circle are anticipating), expect the normalization of more and deeper forms of identity politics and of claims that some groups are not the people, or, in Trump’s phrase, “the other people don’t mean anything.”

With that distinction between those who are the unified people and those who don’t mean anything, those judges who are Americans and those who are Mexicans, will come a revival of an ethos that advocates of liberal civilization have struggled to overcome, which Hayek referred to as “the old conflict between loyalty and justice.” Wrote Hayek:

The persistent conflict between tribal morals and universal justice has manifested itself throughout history in a recurrent clash between the sense of loyalty and that of justice. It is still loyalty to such particular groups as those of occupation or class as well as those of clan, nation, race or religion which is the greatest obstacle to a universal application of rules of just conduct. Only slowly and gradually do those general rules of conduct towards all fellow men come to prevail over the special rules which allowed the individual to harm the stranger if it served the interest of his group.[6]

Hayek also described what the suppression of democratic institutions would look like in the run-up to totalitarian rule:

In this stage it is the general demand for quick and determined government action that is the dominating element in the situation, dissatisfaction with the slow and cumbersome course of democratic procedure which makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough to “get things done” who exercises the greatest appeal. “Strong” in this sense means not merely a numerical majority—it is the ineffectiveness of parliamentary majorities with which people are dissatisfied. What they will seek is somebody with such solid support as to inspire confidence that he can carry out whatever he wants.[7]

Here is what Trump said during his remarkably authoritarian inaugural speech:

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.

The language was lifted from the political rhetoric of the 1930s. It is no wonder that Trump’s strategist, Steve Bannon said of the incoming administration: “It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.” Bannon looks back to the 1930s to chart the future of the United States.

Hayek’s words, moreover, are remarkably apt in explaining the contemporary demonization of Muslims and Mexicans and other “enemies”:

It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program—on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off—than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” group and the “they,” the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. From their point of view, it has the great advantage of leaving them greater freedom of action than almost any positive program. The enemy, whether he be an internal, like the “Jew” or the “kulak,” or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armory of a totalitarian leader.[8]

The Trump Team has announced that free markets are a thing of the past and that from now on, as Vice President Pence put it, his boss “will make those decisions on a day-by-day basis.” Trump himself added that those who ignore the orders of the new Leader will face “retribution or consequence.”

It is almost as if he had read The Road to Serfdom (or more likely as if Steve Bannon had read it) not as a warning, but as a guidebook, much as Christopher Hitchens suggested of North Korea and George Orwell’s book 1984: “You think could it be that someone handed a Korean translation of this to Kim Il Sung and said ‘Do you think we could make this fly?,’ and he paged through and said, ‘I don’t know, but we could sure give it the old college try.’” Bannon and Trump seem intent on giving The Road to Serfdom the old college try.

Government direction of business and the economy. Great national plans. Enemies. Enemies abroad and enemies at home. And punishment of the enemies of the true, real, united people—retribution or consequences. The logic of the situation that Hayek outlined in “Why the Worst Get on Top” is already kicking in in a big way. Those who believe in justice, in the small-r republican values of limited government and personal liberty, in free markets and mutual gain, in toleration and social harmony, need to be prepared.

There is one final issue worthy of attention. Hayek was remarkably insightful about the issue of truth—about how the very idea and the expectation of truth are undermined by collectivistic populism. His chapter “The End of Truth” warned us of the dangers when “facts and thus theories become no less the object of an official doctrine than views about values,” and how “totalitarian control of opinion extends, however, also to subjects which at first seem to have no political significance.”[9] Such subjects include the number of people who listened to an inaugural address, gross misstatements about which are then characterized as “alternative facts”). It comes to mind when reporters who challenge officeholders for their alternative facts are told as a collectivity that “the media … should keep its mouth shut.”

It is a cause for concern when truth “becomes something to be laid down by authority.”[10] That is, as Hayek understood, how truth is poisoned. We are living through a process that Hayek described with remarkable clarity.

How far we have come, in both style and substance, from George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

From that to this.

[1] F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944), p. 32.

[2] Spufford sets the stage for his work, which describes the period when many believed that the USSR would surpass the “capitalist west” in the production of consumer goods, in the Russian fairytale of the wonderful tablecloth — samobranka, which magically sets itself with an endless supply of food and vodka: “Khrushchev believed that the plenty of the stories was coming in Soviet Russia, and coming because of something that the Soviet Union possessed and the hungry lands of capitalism lacked: the planned economy. Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfilment of human needs. Therefore it would easily out-produce the wasteful chaos of the marketplace.” Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (Graywolf Press, 2012), p. 5. Spufford does an admirable job of explaining the real functioning of the economic system that existed in the USSR, with a focus on the role of блат (blat), the exchange of favors, and the Толкачи (tolkachi) the “pushers” or “fixers” who organized complex chains of indirect exchange to supply what was missing. See also the study by Alena Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] Bruce Caldwell, Hayek’s Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F. A. Hayek (University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 241, 356. As Caldwell notes, Hayek devoted a great deal of effort to rebutting historicist claims about the inevitability of history and the possibility of identifying “laws of history.”

[4] A former Reagan speechwriter offered an interesting comparison of Trump with Mussolini. Hal Gordon, “Is Donald Our Duce?”

[5] Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 20.

[6] F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 147-48.

[7] Road to Serfdom, p. 136.

[8] Road to Serfdom, p. 139.

[9] Road to Serfdom, pp. 160, 161.

[10] Road to Serfdom, p. 163.

Tom G. Palmer writes frequently on matters of political economy.