George Bush’s (and many others’) Road to Serfdom

I’m about to attempt to violate one of my own rules. The rule is thus: any political work that apes the name of a more famous work is usually pretentious and much less valuable than the original work. So hopefully this post is more worthwhile than The Work of Nations.

Over at Just Well Mixed, Jason argues that evangelical Christians uncomfortably resemble the Islamicists they oppose. He further surmises that there may well be a well of Americans who are ready for a charismatic leader to fall in line behind.

It struck me that his argument was essentially the same warning sounded by a guy he would otherwise not agree with much, Freidrich Hayek. In his The Road to Serfdom (abridged version PDF), he argues:

The author has spent about half his adult life in his native Austria, in close touch with German thought, and the other half in the United States and England. In the latter period he has become increasingly convinced that some of the forces which destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here.

The very magnitude of the outrages committed by the National Socialists has strengthened the assurance that a totalitarian system cannot happen here. But let us remember that 15 years ago the possibility of such a thing happening in Germany would have appeared just as fantastic not only to nine-tenths of the Germans themselves, but also to the most hostile foreign observer.

This is from the April 1945 condensed version published by Reader’s Digest.

Hayek’s main argument is that enhancing the power of the state at the expense of individual liberty provides the tools that later evildoers appropriate for their own purposes. Absent such tools, they would at best have a limited following. Socialism was Hayek’s primary bugaboo at the time. Has George W. Bush found a new road to serfdom?

Yes and no. Bush cannot be argued to seriously resemble Kim Il Sung, Mao, Pol Pot, or any of the other dictators who are arguably the intellectual heirs of Stalin, and no modern capitalist democracy has come under the sway of a dictator in manner Hitler did–and, pace MoveOn.org’s more vociferous contributors, Bush doesn’t resemble Hitler much either.

Still, Bush has definitely used the power of the state to further his own aims, and he has expanded the power he wields. We even now see warrantless arrests and detention without trial (though hopefully the Supreme Court has put an end to the latter), both developments that would have alarmed Hayek. However, Bush, also pace MoveOn.org, has not yet subverted the electoral system in as drastic a way as happened in the 30s in Germany.

Conversely, can you accuse liberals of having aided and abetted GWB’s rise to power as illustrated in this pamphlet version of Hayek’s work?

Again, yes and no. The U.S. still doesn’t look as socialist today as it did in the waning days of FDR, when he had rebuilt much of his nationalization of the American workforce from the Depression (parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court) under the guise of war planning. We do not have labor and production allocation planning boards. Our last flirtation with price controls were, ironically, under Nixon and were a dramatic failure. Nobody to the right of Ralph Nader is calling for comprehensive price controls, though some are starting to send up trial balloons about price controls for drugs and/or health care. The last attempt at production planning boards, Hillary Clinton’s health care nationalization plan, was a political disaster that cost Democrats Congress.

Nonetheless, there are two sources of power that George W. Bush wields that should cause liberals in the U.S. to engage in some soul-searching. First is the Imperial Presidency. Arguably this is for the last three incarnations a Republican phenomenon, but it continues a tradition set by FDR, JFK, and LBJ. Nixon continued but nearly destroyed it, Jimmy Carter wallowed in its absence, and Ronald Reagan restored it. However the fundamentals of it remain unchanged since Johnson: the unchecked power to set regulations by decree (tempered by a pseudo-public rule-making system) and discretionary funds that have only the vaguest congressional oversight.

The second base of power Bush wields that should give liberals pause is a vast government, including regulatory powers and a truly huge share of GDP being spent in federal contracts. His day-to-day control of this source is smaller, but nonetheless, it lends itself to creating systems of patronage and rent-seeking.

Both of these systems were set up to Do Good, much like the “planners” in Hayek’s work. Both are being used to consolidate control. Thankfully neither look like the systems depicted in the pamphlet above.

While not as specifically a liberal, but rather a Democratic development, Bush has used the Clinton Justice Department’s tools used in the Drug War (a “war” created by conservatives). Judicial oversight took a hit under Clinton, and Bush has taken that ball and run with it.

But lest this turn into a liberal-bashing post, George W. Bush has another way to expand his power that Hayek didn’t discuss as much. He has used an external, as opposed to internal, crisis to expand police authority and to expand the defense establishment, which had been in decline since the end of the Cold War. Clinton and Gore could only dream of the expansion of powers the sadly bipartisan PATRIOT Act embodies. Likewise has has begun (with less success) to re-establish the Cold War defense establishment that has long been a darling of the Right. It is in this area that his worst excesses have come, contra the predictions of Hayek.

Nonetheless, to relate this to Jason’s post, the starting insight of The Road to Serfdom, that Germany 1932 could happen here, should be taken to heart by anyone who supports the expansion of powers by Bush. Bush is not Hitler. But as he expands the power of government, he paves the way for someone who may more resemble Hitler.

Without that governmental power, Bush could schmooze and commune with his fellow evangelical wingnuts without raising a lot of concern in the rest of us. But because he has that power and seeks more, it should concern all of us.

This insight, that the presence of government power empowers dictator wannabes, is the central reason that I’m a small-L libertarian, and the Left would do well to re-examine their own trust in government solutions provided the “right people” are in power. The right people will not always be in power. Big government conservatism should cause some introspection among big-government liberals. After all, consider their argument about gun control: you can’t abuse a tool you don’t have.

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