Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Success and the Seeds of Our Own Destruction

From Hayek (Road to Serfdom, pp 71-72):

There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed; there are no hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications. There is, in particular, all the difference between deliberately creating a system within which competition will work as beneficially as possible and passively accepting institutions as they are. Probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez faire. Yet, in a sense, this was necessary and unavoidable. Against the innumerable interests which could show that particular measures would confer immediate and obvious benefits on some, while the harm they caused was much more indirect and difficult to see, nothing short of some hard-and-fast rule would have been effective. And since a strong presumption in favor of industrial liberty had undoubtedly been established, the temptation to present it as a rule which knew no exceptions was too strong always to be resisted.

But, with this attitude taken by many popularizers of the liberal doctrine, it was almost inevitable that, once their position was penetrated at some points, it should soon collapse as a whole. (…)

But while the progress toward what is commonly called "positive" action was necessarily slow, and while for the immediate improvement liberalism had to rely largely on the gradual increase of wealth which freedom brought about, it had constantly to fight proposals which threatened this progress. It came to be regarded as a "negative" creed because it could offer to particular individuals little more than a share in the common progress -- a progress which came to be taken more and more for granted and was no longer recognized as the result of the policy of freedom. It might even be said that the very success of liberalism became the cause of its decline. Because of the success already achieved, man became increasingly unwilling to tolerate the evils still with him which now appeared both unbearable and unnecessary."

While I'm hardly an expert on Austrian economics, it's clear that Hayek is making a very important point. He's saying that those who are the beneficiaries of liberalism wish to follow a progressive trajectory which undercuts the freedoms which made the success possible in the first place.

It would appear here that when Hayek uses the word "liberal" he means something different than what the word means today. Perhaps his phrase, above, is a definition of what he means by liberalism: "in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as
possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion."Alas, liberals today have no such compunctions regarding coercion as they seek to achieve their goals.

Today it seems that the boundaries of "unbearable and unnecessary" problems are being pushed in so many ways. Is there no problem too great or too small for the State to address? Listening to the promises of the politicians is a very scary exercise...

This is particularly so, because, as Hayek says, the (modern) conservative does not have a State answer for a citizen's specific problem. He can only say that if the State keeps out of the way and preserves the citizen's freedom, most people will have the most good. But people take the present good for granted, and want more. The modern liberal offers him more.

How glad we should be that the sphere of politics and economics -- the sphere of our live on this earth -- is not a self-contained, independent world unto itself. "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." 1 Corinthians 15:18 Hope, hope, in Christ we have hope!

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