Interpreting the Road to Serfdom

In Hayek’s 1976 preface to the Road to Serfdom, he wrote “It has frequently been alleged that I have contended that any movement in the direction of socialism is bound to lead to totalitarianism.  Even though this danger exists, this is not what the book says.”  People still accuse Hayek of saying this.  What I think Hayek was actually saying is that implementing an economic plan requires flexibility that democracy and the rule of law do not provide.  If government attempts to plan under such institutions, people will tend to become unhappy with the institutions, and may abandon them.  Basically, democratic planning under the rule of law is unworkable.  If Hayek wasn’t saying this, then he should have.

Where this differs from the straw man (“Any movement in the direction of socialism is bound to lead to totalitarianism”) is, first, that it does not involve “any movement in the direction of socialism,” or any sort of government intervention.  We are talking about comprehensive planning.  Second, it does not involve inevitability.  If people want planning, and find their current institutions not up to the task, there is danger that they will turn to a strong man to make things right, but there is also the possibility that they will abandon planning.  The British, whose moderate degree of planning post-War is said to have disproven Hayek’s thesis, went through quite a bit of disfunction in the 70s, then elected a rather Hayekian prime minister and made a radical departure from their planning ways. 


Lefty economist Brad DeLong thinks Hayek was just covering himself when, in 1976, he said he was never claiming that slight moves in the direction of socialism would lead to totalitarianism.  DeLong does not cite the text of RTS to support his objection, instead turning to Hayek’s preface to the 1956 edition of the book:

Of course, six years of socialist government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points: that “the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people.” This is necessarily a slow affair… attitude[s] toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of… political institutions under which it lives…. [T]he change undergone… not merely under its Labour government but in the course of the much longer period during which it has been enjoying the blessings of a paternalistic welfare state, can hardly be mistaken…. Certainly German Social Democrats… never approached as closely to totalitarian planning as the British Labour government has done…. The most serious development is the growth of a measure of arbitrary administrative coercion and the progressive destruction of the cherished foundation of British liberty, the Rule of Law… [E]conomic planning under the Labour government [has] carried it to a point which makes it doubtful whether it can be said that the Rule of Law still prevails in Britain…

Does this contradict Hayek’s 1976 claims?  DeLong thinks it does on its face, but it actually depends on what thesis Hayek thinks he is defending here.  Is he defending the thesis that “any movement in the direction of socialism is bound to lead to totalitarianism?”  If so, 1976 Hayek is contradicting 1956 Hayek (but maybe not 1944 Hayek.)  Yet there is nothing in the above (ellipses are DeLong’s) indicating inevitability.  Maybe the people’s character changes, and then they, of their own free will, change it back and elect Margaret Thatcher. 

What he does say is that “economic planning under the Labour government [has] carried it to a point which makes it doubtful whether it can be said that the Rule of Law still prevails in Britain.”  So is Hayek right or wrong?  He doesn’t have to show that a dictator has come to power or that Britain has a totalitarian government, only that circa 1956 it did not have the Rule of Law.  DeLong doesn’t engage the question, but it is an important one.  Comprehensive government plans will require bureaucracies that are removed from the turbulence of interest group politics, and who have discretion rather than being governed by rigorous laws.  It doesn’t have to be a binary question of totalitarian versus free societies, where we are okay as long as society is “basically” free.  Government bodies can remove themselves from republican institutions without imposing totalitarianism; both totalitarianism and free institutions are unusual arrangements in history.


Here is some of what Hayek actually wrote in the chapter Planning and Democracy (Road to Serfdom, chapter five):

It may be the unanimously expressed will of the people that its parliament should prepare a comprehensive economic plan, yet neither the people nor its representatives need therefore be able to agree on any particular plan.  The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions.  Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective ‘talking shops,’ unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen.  The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts—permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies….

It is important clearly to see the causes of this admitted ineffectiveness of parliaments when it comes to a detailed administration of the economic affairs of a nation.  The fault is neither with the individual representatives nor with parliamentary institutions as such but with the contradictions inherent in the task with which they are charged.  They are not asked to act where they can agree, but to produce agreement on everything—the whole direction of the resources of the nation.  For such a task the system of majority decision is, however, not suited.  Majorities will be found where it is a choice between limited alternatives; but it is a superstition to believe that there must be a majority view on everything….

Nor can a coherent plan be achieved by breaking it up into parts and voting on particular issues.  A democratic assembly voting and amending a comprehensive economic plan clause by clause, as it deliberates on an ordinary bill, makes nonsense.  An economic plan, to deserve the name, must have a unitary conception….A complex whole in which all the parts must be most carefully adjusted to each other cannot be achieved through a compromise between conflicting views.

I don’t see any talk here about anything being inevitable, nor about “any movement in the direction of socialism;” again, we are talking about comprehensive planning.  Hayek wrote similar things about planning in relation to the rule of law, in the next chapter.

Israel and Hamas

Remember when Israel went to war with Hamas in 2008, then declared a cease fire and everyone said they’d lost?  They went to war after Hamas captured Gilad Shalit, and destroyed lots of stuff but didn’t get him back, but that isn’t why people said they’d lost.  Rather, their failure to completely destroy Hamas was said to mean a Hamas propaganda victory.

Yet USA Today mentions in passing the following: “Hamas lost hundreds of men in a fierce Israeli offensive against rocket squads three years ago and has largely maintained calm since then.”  Reality, not just perception, matters….

Now it’s other organizations, not Hamas, who are striking at Israel.  Hamas isn’t stopping them, so Israel is striking Gaza.

Hope for Huntsman

Lots of people have come to see Obama as a weak incumbent due to a poor economy, whose best hope is to face a candidate who is too far-right for the general electorate.  Yet Obama’s own weaknesses stem partly from his being too left-wing.  Polls have always shown that the public still blames Bush for the state of the economy; Obama’s policies faded in popularity faster than he did; and Speaker Pelosi has always been much more unpopular than President Obama.  All these are the opposite of what you would expect if Obama were truly a centrist President pursuing a popular policy agenda, and being derailed only by economic conditions.

If the Republicans nominate a right-winger (Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, Ron Paul), we could face a match-up of a President who is too left-wing for the public versus an opponent who is too right-wing.  This would be genuine, substantive polarization, unlike the version prevailing from c. 1998 through c. 2009, which consisted of policy blandness combined with intense personal hatred.  I suspect that Obama would win such a matchup by appearing more steady.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is ill-equipped to exploit Obama’s left-wing excesses on health care, due to his own similar policy in Massachusetts.  So far, we face the alternative of candidates who may be too far right to beat even a weak incumbent, versus one who is ill-equipped to take on the incumbent for being too far left. 

Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels bowed out of the race, so that leaves Jon Huntsman.  Excellent ratio of substantive conservatism to scare-the-children rhetoric; you get a lot of bang for your buck with him.  The question is whether the Tea Party wants bang for its buck, or demands scare-the-children rhetoric as a signalling device.  I think Huntsman may have a shot, despite his nowhere poll numbers.  At this time in 2000, John McCain had nowhere poll numbers, as GWB had a huge lead over McCain and that year’s crop of right-wingers.  McCain rose and rose and put up a very impressive performance.  He lost because conservatives considered him too liberal and rallied around Bush.  Romney is a much weaker front-runner than Bush was, and would not get anything like unanimous support from the Right in a two-man race with Huntsman.

New Hampshire loves knocking off GOP frontrunners, but probably isn’t in the mood for a Bachmann-type candidate (tho they went Buchannan ’92, and gave strong support to Ron Paul ’08.)  Here’s hoping they propell Huntsman this time around.


Former NHL goalie Ken Dryden has a piece on grantland about the need to do more to prevent head injuries in sports. The leagues tweak the rules, he says, but it clearly isn’t enough. But what else are they going to do? Football and hockey in anything like their current forms will always be dangerous, but people see the results and demand that the leagues do something, so they tweak.

Dryden suggests some tweaks of his own, but “[m]ost important…it’s time to think about our sports in a different way….What would we have to do differently? When do hits to the head happen? In what circumstances?…What would need to change? How would this game feel different to play? To watch? What would be lost?” He suggests getting together a committee of intellectuals to ask and answer these questions.

Football as we know it is about tactics and strategy, hitting and tackling, and skill. Why not have a game of pure strategy and skill, turning it into something like touch football? The passing game is about receivers getting open before defenders get to the QB, plus the QB’s skill in delivering the ball and the receiver’s skill in catching it. In the current game, it’s also about trying to tackle the QB and hurt him, and defensive backs jarring the ball loose from the receiver. If the QB is automatically down when you touch him with two hands, that takes care of that. If the receiver automatically has a catch once the DB makes non-incidental contact and he has the ball in his hands, there’s no incentive to try to jar it loose.

You could make it touch football after the catch. The only thing that takes away is the defender’s ability to make tackles. To a certain extent, it takes away the receiver’s ability to break tackles, but trying to avoid contact altogether actually seems like the more impressive skill. Once the defender has made contact, it’s mostly his fault if he can’t bring the player down. This would also discourage receivers from barreling into defenders.

As for the running game, a running back or QB in the open field is similar to a receiver after the catch. Tackling rather than two-hand touching doesn’t really add anything to the game here, apart from violence for its own sake. If you banned tackling altogether, you probably wouldn’t see many runs up the middle, as teams seek to find open space. This would create entertainment, and some fans hate runs up the middle, but it might also take something important away from the game and its strategy. However, most of the concern about violence in football relates to superstrong, superfast players colliding hard, which is a problem in the open field more than in the trenches. So if you defined open field as opposed to trenches, you could have different rules for different runs, or different parts of the same run.

To protect running backs, since they would still be vulnerable to tackles and grinding yourself into the line wears your knee down after a few years, perhaps we could limit their carries per game. Teams would develop running-back rotations, and having multiple good running backs would enable them to run more often. Right now, a team’s third best running back is an insurance policy, and is around for peace of mind. Here he would actually be useful, like a baseball team’s third best starting pitcher. Meanwhile, star backs play less each year but last longer this way.
All this seems to me to be the way the game is headed. Running back rotations are big in football right now, but coaches incentives are to win today, and are not aligned with the long-term interest of their running back’s career or even their teams. Hits are becoming more and more restricted, particularly against the QB, which results in defensive players often getting penalized when they are really just trying to make a tackle, and still doesn’t protect the QB from every dangerous hit. DBs already aren’t permitted to lead with their helmet in trying to prevent a catch.
What are the barriers to this happening? If the NFL implemented these policies, the result would be an alternative league, probably calling itself the Xtreme Football League. Unlike the previous incarnation of the XFL, however, it would actually get traction. Regardless of whether fans watch football for the hard hits, some players probably play for the hard hits, and would not enjoy the game without them. Football is an excellent outlet for people who want to commit limited, non-criminal violence. Moreover, big hits are enjoyable to watch, and at least some fans would not enjoy the game without them.

Over time, society seems to root out violence more and more ruthlessly, and this is the long-term trend even in football and boxing. Fans will come to feel guilty about enjoying watching big hits after constant exposure to suffering retired football players. Some players themselves may come to change their thinking. Yet I’m convinced that there will be players who know fully what to expect from their last fifty years in life, and prefer the more violent game. Most players only act tough, but they do this to survive the few who genuinely are crazy. I think that by fifty years from now high schools and colleges will adopt a finesse game, and there will be a mainstream NFL that does something similar, with an alternative XFL, if the government allows it, for people who are emotionally or physically suited to play today’s brand of football but not tomorrow’s.
Football is plagued by penalty flags. If finesse football ended up being simpler than the other sort, it would end up with a comparative advantage in that regard.

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