Sunday, December 12, 2010
Ayn Rand’s Road to Serfdom (Part I)
In an earlier post I discussed my mixed feelings, as a libertarian, about Ayn Rand. She was most certainly a libertarian and Libertarianism was the foundation of her thought, without which nothing else of hers can stand. That being said the Ayn Rand that most people are familiar with and the aspect of her thought that proves to be a turnoff, her glorification of selfishness, is that which is outside of Libertarianism. For that reason, Ayn Rand proves to be a tainted gift to libertarian thought. This was brought home to me in listening to Atlas Shrugged. At its heart, the novel plays out Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom scenario. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand had to taint the novel by being Ayn Rand.
To summarize Hayek's scenario: the government, backed by mass popular demand, steps forward to direct the economy in such a way as to advance the "public interest." To do this, an economic board of planning (or group of czars) is set up to regulate the major industries, "big business," to stop the very real abuses going on and make sure they act according to the best interests of the public. These sentiments are certainly very noble and for this reason, most of the population (including its intellectuals) support this board; they are convinced that under the board's rational guidance the economy will become not just more equitable for the poor, but more effective for all. The problem is that no one realizes that in addition to the principles they thought they were signing on to, they also have, de facto, signed onto three other principles which are inimical to any liberalism. One, that there is such a thing as the "public interest" for the board to advance and to which everyone must submit to. Two, that anyone who goes against this public interest is an "enemy of the people." Three, that the economic board in service of the public interest is above the rule of law.
The board honestly attempts to promote the public interest, but immediately run up against the reality that there is no public interest, but literally millions of "special interest" groups. Who is the public interest, factory workers, farmers, office secretaries or college professors? All of these groups have conflicting interests and will insist that their interests are the interests that the board needs to advance as the public interest. It also turns out that rather than the paragons of wisdom and virtue envisioned by the public, the economic board consists of human beings, forming one more special interest, armed with the human capacity for self-delusion to equate their special interest (their continued ability to control the economy) with the public interest.
Meanwhile, in an exercise in the power of unforeseen consequences, representatives of all the major industries descend on the capital eager to demonstrate their willingness to embrace this new spirit of public mindedness and to make sure that any policy crafted by the board includes just the right loopholes to not affect them and destroy their competitors. Thus, the members of the board, rather than overseeing the abuses of big business soon find themselves in bed with them, but now under the unimpeachable banner of the public interest.
Beyond the potential damage created by any of the board's policies is the fact that they have set a new tone for the society. Even if our economic planners did not intend this, now the road to success is not in producing new goods for the economy, but in being able to navigate this new game of economic policymaking. Thus the nation's best and brightest turn from producing in the private economy to becoming lobbyists. They are followed by the nation's most disreputable and criminally inclined, who rush to take the new government jobs now that they offer a means to practice real world coercion over other people. Now, instead of being in private business, where the government can keep an eye on them, they are in the government, outside of government regulation, and serving the "public interest," making them really untouchable.
The board's attempt to craft an economic plan to serve the public interest was doomed even when the people involved actually had good intentions, let alone after what happened has in the meantime. Whatever plan they come up with will not benefit the entire range of the public. There is going to be a group of people whose interests are harmed and who must be sacrificed on the altar of this public interest. (Obviously the group of people who were the least effective at heading to the capital and lobbying the economic board.) In order to justify this, the board is going to need to villainize this group. Unlike under traditional liberalism where political losers can be left to lick their wounds and try again the next election cycle, this group needs to be cast as enemies of the people. How could they be anything less if they are against the "public interest?" It helps if this group consists of members of a traditionally despised minority. To sell its economic plan, with its chosen villain, the board will launch a massive propaganda campaign, using every available medium. Every man woman and child must be taught to know the public interest and how best to advance it.
What happens when this much touted economic plan fails to bring about all the miracles the public was promised? Rather than give up power, the board will insist that the continued economic difficulties are not proof that its measures were ineffective, but, on the contrary, that the policies were not taken far enough. Not enough action was taken against the enemies of the people, who were allowed to sabotage the public interest. The public will react not by turning against the board, but by giving it expanded power. (Government bureaucracies, like organized religions, have the power to survive any disaster and even benefit from them by arguing that failure is proof that the policies in question were not practiced zealously enough.) Before too long this board will find itself with the power to ignore such traditional protections as freedom of expression, innocent until proven guilty and due process. After all who has time to bother with such quaint practices now that there is a national emergency and the State is overrun with enemies of the public interest? The nation's former disreputable element, who previously flocked to government posts, gladly offer their services in carrying out the more distasteful of these tasks.
It should be noted that all of this is going on under a democratic system. From here it is only a small matter for a demagogue to arise and promise the public to bring the economic benefits so long promised by the board. After so many years of the board's public interest policies, which has caused everyone to act in a way that is most certainly not in the public interest, and propaganda, all sense of genuine civic virtue and liberty have long since rotted away from the society. The masses flock to this demagogue, but they are soon followed by the nation's intellectuals, whom one would have expected to know better. Finally, the board lays itself at the foot of our demagogue, placing him as dictator, Duce or Fuhrer, having already created for him the propaganda machine, police system and, most importantly, the intellectual justifications for him to use them for his tyrannical reign.
(To be continued …)