Friday, April 23, 2010

The Road to Serfdom: Part 1

My philosophy class has been finishing up the semester by reading F.A. Hayek's classic work, The Road to Serfdom. Admittedly, its not often assigned in introduction to philosophy courses. Philosophers will forgive me, given that we also read: Plato's Republic; Machiavelli's, The Prince; Marx's Communist Manefesto; and Skinner's, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Throughout the course I emphasized three major relational themes: the nature of human knowledge and it's relationship to politics, the relationship between leaders and followers, and relationship between social groupings and individuals. I thought I'd devote the next two blog entries to Hayek as a social and political philosopher.

Before we get started, it is important to note that Hayek acknowledges that human beings are individuals that live in communities organized via leadership and followership. We usually organize communities via dominance hierarchies, ruled by Alpha Males. He also acknowledges that we are emotional beings driven by fear, and that much of our communal life is aimed at securing our individual lives from the forces that provoke those fears. The central question for social and political philosophy is to what degree we ought to empower government to provide that security? There are two closely related forms of security: physical security (fear of physical pain, suffering, and death: think terrorism) and economic security (fear from deprivation of material sustenance: think food, clothing, shelter). Hayek also distinguishes between two public policy options the pursuit of limited security and the pursuit of absolute security. The Road to Serfdom is a long argument against the socialist (Marxist) idea that the public policy goal must be the pursuit of absolute economic security, but his arguments apply equally to physical security. His arguments ultimately hinge on his views on the nature of cooperation.

We humans cooperate with one another either by choice or by coercion. Socialists argue that absolute economic security can be provided via large scale cooperation masterminded by a governmentally empowered "central planner." Central planning is by it's very nature coercive, in so far as it requires taking from some individuals and giving to other individual (usually via taxation). Therefore the basic question for social and political philosophy is what can we reasonably expect out of central planning in terms of providing economic and physical security? What kinds human activities, if any, ought to be centrally controlled by government, and what kinds of activities ought to be left to individual planning via non-coercive cooperation and competition?

Recall from my earlier blogs that some libertarians are anarchists. Hayek is not an anarchist, but a minarchist that recognizes that government must play role in human affairs. In fact, anarcho-libertarians often criticise Hayek for suggesting that government ought to provide a basic security "safety net" for citizens. Exactly what this net includes is left unclear. (Think hurricane relief, basic retirement, and basic health care.) What is clear, is that the goal of providing this safety net must be limited security and NOT absolute security. Why? Because when central governments pursue absolute security, the cost is an inevitable loss of individual planning. Why is this the case?

Well it has to do with the fact that human beings, by nature, plan for the future as both individuals and as communities. Now, what exactly is individual planning? In the economic realm its about buying and selling products and services; that is, engaging in cooperative, self-interested, voluntary exchanges with other humans in a free market. In the end, voluntary exchange is inexorably both competitive and cooperative: buyers compete with sellers, sellers compete with other sellers, buyers compete with other buyers etc. Thus individual planning in a capitalist society is moderated by supply and demand. But it's not necessarily "dog eat dog" competition. Buyers and sellers can also cooperate with each other via the formation of corporations, unions, and other non-governmental organizations. (Hint: Walmart, American Medical Association, and the Red Cross)

What is collective planning? Collective planning is when a central authority (a leader) plans for the well being of the whole community. "One size fits all!" In the political realm, this can only be accomplished by employing the coercive power of government to take money from one constituency and give it to another. (Remember Robin Hood?) Hence, the central planner(s) decide "who gets what and when." Collective planning entails replacing (or at least modifying) the act of "buying and selling." So what kinds of goods and services ought to be provided via by free market voluntary exchange and what ought to be provided by government? Military, Police and Fire Departments, Health Care, Retirement? If you believe that government ought to provide most of our economic security, you are a collectivist and a socialist. If you believe all of our needs and wants ought to be centrally distributed by government you are a totalitarian. If you believe most of our material sustence ought to be left to individual voluntary exchange within a free market, you are a individualist and a capitalist. If you believe that government ought to leave everything to the free market with no input from government, you are an anarchist.

In my next blog, I'll explore some of Hayek's specific arguments against collectivism, socialism, and central planning.

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