Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 10, “Why the Worst Get on Top”

This article is the eleventh in a series reviewing Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Previous entries can be found here.

During my years in school, I recall being told on multiple occasions when the subject turned to the 20th century’s many brutal dictators that, ultimately, the problem was one of personnel. It was not so much that their intentions were wrong, one professor told us in my undergraduate years, but that the wrong people wound up in charge. This treatment of the questions of goals and personnel, of selection for values and selection for personalities, as separable questions is, on its face, troublesome. Consider how few individuals in society are truly murderous psychopaths. Even sociopaths, the vast majority of whom are non-violent, only make up roughly four percent of the population. Yet, when we look at the number of dictatorships to emerge in the 20th century, we find a disporportionate number of them to have been horrendously violent, murderous personalities who, even when not committing acts of violence against dissenters at a given moment, were cravenly indifferent to the injustices of the systems over which they presided.

This is why Hayek’s tenth chapter, “Why the Worst Get on Top,” is such an important part of the story of the problems with both dictatorship and socialism of all kinds. It must be borne in mind, however, that so much of Hayek’s book is about the dangers of socialism and central planning on a democratic model and how democratic socialism is no less destructive in the long run than dictatorial models of socialism. It is, in that sense, as much about how the selection of parliamentarians, congressmen, and senators is transformed by the expansion of the state into ever more areas of human life as it is about why Lenin begat Stalin or how Nazi Germany managed to choose an emotionally unstable amphetamine addict as its fuhrer. The task is to discern just how the form of the state and the selection of leaders are related to one another. Let us see what Hayek has to say.

Hayek calls this Accident Theory of socialist brutality “a belief from which many who regard the advent of totalitarianism as inevitable derive consolation and which seriously weakens the resistance of many others who would oppose it with all their might if they fully apprehended its nature.” Rhetorically, establishing his task, he then asks “Why should it not be possible that the same sort of system, if it be necessary to achieve important ends, be run by decent people for the good of the community as a whole?” Though he elaborates upon it in pages to come, he answers his own question within two paragraphs: “Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers of abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism.” [Emphasis mine.]

Insofar as Hayek has gone here, he is quite right and more than a little prescient. The practices of murder, deception, theft, and abuse have been borne out in subsequent generations of public choice research as instrumental to the survival of dictators. As Gordon Tullock noted, the fall of autocrats such as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran are often preceded by periods of loosening controls and diminished secret police tactics, leading to reduced information about plots against the state as well as an increased popular perception of the regime as weak. In a dictatorship, doing the wrong thing becomes a matter of survival and (without assuming that dictators harbor secret desires to be good) we can properly say that dictatorship becomes a “trap” of immoral behavior necessitated by the dictator’s position and that failing to be immoral often literally spells death for him. What follows, however, introduces a point on which Hayek should be challenged.

“The ‘moral basis of collectivism,’” Hayek writes,

“has, of course, been much debated in the past; but what concerns us here is not its moral basis but its moral results. The usual discussions of the ethical aspects of collectivism refer to the question whether collectivism is demanded by existing moral convictions; or what moral convictions would be required if collectivism is to produce the hoped-for results. Our question… is what moral views will be produced by a collectivist organization of society, or what views are likely to rule it” (pg. 158)

The issue of the moral values produced by collectivism is not insignificant and should undoubtedly be addressed, but it seems difficult to cultivate a full understanding of the problem which Hayek is trying to solve without wrestling with the moral basis of collectivism itself. We must ask whether, by taking that approach, we are not engaging in the same sort of epistemological disintegration evinced by proponents of the Accident Theory but this time—perhaps more dangerously—doing so at the level of morality rather than politics. Whereas the Accident Theorists would have us separate the theoretical foundations of a polity from its political results, this approach is asking us to make the same incision at the level of morality. The question of whether collectivism is demanded by certain moral convictions is crucial, as is its converse: whether certain moral convictions necessarily lead to collectivism and its disastrous consequences. As it pertains to the subject of this chapter, an affirmative answer to this question would lead us to inquire as to what moral premises held by individuals so resonate with the moral character of collectivist institutions to promote those individuals to the forefront. That would seem to be the key puzzle here, half of which depends upon understanding of collectivism’s moral basis. To ignore that link makes us vulnerable to the conclusion that the moral results of collectivism are or could be entirely independent of its moral basis.

True to expectations, Hayek immediately proceeds to claim that,

“[t]he interaction between morals and institutions may well have the effect that the ethics produced by collectivism will be altogether different from the moral ideals that lead to the demand for collectivism. While we are likely to think that, since the desire for a collectivist system springs from high moral motives, such a system must be the breeding-ground for the highest virtues, there is, in fact, no reason why any system should necessarily enhance those attitudes which serve the purpose for which it was designed” [Emphasis mine.] (pg. 158).

Hayek herein suggests that there, in fact, is a significant divergence between the moral motives of collectivists and the practices which are produced by their systems. In the narrower, public choice sense of saying that every mid-level bureaucrat at the Department of Housing and Urban Development need not wish for the perpetuation of poverty for the set of policies that that agency applies to perpetuate poverty, that is true. But that is a story of political failure. Totalitarianism, systematically applied with remarkable effectiveness as it was in multiple societies during the 20th century, is best understood less as political failure than as the highly successful implementation of a political program—albeit one which is to the detriment of millions. When one looks to the cultural histories of those societies, as Leonard Peikoff demonstrates with regard to Nazi Germany in The Ominous Parallels, one finds metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical ideas which, though not always the fully developed worldviews that they would become under totalitarianism, are nonetheless strikingly consistent with them. Mysticism, a rejection of reason, altruist ethics, and collectivist political views over the course of several centuries were put into practice with Nazism. That may have culminated in a result which many who held those philosophical positions would have rejected, but it doesn’t make the connection between the beliefs and practices irrelevant.

To say “I want policies x, y, and z, but I do not want any of their consequences” is an evasion that rejects basic causality. Hayek can claim that some anti-reason, altruistic collectivists possess high moral motives because they fantasize that their preferred policies will work out differently than all available evidence portends, but I counter that such evasions of reality do not qualify as good intentions when they indulge a fantasy at the expense of truth and of immense human suffering. Furthermore, those who hold such delusions are only one part of those who hold collectivist values. The other consists of those who know full well what brutality collectivism entails but justify it as necessary for the achievement of their values and, for some of them, in pursuit of the power which they foresee possessing in the collectivist society to come.

Thus, per usual, Hayek grants far too much to collectivists and fails to make the link between fundamental philosophical principles and the manifestations of collectivism. While it is true that there can always be a divergence between the values which are intended in undertaking a course of action (e.g. a “war on poverty”) and the results of that system (bureaucrats augmenting their offices as poverty endures), this explanation fails on the scale of totalitarianism, which is difficult to characterize as a mere matter incentive or informational failures precipitating political failure but is better understood as a successful application of a horrendous set of values consistently applied. It is understandable that one might be reluctant to accept that any individual or culture would choose the destruction which comes with totalitarianism, but that does not make them immune from choosing values which, if consistently applied, nonetheless lead to their own enslavement and victimization. We must not discard the considerable historical evidence which suggests consonance between the expressed philosophical values of pre-totalitarian societies and the practices carried out by the all-powerful states that grow to consume them.

This is not to lose sight of the good elsewhere in “Why the Worst Get on Top.” Following this, Hayek proceeds to make several valid and important observations, not the least of which regards the destructive effects of totalitarian society on those who serve in its political infrastructure. “The chance of imposing a totalitarian regime on a whole people depends on the leader’s first collecting round him a group which is prepared voluntarily to submit to the totalitarian discipline which they are to impose by force upon the rest.” This is the same point further elaborated by philosopher Hannah Arendt with regard to the acceptance of irrationality and self-abnegation on the part of concentration camp guards. In subjugating others, they begin by subjugating themselves.

Hayek’s discussion of the failure of socialist parties in Weimar Germany to assume the responsibilities of governance demonstrate the principle, mentioned in previous chapter reviews, that “in any conflict between two men or two groups who share the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins out.” In Hayek’s words, the socialist parties,”were unwilling wholeheartedly to employ the methods to which they had pointed the way.” They had adopted force as a means of organizing society but were not consistent enough in employing it to seize the high ground. As a result, they agreed to a given standard of allocating power and were then handicapped when they found it wielded against them.

Hayek then proceeds to argue for three reasons why any numerous, strong group in such a society is likely to consist of society’s worst elements. The principles on which such a group would be selected, he argues, are likely to be overwhelmingly negative. First, he contends that the higher the intelligence and level of educational attainment of individuals, the more likely their tastes are to be heterogeneous and diverse and “the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values” (pg. 159).

Unlike some other claims of Hayek’s with which we might herein agree or disagree, this one is particularly testable. Political opinion research, using factor analysis, has produced an established literature on the relationship between intelligence, education, and ideology. Hayek’s hypothesis, to state it clearly, is that higher levels of educational attainment and intelligence should be associated with increased heterogeneity of ideological views. Empirically, intelligence and education do appear to have distinct influences on individual political views.

Increasing educational attainment (while controlling for other relevant variables) appears to produce a decidedly pro-market shift in public opinion. More educated respondents tend to be more friendly to free economic association and more socially liberal. As for intelligence, research by Bryan Caplan and Stephen C. Miller, incorporating measures of intelligence into data from the General Social Survey, suggests that intelligence actually unseats education as the foremost factor in determining economic beliefs. Higher intelligence appears to be associated, again, with more economically pro-market and socially liberal views.

This doesn’t mean that more educated people are all libertarians or laissez-faire capitalists; it simply suggests that, with greater education, one becomes more inclined to such views than one otherwise would be. The really interesting result, however, comes by testing the interaction of education and ideology. When this is done, the results suggest that with greater levels of education, one becomes more attuned to and aware of what one’s own ideology says about a particular issue. The ideology becomes more comprehensive and integrated. As a result, the ideological spectrum is said to be “stretched” by increased education. In short, writing decades before such empirical evidence was produced, Hayek appears to be quite right!

The trouble arises in applying this to yield a better understanding of what we observe in the emergence totalitarian societies. Again—both because of its vividness and the fact that it was the backdrop against which Hayek was writing—we look to the rise of fascism in Europe in the mid-20th century. Germany before the rise of the Nazis was renowned in Europe and the Western world as the pinnacle of education and intellectual sophistication. Prominent Amerian intellectuals such as Woodrow Wilson often earned part of their education at its universities. This should suggest a “stretched” ideological spectrum in Germany. If the number of parties in operation during the Weimar period is taken as a proxy, then an argument might be made for this. A look at the substance of their views, however, suggests more of a gradient of similar fundamental ideas than a broad variety of perspectives. With few exceptions, all parties were some variant of leftism, distinguished only by their degree of commitment to its principles and the particular professional or social group that supported them. Nazis, in fact, were so successful in part because they drew from such a wide variety of social groups, from the young street thugs who became the brown shirts to—within a short time—university professors and industrialists. They found common ground in their contempt for the mind—street thugs by subjugating it to brute force, university professors by denying its power to comprehend reality.

Thus, when Hayek writes that aspiring totalitarians must “descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and ‘common’ instincts and tastes prevail,” he is not necessarily wrong, but we must remain clear that it does not preclude the possibility that such low standards might prevail in the most prestigious intellectual institutions of a profoundly degraded society. When he writes that “[i]f a numerous group is needed, strong enough to impose their views on the values of life on all the rest, it will never be those with highly differentiated and developed tastes,” he is correct that they will not be greatly differentiated (which any totalitarian society would forbid), but they may well be developed in the sense of being highly sophisticated towards a particular end, honed and trained according to particular philosophical precepts.

This is where Hayek’s second reason for the worst getting on top arises. The second negative principle of selection, he writes, is that the dictator

“will be able to obtain the support of all the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party.” (pg. 160).

Again, this is not an altogether insignificant element, but this “duping” theory in which a whole population is tricked into totalitarianism by a leader or party whom few if any could have ever suspected beforehand risks portraying the totalitarian state which emerges as totally independent of the prevailing ideology which existed in the culture beforehand. It neglects to consider the possibility that, as discussed above, the totalitarian ideology is simply a more consistent and thoroughly applied manifestation of certain misguided popular views which are popular in the culture but which most fail to take to their logical conclusion. In a culture which extols the sacrifice of the individual to the collective and the minority to the majority, proponents of such a view will struggle to find any rational means by which to object to a totalitarian state which commences to do so literally. When consistent altruist-collectivists come to collect from their less consistent fellow citizens, the victims will lack a firm moral objection and are likely to find their own words thrown back at them in the end.

A corollary to this oversight is found later in the chapter when Hayek writes that

“[t]o be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, it is not enough that a man should be prepared to accept specious justification of vile deeds; he must himself be prepared to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him” (pg. 169).

This, however, neglects the role of culture and morality in cultivating a set of values which, though perhaps less consistently applied than they come to be under totalitarianism, are nonetheless salient: mysticism, a denial of reason, a morality of sacrifice, and the enshrinement of the collective at the expense of the individual. Raised and accultured in a society which preaches these values, an individual need not be amoral or abandon his every value to serve the totalitarian state; rather, he will find himself philosophically disarmed in trying to object to the program which is being proposed. And it is not the case that a large swath of the population comes to be convinced of the morality of a certain type of society but that those elites in command of the state see it as a power-grabbing charade and use it to further their own ends. To the contrary, they are often just as caught up (if not more so) in the system of beliefs fueling that society as anyone. They are being selected for their commitment to those ideals.

Hayek’s third reason is one from which modern opponents of statism could stand to learn, and he describes it as the most important of the three. That is: the relative ease of the masses in agreeing upon a negative program rather than a positive one. “The contrast between the ‘we’ 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” (pg. 160). Hayek notes the tendency to single out an enemy, internal or external, as a means of consolidating allegiances and points to the persistent association in Austria and Germany of Jews with capitalism, vilifying each by association with the other.

Consider the relationship of this phenomenon to current political debate in the United States. Ayn Rand long argued that if dictatorship ever came to the United States it would be in a fascist form with communist slogans in which the businessman would be used as the scapegoat. Fortunately, modern hyperbole aside, we are still far from such a dystopian reality. Nonetheless, we do suffer from such vilification of out groups, which serves to unite people of wildly divergent political ideologies—if not over ends or means, then at least over a common object of hatred. The modern image of a “globalist” elite is perhaps the most feverishly despised archetype in American society, hated by both populist Republicans and socialist Democrats. The groups may detest one another and may disagree over the particular policies which should be pursued against this shared enemy, but they appear to agree that embellishing the state with new and greater powers is the solution—the socialists perhaps favoring forcible disbandment or subjugation of corporations under state control and the populists choosing tariffs, protectionism, and policies with a more nationalistic flavor. Faced with the problem of government being coopted as an instrument of special interests, neither group rejects the fundamental premise of intermixing state and industry; both accept the intermixture and simply contend that government should have the upper hand and be used according to their particular ends. This is how fascism, its linguistic roots referring to the bundling of interests, truly does bundle together disparate groups on common grounds of power seeking, imbued with common hatreds.

Hayek cautions against allowing the story to end at treating the marriage of nationalism and collectivist planning as an easy, effective means of garnering support. He goes further to ask whether collectivist planning can ever truly be universalist or whether it is necessarily always in the service of some narrower group—the race, the nation, the class. This is where Hayek is again a great precursor to public choice research, which consistently reveals the fated marriage between power and narrow interests. Often, such interests are on the level of the individual, but where the costs of doing so are infeasible, resort is typically made to benefiting one’s group. Wealth, security, and prestige are sought for one’s group, and the costs of remaining a lone, unaffiliated individual continue to rise as others join this or that interest group, lobby, mob. This has drastic implications for the ideal of world socialism as presented by the USSR during the Cold War and by international socialists in the years since its collapse. By the end, the Soviets had had a tumultuous relationship with the idea of the nation, extolling a global ideal while using nationalism instrumentally when it was needed and, when it became costly, discarding it with similar ease.

The national or international character of socialism, the relationship of “liberal individualism” to state sovereignty, the nature of collectivist versus individualist ethics, his distinction between moral values and “useful habits,” and other issues with which Hayek contends in the second half of the chapter are important, and though minor quibbles may be made with this or that sentence, the essence of their points is broadly correct. The only remaining complaint worth issuing arises in Hayek’s discussion of economic versus political power.

“[E]conomic power, while it can be an instrument of coercion, is, in the hands of private individuals, never exclusive or complete power, never power over the whole life of a person. But centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery” (pg. 165)

It is still unclear here that Hayek respects a fundamental difference between economic and political power. He accepts that economic power can be a tool of coercion but distinguishes it from political power solely as a matter of degree or concentration: political power is subsumed under one government, whereas market power is dispersed and made subject to competition; when concentration reaches a certain threshold, it becomes a difference in kind. The fundamental evaded here is that political power is underwritten by the use or threat of physical force. It is the power to coerce. Economic power, by contrast, is the power to produce and to trade in values. One is the power over people, irrespective of their wills; the other is power over productive materials and the ability to deal with others by offering value for value. Intriguingly, the confusion of political versus economic power and the idea that concentration of power is the deciding factor between the two is behind a wide array of political errors on both right and left today—errors to which Hayek himself is not immune. He blurs this conceptual distinction and claims that economic power can be “centralized as an instrument of political power,” without challenging the intellectual package-deal of treating “power” as one homogeneous characteristic or as something that morphs fluidly between coercive and non-coercive forms without altering its fundamental character. In the process, Hayek misses an opportunity to further differentiate the essential natures of force and production.

Overall, “Why the Worst Get on Top” is a valuable attempt at solving the puzzle it presents. It carries with it numerous flaws, usually—as we have addressed in previous chapter reviews—stemming from Hayek’s failure or reluctance to dive deeper into the role of ideas and the linkages between the philosophy and culture of a pre-totalitarian society and the horror that it comes to produce. He is right to dispense with the Accident Theory but falls short by refusing to link the moral basis of collectivism to the moral ideas that it produces, errantly treating one as fully comprehensible without reference to the other. And again, it seems a great missed opportunity to have failed to convey in this book the fundamental difference between economic and political power. Though it is not the main theme of the book, it is one to which Hayek appears to return atavistically throughout its pages, and a fuller understanding of its nature offered by a classically liberal intellectual luminary such as Hayek would have been an invaluable offering.

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