The all-free 1984 warning to humanity
From 1944 to Nineteen Eighty-Four Hayek and Orwell
I’m inclined to think of George Orwell and F. A. Hayek at the same time. Both showed great courage in writing the truth, undaunted by the consequences awaiting them. Both valued freedom, though they understood it differently.
Orwell, a man of the “left,” could not remain silent in the face of the horrors of Stalinism. Twice — during the Spanish Civil War and again at the dawn of the Cold War — he refused to permit his comrades to blind themselves to where their collectivism had led and could lead again. For his favor he was called a conscious tool of fascism, a stinging accusation considering he had gone to Spain to fight fascism. (But for a few inches, the bullet that penetrated Orwell’s neck in Spain would have denied us the latter warnings, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. We would have never known what the fascists had cost us.)
Hayek, a man of the “right,” risked ostracism and worse in 1944 by publishing The Road to Serfdom, in which this Austrian-turned-Briton, writing in England at the height of World War II, warned that central economic planning would, if pursued seriously, end in a totalitarianism indistinguishable from the Nazi enemy. That couldn’t have been easy to write at that time and place — central planning was much in vogue among the intelligentsia. While a good deal of the reception was serious and respectful, a good deal of it was not. Herbert Finer, in Road to Reaction, called Hayek’s book “the most sinister offensive against democracy to emerge from a democratic country for many decades”; it expressed “the thoroughly Hitlerian contempt for the democratic man.”
Not surprisingly, it was The Road to Serfdom that brought Orwell and Hayek together in print. Orwell briefly reviewed the book along with Konni Zilliacus’s The Mirror of the Past in the April 9, 1944 issue of The Observer. The man who would publish Animal Farm a year later and Nineteen Eighty-Four five years later found much to agree with in Hayek’s work. He wrote:
This is a significant endorsement, for no one understood totalitarianism as well as Orwell. Indeed, in Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens points out that Nineteen Eighty-Four impressed Communist Party members behind the Iron Curtain. He quotes Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, who before defecting to the West was a cultural attaché for the Polish communist government: “Orwell fascinates them [members of the Inner Party] through his insight to the details they know well…. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.” (An audio interview with Hitchens about Orwell is here.)
But true to his left state-socialism, Orwell could not endorse Hayek’s positive program:
It’s disappointing to see Orwell give such short shrift to Hayek’s positive thesis. He is glib and dogmatic, which is unbecoming a serious intellectual such as Orwell. His ignorance of economics leaps from the page.
“The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” In a market producers compete to better serve consumers. The losers in that competition are not exiled or executed. They find other ways to serve consumers, just as producers are trying to serve them.
“Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led….” Where has monopoly arisen without the aid of the State? We find no market-generated monopoly in England or the United States. There, major business interests actively promoted protectionism and other interventions precisely to tamp down competition and protect their market shares. Of course, for many people, Orwell presumably among them, that is capitalism, a topic I return to below. (I should note that Hayek forswore laissez faire in his book, but that is a topic for another day.)
“[T]he vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment….” But that’s a false choice. Slumps and unemployment, as Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises taught, are products of central-bank manipulation of money and interest rates, that is, of government not of the free market. The Great Depression, which must have been on Orwell’s mind, was no exception. The real choice is between freedom and security (including mutual aid) on the one hand, and State “regimentation,” slumps, and unemployment on the other.
I must pause here to focus on Orwell’s disgraceful use of the word “regimentation.” I say “disgraceful” because he committed the sin he himself so eloquently condemned in his justly famous essay “Politics and the English Language”: the sin of euphemism. In that great essay he wrote:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so”.
Regimentation is the least of what goes on under a totalitarian regime.
Capitalism versus the Free Market
“Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.” I think that part of the problem for Orwell is that a truly free market is not among the possible options. For him and many others, the choice is between a system run for employers and one run for workers. (The preferable alternative is not obvious.) In this view, the former is capitalism, sometimes dressed up as “the free market,” and the latter is socialism. We shouldn’t be too hard on Orwell for thinking this way, for many defenders of the market are just as careless when they write about mixed economies such as the one in the United States. Despite pervasive government intervention, we often hear business conduct defended because “under capitalism” consumers have the power to punish firms that ill-serve them. Tell that to consumers who chose not to buy GM and Chrysler cars. Tell that to people who lost land through eminent domain so that a big-box chain might prosper. Generations of business-inspired intervention to some extent must have rigged the market against consumers and workers. If not, what are the economists complaining about?
As for his inclusion of war in his list, let it be said that the scramble for markets and other economic objectives cannot be a sufficient condition for war. War requires the State, that is, the socialization of costs through taxation and conscription.
One wonders how Orwell avoided despair. He couldn’t accept (state) capitalism, and he saw the totalitarian tendencies of socialism up close. Yet he could write, “There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.” (Emphasis added.)
Hadn’t he just read Hayek’s Chapter 11, “The End of Truth,” in which Hayek described how a serious commitment to central planning must produce “contempt for intellectual liberty”?
But of course Orwell had experienced those things in Spain and knew how it was in Russia. He certainly put a heavy burden on that word “somehow.” How restoring the concept of right and wrong to politics would make central planning either decent or practical is a mystery no one has solved. (Of course, Mises had long before shown that socialism could not be practical because without prices arising out of the exchange of privately owned means of production, the socialist planner could not make rational calculations with respect to what should be produced, in what manner, and in what quantities.)
To end on a partly optimistic note, though Orwell presumably would not agree, central economic planning is not on the modern agenda. The threat today is not state socialism. It’s bureaucratic corporatism dressed up as progressive democracy.
Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and “In brief.” He is a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.