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What the Republicans Could Learn from Hayek

I was talking to someone tonight about whether there is a unifying theme to the Republican setbacks of this winter and spring -- Social Security, the Bolton nomination, and DeLay, to name the three biggies. I don't want to make more than should be made of things that are very much in media res, but I think the answer is simple and predictable: A command-control system like the White House-led Republican congressional system can be absolutely formidable for a certain period of time. But when it breaks down, it breaks down completely. The collapse is sudden, and total. Signals get crossed, backs get stabbed, the suddenly leaderless pawns in the system start acting for themselves, with no system or structure to coordinate their individual impulses.

Is this happening? I don't know, but it's getting close. I thought I'd seen it before, but each time they've pulled it back together. This time, I think there's too much happening at once.

The irony of all this for conservatives is that if they actually read Hayek and got anything out of it other than "government sucks," they would know this. Hayek's libertarianism was very pragmatic. Centrally controlled systems are flawed above all because they have no mechanism to correct their own errors, unlike distributed, self-organized systems. The Democrats in the Clinton years always operated in chaos, no one followed the party line, and there was a cost to that, but in the chaos and improvisation they found ways to get out of the holes that they had dug for themselves. The Rove/DeLay/Frist system doesn't have any means for correcting its mistakes -- look at the blank, lost looks on the faces of Senators Lugar and Chafee yesterday when they just had no idea what to do with a nomination that had fallen apart and couldn't fulfill their promises.

The Republicans accomplished unimaginable feats through the centralization of power. Three tax cuts, a prescription drug plan that will make Americans hate government, an insane war. But if the goal was long-term power, it is a strategy they will come to regret, if not today, someday.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 21, 2005 | Permalink


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Very perceptive. An idea worth spreading.

Posted by: Doug | Apr 21, 2005 5:57:29 AM

I am far less concerned with the party's demand for party line votes on certain issues(centralizated command and control) than I am with their tacit defense of DeLay, Cornyn and others whose big stupid mouths misrepresent what many in the base believe and give ammunition to those opposed to the party's message.

The problem the republicans have right now is that as many have stepped away from DeLay and Cornyn they haven't articulated why they're irresponsible statements were fundamentally wrong. Instead, Republicans have allowed the media and their liberal opponents define the error and therefor lose the argument.

But to your original point, you are absolutely right. A re-read of Hayek would give many of the boneheads in the Republican party a pretty fundamental and easily understood argument to use against the current social security system as well as the threatened fillibuster. Frankly if the RNC were smart they would send copies of The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit to every household in the country. That way everyone could learn from Hayek.

Posted by: Lloyd | Apr 21, 2005 10:58:35 AM

This interested me because it brought to mind something that I learned while reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. According to its author, Jared Diamond, the reason China lost its technological lead to the formerly backward Europe was because of China's frequent unity. A decision by one despot could and repeatedly did halt innovation.

In contrast, Europe was composed of hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. In Europe there has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China. (Geography plays a role in this as well, but I won't go into it here.)

Example: Columbus was Italian by birth, but switched his allegiance to the duke of Anjou in France, then to the King of Portugal, then to the duke of Medina-Sedonia all in an effort to find ships in which to explore westward. Each denied his request. Finally, Spain granted his appeal. Had Europe been united under any one of the first three rulers, its colonization of the Americas might have been stillborn. China, on the other hand, decided to stop sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping.

History teaches some useful lessons.

Posted by: susan | Apr 21, 2005 1:50:54 PM

I think they could learn a thing or two from Popper as well: that the truth is not in the hands of any individual or group, and that open debate and criticism are vital to the process of discovering the truth. When you see dissent castigated as treason, and opponents described as evil, it's time to reread The Open Society and its Enemies.

Posted by: dm | Apr 21, 2005 6:39:30 PM

dm, Our friend, George Soros, would agree with you.

Posted by: susan | Apr 21, 2005 8:00:33 PM

George Soros is another former Fabian socialist who claims to be promoting free market systems now who has probably never read Hayek.

Our society is full of people singing the praises of free markets and how this is somehow all connected to globalism and nearly all of them have never heard of Hayek, Lysander Spooner or any of the Austrian school.

Does that sound crazy? It sure is. It's so crazy it boggles the mind.

The republicans and democrats both have enormous common ground in that they are both parties of socialist morons who are pretty good at sneering but not much good at anything else. "Free markets" is just a noise they make like birds chirping in the morning. They have no idea what it means and don't care to learn, either.

Posted by: Biff Baxter | Apr 22, 2005 12:10:33 AM

Is there some downside to being unfamiliar with the Austrian school?
This is a joke, right Biff?

Posted by: marky | Apr 22, 2005 3:16:02 PM

Heh, I was thinking the same.

Hayek's Road to Serfdom has some problems, which I will eventually blog on when I finish it. I started it a week ago, got halfway through it, set it down, haven't yet picked it back up.

I think Mark's point is only one of many applications of Hayek's critiques which have bi-partisan implications.

I'm not sure Hayekian thought was ever fully owned by the Republican Party, but if it was that time has passed. All one needs to do is take a gander over at Kos quoting Barry Goldwater (http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2005/4/22/15152/3881), or any one of the recent paens to "big government conservatism."

Posted by: Jim D | Apr 22, 2005 7:34:52 PM

"Centrally controlled systems are flawed above all because they have no mechanism to correct their own errors, unlike distributed, self-organized systems." The inherent assumption in this statement is that "Centrally controlled systems" wish to correct their own errors. For one who has knowledge of the Decembrists' failed attempt to overthrow the Russian "system" you must know that had they succeeded you would not even know about them. Because they failed, the documentary evidence, and torture of a few led to the compromise of the broader conspiracy.

I see no evidence that the Republicans find any flaws in their organization, or their objectives. I do see Trent Lott choosing his words more carefully now than in the past, but that doesn't convince me that the man has changed in the least. The actors in the limelight are merely marionettes. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

We, being separated by one or two generations may wish for the same goals, but we speak a different dialect. We fail in our attempts to articulate our perceptions of the flaws we see. I question whether one who has been intimately involved inside the system can see it as clearly one always outside of it. But I could be wrong.

Posted by: OldMack | Apr 23, 2005 6:19:49 PM

They're not just unfamiliar with the Austrian school of free market thinking, they are also unfamiliar with the entire literature and cultural history of free markets.

If confronted and asked about free market systems, they often provide a definition that has no relationship of any kind historically with any previous thought about "free markets" but has tons in common with bolshevist ideas about centralized economic management.

Yes, that's extremely crazy.

It's kind of like when the neocons announce that America will be maintaining it's empire because it's necessary. I am not aware of any referendum or group consensus in the nation's history or anything existing in it's constitution or letters that would support the idea that America was ever meant to be an empire, period.

Ditto for free market system. Scratch the surface of all these wild-eyed nuts ranting about free market systems, you gotcher same old centralized regulation of market systems behind closed doors as a fiat accompli that has already failed worldwide wherever it has been tried.

The entire population of the West nowadays all act mad as hatters. They toss all kinds of words around that seem to have had their meanings modified in midflight.

The point is, everybody speaks about "free markets" nowadays with such gusto because they have no idea what the term means. Markets were much freer and unregulated at the turn of the previous century than they are today and they grow increasingly controlled by the hour according to the whims of unelected officials who do not have the support of any substantial majority anywhere.

Same as the word "democracy" lobbed about like a wet napkin everywhere. Neither Britain, America nor Australia were founded as "democracies," for obvious reasons ... everybody knows from history that democracies are always miserable failures in self-government and inevitably collapse into civil war in declining empires. That doesn't stop anybody from prancing around with crazed expressions of glee wheezing about "democracies," "free markets", "globalization," ... it would all be hilarious Monty Python style satirical fodder if it weren't leading directly via greased rail to World War III.

Go figure.

Posted by: Biff Baxter | Apr 24, 2005 12:58:21 AM

By the way, there is no such thing as conservatism that favors big government.

Once again - same old socialists packaging their tired crappy old ideas in new bottles.

"Yes, it's not socialism! You see, it's 'big government' conservatism! That's right! No, honest!"

With an average IQ of 97 in America, it's not like anybody is going to spot the conflicts in all this. There are only six points standing between the man in the street and Koko the Sign Language Gorilla, who scored 91 on that exact same test under clinical supervision.

Conservatives, neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives - you'll notice that as soon as the leftists started to defect to the right, it was the right that was forced to start inventing all sorts of new labels to explain how somebody with the same old leftist ideas could now be considered rightwing. Before we just had conservatives until all these neocons bailed out of the left, donned sheepskins designed by Leo Strauss and then began to attempt to pass themselves off as harmless conservatives worried about the future of our country.

All madness. Utterly insane. Comical ... but in the end, it's all leading to the same radioactive future.

Posted by: Biff Baxter | Apr 24, 2005 1:05:32 AM

Please read some Strauss before you condemn him so. He was not a traditional conservative, and there is no inextricable link between Straussian political thought and right-wing American politics. And Strauss was not the godfather of neoconservatism, as so many on the left would have everyone believe. I say this as a liberal Straussian has studied with the students of Allan Bloom (a life-long Democrat, by the way), Harvey Mansfield, and Strauss himself.

The two great texts of Straussian thought -- Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics -- teach political moderation and the delicate relationship between politics and philosophy... not the grand, idealistic schemes of the neocons. Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol may be the most visible faces of Straussianism (though neither is really a Straussian), but we are a rather diverse bunch.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | Apr 25, 2005 4:03:25 PM

Biff is right again. This is why I privately still hold that I'm a liberal, in the classic, anti-socialist sense.

Posted by: Lloyd | Apr 27, 2005 9:45:57 AM

"By the way, there is no such thing as conservatism that favors big government."

yeah right. how about them Hamilton-Adams-Washington Federalist? They were all conservatives, and Adams was practically a monarchist! they centralized and expanded the federal government immediately after the the ratification of the constitution.

"big government" has nothing to do with "left" or "right" or "liberal" or "conservative"... the original socialist were anarchists for pete's sake. big government bueaucracy will find a nice home wherever those with power seeks more power for power itself.

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Apr 28, 2005 6:38:57 PM

Hmm, Strauss.

Those to whom such books are truly addressed are, however, neither the unphilosophic majority nor the perfect philosopher, as such, but the young men who might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic figures in the presentation of the popular [i.e., exoteric] teaching—obscurity of the plan, contradiction, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc. Such features do not disturb the slumber of those who cannot see the woods for the trees, but act as awakening stumbling blocks to those who can. All books of that kind owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn. All esoteric books are ‘written speeches caused by love.
-Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 25.

Puppies, eh? No thanks, I think I'll pass.

Posted by: | May 4, 2005 3:03:18 PM