The View From 1776

Simple-Minded Socialism

      http://www.thomasbrewton.com/index.php/weblog/simple_minded_socialism/

One definition of insanity is repeating the same maneuver again and again, even though it always ends in disaster.

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My thanks to Peter Liniker, who edits the UK website petes world, which is temporarily under repair.  He directed me to Theodore Dalrymple’s article in City Journal’s Spring 2005 edition titled The Roads to Serfdom.

The article’s title refers to Friedrich Hayek’s celebrated “The Road to Serfdom” in which he predicted, shortly after the end of World War II, that Britain’s Labor Government plans for full-scale socialism were foredoomed.

Mr. Dalrymple notes the resulting change in British psychology, from concern for one’s neighbors and for the well-being of society as a whole, to self-centered dependence on the political state for every daily need.  This is exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the French citizenry in the mid-1800s as a consequence of socialism in that formerly great nation.  It is precisely the change wrought in the United States as a consequence of President Franklin Roosevelt’s imposition of our socialist welfare state under his New Deal in the 1930s.

Liberal-socialists believe ? and teach our children ? that only the government can improve people’s lives.  In the liberal creed, individualism, personal responsibility, and moral rectitude are nothing more than criminal greed. 

This requires doctrinaire blindness, or insanity.  To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, liberalism is, at best, a form of neurosis.

The following excepts from Mr Dalrymple’s fairly lengthy article should be enough to encourage you to read the entire piece:

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Why couldn?t the dedication of millions, centrally coordinated by the government?a coordinated dedication that had produced unprecedented quantities of aircraft and munitions?be adapted to defeat what London School of Economics head Sir William Beveridge, in his wartime report on social services that was to usher in the full-scale welfare state in Britain, called the ?five giants on the road to reconstruction?: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness?

By the time Beveridge published his report in 1942, most of the intellectuals of the day assumed that the government, and only the government, could accomplish these desirable goals. Indeed, it all seemed so simple a matter that only the cupidity and stupidity of the rich could have prevented these ends from already having been achieved. The Beveridge Report states, for example, that want ?could have been abolished in Britain before the present war? and that ?the income available to the British people was ample for such a purpose.? It was just a matter of dividing the national income cake into more equal slices by means of redistributive taxation. If the political will was there, the way was there; there was no need to worry about effects on wealth creation or any other adverse effects.

Hayek pointed out that the wartime unity of purpose was atypical; in more normal times, people had a far greater, indeed an infinite, variety of ends, and anyone with the power to adjudicate among them in the name of a conscious overall national plan, allowing a few but forbidding most, would exert vastly more power than the most bloated plutocrat of socialist propaganda had ever done in a free-market society.

Orwell?s assertion that the state would simply calculate what was needed airily overlooked the difficulties of the matter, as well as his proposal?s implications for freedom. The ?directing brains,? as Orwell called them, would have to decide how many hairpins, how many shoelaces, were ?needed? by the population under their purview. They would have to make untold millions of such decisions, likewise coordinating the production of all components of each product, on the basis of their own arbitrary notions of what their fellow citizens needed. Orwell?s goal, therefore, was a society in which the authorities strictly rationed everything; for him, and untold intellectuals like him, only rationing was rational. It takes little effort of the imagination to see what this control would mean for the exercise of liberty. Among other things, people would have to be assigned work regardless of their own preferences.

Collectivist thinking arose,  according to Hayek, from impatience, a lack of historical perspective, and an arrogant belief that, because we have made so much technological progress, everything must be susceptible to human control. While we take material advance for granted as soon as it occurs, we consider remaining social problems as unprecedented and anomalous, and we propose solutions that actually make more difficult further progress of the very kind that we have forgotten ever happened. While everyone saw the misery the Great Depression caused, for example, few realized that, even so, living standards actually continued to rise for the majority. If we live entirely in the moment, as if the world were created exactly as we now find it, we are almost bound to propose solutions that bring even worse problems in their wake…...

The most interesting aspect of Hayek?s book, however, is not his refutation of collectivist ideas?which, necessary as it might have been at that moment, was not by any means original. Rather, it is his observations of the moral and psychological effects of the collectivist ideal that, 60 years later, capture the imagination?mine, at least.

Hayek thought he had observed an important change in the character of the British people, as a result both of their collectivist aspirations and of such collectivist measures as had already been legislated. He noted, for example, a shift in the locus of people?s moral concern. Increasingly, it was the state of society or the world as a whole that engaged their moral passion, not their own conduct. ?It is, however, more than doubtful whether a fifty years? approach towards collectivism has raised our moral standards, or whether the change has not rather been in the opposite direction,? he wrote. ?Though we are in the habit of priding ourselves on our more sensitive social conscience, it is by no means clear that this is justified by the practice of our individual conduct.? In fact, ?It may even be . . . that the passion for collective action is a way in which we now without compunction collectively indulge in that selfishness which as individuals we had learnt a little to restrain.?

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