In my previous post I tried to figure out how, across Hayek’s writings as a whole, he could simultaneously support institutions that we commonly think of as part of a “welfare state” and argue that “welfare states” lead to totalitarian outcomes, though less quickly and obviously than full-on socialism. Henry Farrell, over at Crooked Timber, was kind enough to respond. I’d like to address his concerns.*
Remember that I distinguished between two types of welfare states, the welfare state of law and the welfare state of administration. I admitted that these are ideal types, where the former redistributes in accord with clear, public, general rules and the latter redistributes in accord with bureaucratic tinkering. Hayek supported the former but thought the latter would lead to tyranny. I then claimed that Hayek was a little too worried about the latter, but not by much.
Farrell doesn’t address my distinction, probably because he thinks that I failed to read Hayek carefully enough. A careful examination of Hayek’s remarks in a future introduction to Road clearly demonstrates that Hayek thought even modest welfare states like post-war Britain would turn people into sheep and slowly deliver them into darkness. So Hayek made an obviously false claim.
Here’s the Hayek passage Henry thinks I ignore:
This means, among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.
The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time and the people not only throw out the party which has been leading them further and further in the dangerous direction but also recognize the nature of the danger and resolutely change their course. There is not yet much ground to believe that the latter has happened in England.
I suggested in my post that Hayek thought that cultural forces could stand in the way of this slouching towards Soviet Russia. But Farrell is having none of it:
Vallier can bring up the “Swedish welfare state is not all-overpowering because of citizens’ natural inclination to liberty argument” on his own behalf if he wants to. He cannot use it as a general defense of Hayek, for the simple reason that it flatly contradicts Hayek’s own arguments.
[Hayek] is flatly empirically wrong. For Hayek, the only way in which the spirit of the people can counteract the enervations of welfarism is by re-asserting itself, throwing out the socialists, and resolutely changing course, before it is all too late.
Read the quoted passage from Hayek and then read the quoted passage from Farrell. I’ve done it at least five times. Farrell thinks the passage from Hayek is not only clear but clearly supports his interpretation. From what I can tell, however, I simply echoed Hayek’s claim: people can resist the welfare state of administration’s road to serfdom via cultural resistance. It is just odd that Farrell thinks this passage obviously vindicates his interpretation. At best the passage is unclear, but to my mind the passage actually supports my view. After all, Hayek says the trend can be reversed.
Perhaps what is really at issue is how strong this resistance must be, that is, how hard a society must “re-assert” itself. I don’t know of anywhere where Hayek lays this out carefully. And so again, I can’t see that Farrell’s reply succeeds. Consequently, I continue to insist that his original claim – that Hayek claimed that Swedish-style welfare states as such lead inevitably to totalitarianism – is wrong.
Farrell ends his post with the following remark:
It’s rather odd that the Hayekians don’t seem willing to acknowledge that the Master might sometimes have been wrong – indeed, it suggests a distinct element of personality-cultism.
Hayek was wrong about many things, perhaps most clearly in his extreme critique of social justice, his peculiar account of group selection, his strange conception of coercion, and his opaque account of general rules. But Farrell’s reading still isn’t charitable. His supposed proof text – one self-commentary from Hayek’s introduction to his most popular and least scholarly work – fails to vindicate his interpretation. I mean, I’m trying to be fair, but it seems to me that Farrell didn’t even interpret his one data point correctly.
In the end, if you think a really smart and important social philosopher and economist said something pretty dumb about a topic on which he was an expert, you should doubt your own judgment first. Hayek was not dumb and one need not be a slavish Hayekian to think so.
For what it’s worth, my problem with Hayek’s slippery slope arguments throughout his work is that they subtly run together empirical and conceptual claims, which is why its never quite clear what Hayek is after. I’d prefer to reconstruct Hayek’s slippery slope arguments as praxeological claims, namely that, all else equal, the sorts of interventions required by the welfare state of administration must, on pain of irrationality, commit one to increasingly authoritarian controls. Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument is probably the result of stripping empirical pretensions away from Hayek and Mises’s often empirical-sounding claims to this effect.
But I’m a philosopher, so of course I prefer this reconstruction!
* Even though Farrell was hard on me, I still feel honored by the response. I’ve been reading CT since I was an undergraduate and see it as kind of an “academic star blog” like Mankiw or Marginal Revolution or Krugman.
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