The road to serfdom

Is there is a book that is more deeply dishonest than Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”?  Towards the end of his life Hayek  visited Pinochet’s Chile and - toasting  traitors, rapists, torturers, and murderers -  he thanked them for restoring “economic liberty”.  In 1943 he was more circumspect:


It is important to remember that for some time before 1933 Germany had reached a stage in which it had, in effect, had to be governed dictatorially. Nobody could then doubt that for the time being democracy had broken down, and that sincere democrats like Bruning were no more able to govern democratically than Schleicher or von Papen. Hitler did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he yet seemed the only man strong
enough to get things done.

The whole pitch of “Road to Serfdom” is that economic planning by  government sets the stage for Stalinist or Nazi tyranny - that well meaning or duplicitous reformers start a nation down this road to totalitarianism with their irresponsible  talk of day care centers and public works. But what Hayek means by liberty or democracy has nothing to do with enlightenment values of universal human rights. Hayek exploits the ambiguity between the old use of liberty by European monarchists and aristocrats and the use  by Enlightenment figures like Diderot, Locke and Mill  so that he can  disguise his actual political view.  Only when he extolled the Pinochet government for restoring economic liberty or dared to say that the terrorist Schleicher was unable to govern Weimar Germany democratically does Hayek open the door to a little truth

More recently I have not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende - Letter to the London Times, F. A. Hayek July 11, 1978.

Here is the testimony of a guest of the Pinochet government about the personal freedom she enjoyed.

Then they called my father and began torturing him in front of me so that I would talk. They beat him and used electric shocks, but they still went on hitting me.

"1 finally lost consciousness. Then they brought in my brother and did the same thing to him. This went on from about 3 in the afternoon until 9 in the morning, "Then they began to cut my body. They pulled my nipples violently and they cut me with knives and razor blades. They put metal objects and their hands into my vagina, then more electric shocks — always blindfold except when they had me watching them torture my father and brother.

"They brought in my father and brother again and wanted us to have sexual relations. I screamed, and finally I fainted, They kept hitting me, my head and ears. I am still deaf and my head is full of strange noises.

“Then they threw me onto a mattress and raped me, I fainted. I don’t know how many of them were there. [cite]

“I have not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.”


Hayek’s defenders are apt to claim that when he was defending people who engaged in “economic liberty” he was 80 years old and such a minor oversight should not be used to invalidate his lifelong commitment to liberty as it is normally understood.  But look at that passage from Road to Serfdom above and pick out the name Schleicher, one of the well intentioned people, according to Hayek,  were unable to govern Germany democratically.

Freikorps were the brainchild of Major Kurt von Schleicher. The Freikorps were also called the “Black Reichswehr” (Black Army) for they were a ‘secret’ army outside the bounds of the Versailles Treaty. The idea was developed after the failure of an army unit to quell a small rebellion in Berlin at the Battle of the Schloss. The army unit, when confronted by a socialist group with women and children, threw down their weapons and either ran away or joined the protest group. This led Major von Schleicher to conceive an alternative to using Reichswehr units to quell “red” (socialist or communist) uprisings. He suggested to his superiors to form volunteer units recruited from the old Reichswehr and commanded by former Imperial officers under governmental control. This way the Reichswehr would avoid the stigma of having to fire on civilians and the government would be financially supporting these freikorps, leaving the Reichswehr to concentrate on training for real battle [Wikipedia]

Schleicher tried to govern Germany  “democratically” by setting up state sponsored paramilitary groups that would not balk at shooting women and children who were protesting.  We can see the same attitude in Hayek’s frankly Orwellian “history” of 19th Century British Liberalism (this is the European use of “liberal” not the American one).

It is significant that this change in the trend of ideas has coincided with a reversal of the direction in which ideas have travelled in space. For over two hundred years English ideas had been spreading eastwards. The rule of freedom which had been achieved in England seemed destined to spread throughout the world. By about 1870 the reign of these ideas had probably reached its easternmost expansion. From then onwards it began to retreat and a different set of ideas, not really new but very old, began to advance from the East.


The Rule of Freedom which had been achieved in England was so extensive that the army was called out to suppress the Chartist movement. This movement had the following dangerous demands:

  • Institution of a secret ballot
  • General elections be held annually
  • Members of Parliament not be required to own property
  • MPs be paid a salary
  • Electoral districts of equal size
  • Universal male suffrage

Fortunately Personal Freedom was protected when the British Army and local paramilitary killed unarmed peaceful protesters in Manchester in 1819, many with sabres. The Chartists also opposed the Corn laws. These laws forbid the importation of grain into the United Kingdom unless the price stayed high.    Funny how Hayek doesn’t mention even 19th century laws regulating trade - well before the evil socialists began their assault on civilization.  The Corn laws were finally repealed in 1846, which would have been good for English urban workers except that their wages then fell to match the reduced costs of grain.The falling wages of British workers were due, of course, to the Freedom of the Market, including such market forces as the Combination Acts that made bargaining for wage increases, picketing, strikes, or any other trade union activity illegal. In fact, trade union activity was a criminal conspiracy under these acts. British workers were blessed with the personal freedom to take the wages their employers offered or starve or go to jail. Only in 1870, when Hayek bemoans the retreat of the tide of Freedom was this law relaxed slightly. For workers who did not avail themselves of Freedom to Work Without Complaint, there were also those classic examples of 19th Century British Liberalism - the workhouses. In these institutions, poor people were taught the virtues of enterpreneurialism by being locked up and essentially reduced to indentured servitude and otherwise indulged in Personal Freedom:

Andover had a reputation for being an extremely strict workhouse, largely due its fearsome Master Colin McDougal, a former sergeant-major who had fought at Waterloo in 1815. His wife, Mary Ann, was a force to be reckoned with and was once described by the Chairman of the Guardians as “a violent lady”. The McDougals ran the workhouse like a penal colony, keeping expenditure and food rations to a minimum, much to the approval of the majority of the Guardians. Inmates in the workhouse had to eat their food with their fingers, and were denied the extra food and drink provided elsewhere at Christmas or for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Any man who tried to exchange a word with his wife at mealtimes was given a spell in the refractory cell. Work, too, was hard for the inmates. The workhouse’s favoured occupation for able-bodied men was the strenuous task of crushing old bones to turn them into fertilizer. In 1845, rumours began to spread in the neighbourhood that men in the workhouse bone-yard were so hungry that they had resorted eating the tiny scraps of marrow and gristle attached to the old bones they were supposed to be crushing. Fighting had almost broken out when a particularly succulent bone came their way. cite

Rape was also common in workhouses, although I have not seen any documentation of Pinochet style Personal Rape Freedom with metal objects and such like. According to Hayek, this world of workhouses and combination acts was one in which the government did not interfere with individual liberty. 

It must also not be forgotten that socialism is not only by far the most important species of collectivism or “planning”; but that it is socialism which has persuaded liberal-minded people to submit once more to that regimentation of economic life which they had overthrown because, in the words of Adam Smith, it puts governments in a position where “to support themselves they are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical”.

If we are going to talk about personal freedom in the United Kingdom in the 19th century we can’t forget the Irish potato famine of the 1840s in which 1 million Irish people freely starved to death and a million more emigrated while Ireland remained a net food exporter. Apparently free Irish peasants, whose land had been freely appropriated and given away to British landlords by the British Army freely expired after freely choosing not to eat food. The Irish were not the only beneficiaries of the rule of Freedom. Think of the lucky Indians who got to labor in British government opium fields or purchase opium from the government monopoly! When the British Army and the East India Company (a government monopoly) extended the rule of freedom east to India, imposing punitive taxes on Indian peasants to pay for it all, the Indian share of the world economy went from 22% in 1700 to 3.8% by 1952! And the Chinese also benefited from the rule of Freedom when the British navy burned Chinese cities and extorted both blackmail payments and opening of China to sales of opium grown by the British government monopoly on confiscated lands in India! How lucky they were not to be oppressed by socialists.

So we see that in Pinochet’s Chile, in Weimar, and in 19th Century British Imperium, the use of state violence to suppress workers demands for living wages and participation in government is Freedom but things like government health care and housing assistance are “oppressive and tyrannical”. This is how Hayek puts it:

The question is whether for this purpose it is better that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals is given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether a rational utilisation of our resources requires central direction and organisation of all our activities according to some consciously constructed “blueprint”

The knowledge and initiative of poor people in the UK apparently was given the best possible scope when cavalry attacked them with swords or they were put to work crushing bones in a workhouse or left to die of starvation in Ireland while soldiers guarded the export storehouses. Apparently combination acts and Opium Wars are not despotic central planning any more than military coups and shoving metal into the vaginas of prisoners. No “blueprint” though, so it’s all good. Arbeit macht frei.

Notes

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