Saturday, July 20, 2013

Whence All These Hitlers? Rescuing Hayek From His Fan Club

Have you noticed, on the extreme right wing of American politics, a tendency to use images of Hitler and the Nazis? These images are not, as they might have been in past extreme right-wing movements, used to express admiration. Rather they are used to condemn adversaries on the left. Glenn Beck is especially fertile in this regard (here,  here, and a medley here).

The choice of Hitler  may seem odd. A man who hated socialists, communists, and labor unions, who believed there was a conspiracy, made up mostly of Jews, to destroy the country... this is actually a pretty good description of Glenn Beck himself. (In fairness, Beck never identifies any members of the conspiracy as Jews-- it's just that almost all of them are.) So why Hitler? Why is his face so much more common than Stalin's, and why are the two likened so often?

The answer, I believe, is a book that has been widely praised by right-wing pundits, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Glenn Beck has presented a lengthy segment about the book on his show, which resulted in a spike in sales on Amazon. Rush Limbaugh has recommended it on air (another spike in sales). And Paul Ryan lists it on his Facebook page as one of his favorite books.

Who is Friedrich Hayek and what is The Road to Serfdom? Hayek was an Austrian economist, who later became a British subject to avoid returning to Austria under the Nazis. Hayek was what is called in Europe a "liberal." This means first and foremost a belief in free markets, but Hayek saw liberalism as a more general philosophy of individual rights going back to the Renaissance, which had resulted in enormous progress for humanity. An essential for that progress was the development of free markets and competition.

Most of Hayek's arguments for liberalism were as an economist-- for example, this very good paper, arguing effective central planning of an economy is impossible because no central planner can possibly have the necessary information about all the rapidly changing local conditions. The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, is a venture into the political: it is an argument that a centrally planned economy must inevitably lead to totalitarianism. He cites as examples of totalitarianism Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia.

Hayek says that Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinism are products of a single philosophy, which he calls "collectivism." This is the idea that ends of society, and production in society, should be determined collectively, as opposed to liberalism, which believes that they should determined by individuals acting individually. The collectivism embodied in socialists' advocacy of central planning, Hayek thinks, prepared the ground for the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Italy as well as Russia.

But Hayek places the most emphasis on Germany. He says in the foreword to the paperback edition of the book that this was because in Britain during World War II it was impolitic to be too vocally against Stalin, but as an Austrian he was also more familiar with events and ideas in Germany than in Russia. The Road to Serfdom is undoubtedly the origin of Glenn Beck's obsession with Nazis.

I found Hayek's argument that socialist central planning will lead to a gradual loss of individual freedom surprisingly convincing on logical grounds. It also makes sense on empirical grounds: even with the rigid state control of politics in China, for example, Deng Xiaoping's relaxation of state economic control clearly led to an increase in individual freedom. Less convincing is the claim that the ground was prepared for Hitler and Stalin by the intellectual ascendancy of collectivism over liberalism. This is a hard claim to prove or disprove.

But a larger problem is that the target Hayek is aiming at no longer exists. Nowhere in the world (with the possible exceptions of Cuba and North Korea) does anyone believe any longer in socialism in the sense of a centrally planned economy. Hayek admits as much in his 1956 preface to the paperback edition, but warns that tt is too soon for complacency:

The increasing tendency... to resort to direct state controls or to the creation of monopolistic institutions where judicious use of financial inducements might evoke spontaneous efforts is still a powerful legacy of the socialist period which is likely to influence policy for a long time to come. (xxxiv)

This is pretty weak beer for today's Republicans. It suggests that Hayek would have approved of a carbon tax, or even that great bugaboo of today's right, a cap-and-trade program, as a means of controlling greenhouse-gas emissions.  The problem for Republicans is that Hayek was not a knee-jerk ideologue but a serious thinker. He was pro-market and pro-competition and not, like many of today's Republicans, pro-business and anti-poor.

Where would Hayek stand on today's policy debates? Clearly, he was against unions, viewing them as a restriction on competition. But he would have probably have approved of many institutions that Tea Partiers abhor:

  • OSHA and parts of the Department of Labor: "To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose." (43)
  • Food Stamps and housing vouchers: "...there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody." (133)
  • Social Security Disability Insurance: "Where [there is no problem of insurance weakening the incentive to avoid risk] the case for the state's  helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong." (134)
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the agency that Elizabeth Warren designed) as well as other regulatory agencies: "Even the most essential prerequisite of [competition's] proper functioning, the prevention of fraud and deception (including exploitation of ignorance), provides a great and by no means yet fully accomplished object of legislative activity." (45)
So how would Hayek have reacted to his current lionization by the American right? Probably much the way he reacted to his lionization by the American right in the fifties:

"... occasionally the manner in which [the book] was used brought home to me the truth of Lord Acton's observation that '...sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and [their] triumphs have been due to ... associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous.'" (xxx-xxxi)

The political debate in this country would be much saner if Hayek were alive today.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Free vs. the Brave

You remember Allen West, right? The Republican Congressman who said there were 80 members of Congress who were members of the Communist Party, and so on and so on?

He's been booted out of office, but he's raising money for his own PAC. The home page has the headline "Allen West Is Leading the Fight Against the Radical Left" followed by this message:

"America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But which one will prevail over the next four years depends on you, me, and how we together fight to win the battle for our beloved country."

Huh? Which one will prevail? What were the choices again?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Egypt: Democracy and Details

As I write this, Egypt is being convulsed by huge demonstrations, by some accounts larger than those that brought down Hosni Mubarak, demanding the resignation of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The Army has said it will step in if there is no resolution.

This presents a dilemma. Morsi is a fairly hard-core member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose dedication to democracy is suspect. Indeed, many say he has shown authoritarian tendencies. And the size of the opposition cannot be disputed. On he other hand, he is the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history.

I don't have a suggestion for the short run. But for the long run, let's look at how we got to this point. Before Morsi was elected he had to get through a primary where the top two finishers went on to the final election. Here's what the results looked like:

1. Morsi 5,553,097 (25.30 per cent)
2. Shafiq 5,210,978 (23.74 per cent)
3. Sabbahi 4,739,983 (21.60 per cent)
4. Abul-Fotouh 3,936,264 (17.93 per cent)
5. Moussa 2,407,837 (10.97 per cent)

Morsi was considered the most hard-line Islamist in the race. Shafiq was prime minister under Mubarak, and was thus considered a representative of the old, pre-Arab-Spring regime. Faced with that choice, people narrowly chose Morsi. But notice that both final-round candidates combined were the first choice of fewer than half the voters

Now suppose that instead of using a top-two primary, Egypt had used what is known as instant-runoff voting, known in Britain as alternative voting. Under this system, people state not only their first choice, but their second choice, third choice, etc. If nobody gets more than fifty percent of the first choice votes, then we go on to second choice votes, and so on.

How would this have worked in Egypt? We don't know for sure, but my guess is that people who voted for one of the more centrist candidates were likely to have voted for other centrist candidates for their second and third choices. So Sabbahi or Abul-Fotouh (probably not Moussa) could have ended up as president. This is how instant-runoff voting is supposed to work; the winner is supposed to be someone that represents the views of the majority.

I discussed the case of Egypt a year ago. My point then, as now, is that there's more than one way to pick a democratically elected president. (More than two, in fact.) It was clear then that it was unjustified to say, "See? When Arabs get democracy, they just vote for radical Islamists." It's even clearer now. And, boring as this topic may be, it matters.

Further Comments on Gas Masks and Settlements

In a recent post, I cited David Harris, the executive director off the American Jewish Committee, as saying, "I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask..." The implication, of course, is, How dare an American criticize Israel from the safe distance of New York, when Israelis are the ones living in daily peril?  Apropos of this, the following story:

When I was leaving Israel in the summer of 2001, a guy I had hired to help me pack came across a small cardboard box in my closet. "What's that?" I asked. It was my gas mask. "Well, you won't be needing that!" he said. We had a good chuckle. It didn't seem so funny a couple of months later, in September of 2001.

While it's true that Israel faces a level of existential threat unknown to other countries, that doesn't mean that living there is like being in an Army outpost in Afghanistan. Add together terrorism, street crime, and traffic accidents, and I think it's about as dangerous as the U.S. And if you're hit by a car, there won't be a lot of hassle about whether you have medical insurance.

The reason Israelis now have gas masks is that they were subjected to missile attacks by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war. Saddam did this, presumably, to increase his popularity with the Arab street, particularly in the countries that were fighting him. What would undercut  this as a political strategy would be reaching some kind of agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis tend to focus on how much the Arabs hate them, and a peace agreement will not move them from hate to love. More like from hate to indifference. I don't think there's much enthusiasm for being more pro-Palestinian than the Palestinians.

And, of course, all this is irrelevant to the issue of the settlements, whose contribution to Israel's security is zero, if not negative. Here's my take on the Israeli politics of the settlements, and I'm eager to be corrected by someone who knows more than me:

Most Israelis don't care much about the settlements, and don't like the occupation much either. However, Israelis, understandably, place a high value on national unity (where "national" is understood as meaning "among Jews.") The settlers are a small but significant minority who have made it clear that they are willing to resort to violence rather than see Israel leave the West Bank (or, if you prefer, Judea and Samaria). One of them was responsible for the assassination of the prime minister in 1995, an event deeply traumatic to Israelis. Therefore, Israelis prefer to leave the settlement issue untouched, however costly that may be in the long run. [Update: When I say "settlers" I'm not referring to every Israeli living in the West Bank, but rather to members of the settler movement.]

It would make me sound like an arrogant, meddling American to say that Israelis need U.S. pressure on the settlements to save them from themselves. So I won't say it, even though it's true.