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Hayek on Our Brains

August 30, 2012

‘A specter is haunting the Republican National Convention’, writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, ‘the spectre of ideology.’ Indeed, while the Austrian economist and intellectual Friedrich Hayek and the novelist Ayn Rand were already well-known to American libertarians before the nomination of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan for Vice-President, in the weeks since Ryan has embarked onto the national stage, these two thinkers have vaulted into the mainstream. Defenders of Ryan praise his ‘intellectual serious’ and of their relief that Americans will finally have an ‘honest conversation’ about ideas – something that liberal lion Leon Wieseltier readily sinks his teeth into in a recent magisterial article on Rand, Hayek, and Ryan for The New Republic. Whether one agrees with the former or the latter, the public hearing that these two mid-century authors are now getting provides a lively opportunity to examine the thinkers whom Snyder correctly calls ‘the intellectual touchstone for Ryan and many others on the right wing of the Republican Party.’

What, precisely, is that touchstone? Snyder and Wieseltier point out, both Hayek (an Austrian economist who primarily inhabited the Anglo World in the second half of his life) and Rand (a Russian Jew who spent the first twenty years of her life in Petersburg before emigrating to the United States to write fiction and, later, ideological manifestos) were haunted by a fear of the expansive state. Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom in the early 1940s, a time when contemporaries thought of the Third Reich less as a eliminationist anti-Semitism and agrarian anti-modernist ambitions for Eastern Europe and more as a ‘totalitarian’, expansive state that sought to control the lives of all of its citizens (in fact, at the time, the question among many was whether Hitler was the puppet of German capitalists).

Friedrich Hayek: underappreciated in his time, misunderstood in ours?

While many Western intellectuals, particularly in France, were taken by Stalinism as a viable alternative to ‘exhausted’ or ‘weak’ Western liberalism, Rand, who left the USSR in 1925, was more sober. Yet even though she had fled, arguably, the opposite phenomenon as Hayek had when he fled National Socialist Austria, she came to strikingly similar conclusions as the LSE economist. Just as Hayek insisted that Nazism was less a German or anti-modernist phenomenon than a totalitarian one, Rand argued that the ur-problem of Stalinist Communism wasn’t its ethnic cleansing or its imperialist foreign policy, visible in its occupation of the Baltics or Poland. Instead, both states – which, some skeptics of the ‘totalitarian’ idea might observe, went to war with one another – were embodiments of the state taking over civil society. Along with other emigres like Hannah Arendt or the lesser-known Leopold Schwarzschild who promoted the ‘totalitarianism’ thesis – which provided a useful Cold War framework to implicitly compare the USSR to Nazi Germany – these thinkers and their ideas found a warm postwar reception in America.

Yet this obsession with the state as the primary enemy of freedom wasn’t just a historical footnote. As biographers of Ayn Rand like Jennifer Burns or Anne Heller will tell you, American conservatives found intellectual inspiration in these two thinkers. In a complicated story that historian (and teacher of mine) Avner Offer is currently researching and writing, what had originally been marginal ideas – popular among the fringes of the Barry Goldwater scene or informal libertarian reading groups – gradually became dogma in the American Republican Party. This, writers like Snyder, Offer, and Wieseltier would probably agree, is the source for so much of the rhetoric we hear today from Tea Partiers: health care reform will lead to the state enforcing ‘death panels’ on innocent citizens. Barack Obama is a ‘socialist.’ Most characteristically betraying the dual influence of the anti-Nazi Hayek and the anti-Communist Rand, in protests on the Mall we see people making the allegation – otherwise absurd on face – that President Obama is simultaneously the intellectual inheritor of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Channeling Hayek – but at the cost of actually reading sociologists’ findings?

This obsession with the state as the primary enemy of freedom – and the idea that the welfare state and ‘dependency culture’ cause more evils than they prevent – finds expression in loftier forums, too. Walking around Dushanbe this week, for example, I was listening to Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s recent Reith Lectures, ‘The Rule of Law and Its Enemies.’ In one very characteristic passage for Ferguson, who appears to be trying to position himself as the intellectual consigliere to the current incarnation of the GOP, in his fourth and final lecture Ferguson discusses the decline of civil society in the United States and the United Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, Ferguson begins his discussion by mentioning Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s hugely influential 2000 book Bowling Alone, one of the first popular works to observe the decline in ‘social capital.’ Why is it, Putnam wondered, that fewer and fewer Americans and Britons are joining clubs, participating in community organizations, or even doing something as simple as organizing or playing in soccer leagues? As anyone who has read Bowling Alone knows, Putnam reaches the conclusion that a technologically driven ‘individualizing’ of American life appears to be the main force destroying social capital. More specifically, Putnam names television as the culprit. Why join a bowling league when you have 500 channels?

Ferguson seems to miss the central point of the book in his discussion of social capital and communities. Instead, he argues, channeling Hayek and Rand, that the real reason for the decline of social capital in America and the UK is … the state. Here the argument begins to sound familiar to what one hears from Ryan and other GOP ‘intellectuals’ today. A welfare-state fostered ‘dependency culture’ forces people to rely exclusively on the state for sustenance, rather than turning to local organizations. Public schools trap students from impoverished backgrounds in a perpetual cycle of lazy teachers, bad education, and no exit options. Independent or private schools, meanwhile, foster a greater sense of associational community. Far from being disguised plans for massive cuts to local services, policy initiatives like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ are actually an initiative to encourage people and communities to rely more on themselves and discover their strength within. What we need, in other words, is more self-reliance – ideally of the kind embodied by Rand’s heroes like John Galt of Atlas Shrugged or Howard Roark of The Fountainhead.

Here’s the point: there’s actually a lot of Ferguson’s discussion, specifically about the need for more independent schools, that I agree with. What interests me, however, is the extent to which (as Snyder identifies) a Hayek- and Rand-inflected ideology has taken over the thought of so many conservative intellectuals, like Ferguson. What is it about the appeal of Hayek that causes someone who is clearly intelligent, like Ferguson, to skip over Putnam’s  central point about social capital (culture, and specifically television, matters) in order to speak in terms of the encroachment of ‘the state’? That’s what I find really interesting and perplexing.

The Road to Serfdom … then in cartoons, now in blog posts!

Given all of this, I think that Hayek deserves a re-reading (or, in my case, a reading – I’ve never read him before). That’s why I’m making it one of my projects for the coming weeks to provide a running commentary on my reading of Hayek’s major work, The Road to Serfdom. While my schedule of travel punctuated by waiting hours or days to get into an archive or order a book allows me a greater luxury than many of my friends in doing so, if possible I hope to recruit some of my friends with whom I conducted a joint reading of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society this autumn. I have fond memories of reading that book over coffee and croissant in a Parisian café on my birthday: substitute the scene for Samarkand and the victuals for tea and plov, and I hope to re-create the experience this September.

I’ve already dived into the Introduction and the first chapters to The Road to Serfdom. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog in the next few days for my opening salvo!

From → Books

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