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Agreeing to Tyranny

There is a reason they say that, “the devil is in the details.” A much neglected work of Hayek is his 1939 manuscript, “Freedom and the Economic System.” In it he points out something that would probably open up a lot of my students eyes, especially those who ask things like, “if X is so undesirable, then why do we keep getting more of it?”

What of it? We can very easily have a group, small or large, agree on the general desirability of a particular plan. For example, we all think the health care system is screwed up, many of us think that higher education is unnecessarily costly, and so forth. But once we get to the level of specifics all kinds of conflicts arise.

This would not be a problem in certain institutional arrangements, but a serious problem in others. When we have strong governments such disagreement opens the door for the “practical man” the pragmatic politician with a plan to enter stage right. We agree that something must be done, but a democracy cannot agree on what exactly is to be done (despite the fact that the federalist system was set up to have many little laboratories of democracy interacting). This strengthens the demand that the government or some single all-powerful and wise person, should be given power to act on their own responsibility. And then the body politic becomes accustomed to the idea that if we wish to get anything done, the practical man, the principled leader, must be freed from the chains of democracy to get things done.

So it was in 1939 when Hayek wrote, and so it is today. As an exercise, try to broach this point with an acquaintance and see how they respond.

Just think of how much hand-wringing you see about “gridlock” in democracies. Or if any of you are from large families and you are trying to figure out where to go to dinner after a long, exhausting day, you will have a glimpse of what I am talking about above.

One Response to “Agreeing to Tyranny”

  1. Harry says:

    Chilling. The man on the horse in 1939.

    In 1962, our history teacher took the class to listen to a Mr. Joe Petri, in the evening on a weekday no less, to discuss Hayek.

    We as students listened to an apostle of Hayek, a thin small man with a European accent who referred to The Road to Serfdom in, as I remember, very personal terms. To a young person, two decades ago seems so far away, but in recollection professor Petri was talking of his recent experience, not only of Hitler, but of Stalin and Mao.

    Joseph Petri’s comments included observations about epistemology, a subject I was not prepared to understand, nor would be prepared to understand until much later.

    May your dutiful seminar students seek wisdom.

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