Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Slippery Is Hayek's Slope In Road To Serfdom?

Puffed by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Hayek's Road to Serfdom has been surfing the best seller lists recently, the new edition with the long scholarly introduction by Bruce Caldwell, which I doubt many buyers will read. They are using it to bash Obama and charge him with being a socialist-fascist-nazi-communist, etc., starting with his health care proposal, all of course failing to notice that Hayek in RTS came out for national health insurance and some degree of more general social insurance. But, hey, we want to wave the book like Red Guards waving Chairman Mao's Thoughts, not read the thing. Please.

As it is, there is a new entry in a long running debate. Many observers, perhaps most prominently Paul Samuelson in a bunch of his Principles texts, saw Hayek as promoting a "slippery slope" argument, that any move towards a welfare state by the US or UK or other western democracies, would put them onto "the road to serfdom," which, of course, history has shown to be a bunk argument, even if the tea partiers are now invoking Hayek to repeat it along with Limbaugh and Beck. Hayek himself, with Caldwell agreeing, have argued that this is a misreading of RTS, and that Hayek was really focusing on the dangers of Soviet-style command central planning, with Hayek writing angry letters to Samuelson about this matter.

Now we have a new entry into this with an article by Andrew Farrant and Edward McPhail, "Does F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom Deserve to Make a Comeback?" in the July/August issue of Challenge, 53(4), 96-120, (requires subscription or payment to read, unfortunately). Anyway, they say that Samuelson was right all along, and that one can find passages in RTS where Hayek certainly looks like he is making the strong version of the slippery slope argument that he later realized was an embarrassment, even if it is probably the source of the renewed sales. Thus, Farrant and McPhail would say that Limbaugh and Beck are more on the money here than Caldwell, even if they are ignoring Hayek's call for social insurance (a clear sign that he did not view any and all such moves as going onto the slippery slope).


Don said...

In 1945, Hayek was interviewed about RS by two socialists. It's in Hayek on Hayek, and is necessary reading.

Don the libertarian Democrat

PrestoPundit said...

It's pathetic to conflate a rathet mechanism a "slippery slope argument.

Must every Hayek hating attack consist of BS without engagement of substance?

It's also pathet do ddescribe the limning of the consequences of the replacement of the rule of law with unprincipled expediency as a "slippery slope argument".

As I've said elsewhere, 70 years of risible bullshit is enough.

And I'm calling bullshit.

Deal with the substance in the argument, and stop with the effort to marginalize Hayek with bullshit.

PrestoPundit said...

Hayek didn't "later" say he wasn't making a "inevitable" slippery slope argument, he says he wasn't making such an argument in the first few pages of his original 1944 text. said...


For all your ranting about "b.s." over 70 years, you are seriously incoherent here. There is this open debate between those who say Hayek made the slippery slope argument (Samuelson, Farrant and McPhail, Limbaugh and Beck apparently) and those who say he did not (Caldwell and Hayek in his letters to Samuelson). I am unaware of him ever saying that he only did not make the argument in the opening pages of RTS. Why would he write these letters to Samuelson if he in fact saw himself as making the argument after the first few pages.

Or, perhaps you want to say it was a ratchet effect argument rather than a slippery slope one. Well, F and M provide some quotes from RTS that look more like slippery slope than just ratchet effect. And, even if he was more making just a ratchet effect argument, well, that is no more historically correct than the slippery slope one as we have seen some of the things that upset him rolled back, such as the over 90% top marginal income tax rates in the US and UK.

BTW, this is not about "marginalizing Hayek" as you charge (do you always jerk your knees like this so stupidly?), it is about figuring out what this clearly important figure really meant.

Shane Taylor said...

I suspect many (most?) Libertarians are offended by something common to central planning, the "welfare" state, and demand management. Namely, such governance betrays _their_ utopian vision for spontaneous order. But as John Gray (among others) argued in his break with Hayek--the post-script to _Hayek on Liberty_, "Hayek and the dissolution of classical liberalism"--so did the creation of market states.

It is one thing to highlight the role of self organization in human societies, but it is fanaticism to pretend that some autonomous process will guarantee the best of all possible worlds.

Shane Taylor said...

Hayek's as-peculiar-as-it-is-controversial conception of the rule of law is addressed in Raymond Plant's book _The Neoliberal State_. Basically, it's too inconsitent, especially when taken up by social engineers for a market state. Simply put, by imposing a market order on society, you are pursuing an end.

kevin quinn said...

Presto: I don't think any of us on this blog are Hayek-haters. He did hugely important work on the market as a discovery mechanism. But you will find few defenders of his macro stuff, and the Road to Serfdom was, well, a tract in many respects, don't you think?

Bruce Webb said...

The literal cartoon version of the Road to Serfdomhis a was published in I believe the early 1940s (it references 'war planning') Unless Hayek is on record THEN objecting to this Look Magazine/General Motors reductionism of his work I have to believe it was authorized and so the way he wanted his work read by the broad audience.

Efforts decades down the (non)-road to explain that his thought was more nuanced then don't cut much ice given his apparent authorization of the 18 panels (don't let the Fascists break your golf clubs!!! (panel 17))

Peter Dorman said...

My inner child is sliding and gliding all the way down the slippery slope on the road to Smurfdom.

(This from someone who invariably brings up Tubby Toast as a counterexample of Say's Identity in lectures on macroeconomics.)

PrestoPundit said...

Hayek in fact quotes for Samuelson a passage from his 1944 where Hayek says the opposite of what Samuelson claims to be Hayek's argument.

Samuelson was intentionally smearing Hayek, and Hayek was calling him on it.

The Samuelson lied to Hayek, falsely promising that he would make things right.

Samuelson had no such intention, as he later admitted.

Samuelson preferred to let the lies stand.

It seems there is a bit of Alinsky in every leftist "scientist".


"I am unaware of him ever saying that he only did not make the argument in the opening pages of RTS."

PrestoPundit said...

Kevin, there have been many intentional attempts to marginalize Hayek through smears.

Some very top academics have pursued this strategy. And Hayek to some extent was aware of what was being done to him.

Keynes, Kahn & the Robinson's actively engaged in commonly planned smears -- google "Pigou & Keynes & Joan Robinson" for evidence of their joint effort to smear Pigou.

Where they "Pigou haters"? Well, language can be used to to all sorts of things, and in one use this would be on target. What they did was hateful, and can only be explained by a kind of hate for the man and what he stood for.

On macro.

There are few who have any competence in Hayek's macro -- the fact that incompetent people have political objections to that work doesn't do anything for me.

The fact that they are incompetent and pretend otherwise, however, is beyond pathetic, it's scientific malpractice, but par for the course in the "science" of economics.

The word "tract" can be used in different ways.

Hayek's book was sophisticated and it was not dishonest, BSing partisan hack work of the kind we see so often from the hyper partisans.

Keynes wrote a "tract" on monetary reform. Perhaps that is how you are using the word.

But note well, Hayek's TRtoS was more dispassionate and less polemical than most anything from the pen of Keynes.

Kevin writes:

"Presto: I don't think any of us on this blog are Hayek-haters. He did hugely important work on the market as a discovery mechanism. But you will find few defenders of his macro stuff, and the Road to Serfdom was, well, a tract in many respects, don't you think?"

PrestoPundit said...

It's not clear that Hayek authorize even the Reader's Digest condensation of The Road to Serfdom.

The U. of Chicago Press controlled the copyright, and seems to have acted fairly independently.

You can believe whatever you pull out of your hat, Bruce, but choosing what you'd prefer to believe does not produce facts.

Bruce wrote,

"Unless Hayek is on record THEN objecting to this Look Magazine/General Motors reductionism of his work I have to believe it was authorized and so the way he wanted his work read by the broad audience."

Barkley Rosser said...


I am curious what your position is on the bottom line question here. Are you of the view that it is a "smear" to suggest that Hayek believed in the "slippery slope" argument or not? Glenn Beck clearly believes that Hayek believed in it, which is what one can easily get from reading the comic book version that you get all in a huff over regarding whether Hayek approved of it or not (he certainly never repudiated it or said anything negative about it). Indeed, it is clear that the current wave of sales is precisely going to people who believe that Hayek believed the slippery slope argument and wish to use this argument against Obama, starting with his health care package being the first step on the "road to serfdom" (eeeek!), even though Hayek in RTS supported national health insurance, something well beyond what Obama's health care package did.

So, is Glenn Beck "smearing" Hayek and are expressing outrage about this to the appropriate parties? If not, then you are simply a hypocrite here.

Before you continue to repeat smears against Samuelson over Hayek, I would suggest you read Farrant and McPhail's piece. The fact is that Hayek says one thing in one place, but then says things in other places that appear to contradict what he said in that first place. This is part of why Samuelson and others have had trouble taking Hayek seriously when he got all in a dither over such people suggesting he was making the slippery slope argument. In some places he denies doing so, but in other places he sure as heck looks like he is making it. Needless to say, Hayek is hardly the first or only prominent economist to find himself contradicting himself, especially over long periods of time, and Hayek's views on some of these mattters did change over the course of his long life.

You might also want to look at Samuelson's definitive final word on all this, which I published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in January 2009, "A few remembrances of Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992)," 69(1), pp. 1-4. While Samuelson in the end comes down agreeing with Farrant and McPhail on the slippery slope argument, he also praises Hayek for various things, agreeing that his critique of Soviet central planning (a substantial part of RTS) was basically correct and declaring that he deserved the Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of information.

While there is currently a big focus in many places on Hayek vs. Keynes on macro, particularly the dueling letters in 1932 that seem to mirror the current debate over more fiscal stimulus versus deficit reduction, it should be kept in mind that Hayek and Keynes were personal friends and agreed on many things. It is the case that Keynes praised RTS to Hayek after he read it, which was not too long before Keynes died.

Barkley Rosser said...

Regarding the charge that Joan Robinson "smeared" Robertson and Pigou, the worst that can be said is that she misrepresented their version of monetarism in criticizing it. This was not a personal "smear," however one might criticize such a tactic. The real smear against Pigou was the false charge made that he was a Soviet agent, which did not come from the Robinson circle.

I also note that the person who made this charge of "smear" against her is someone who has himself been accused of misrepresenting people and massively distorting their ideas. He dumps on Robinson for criticizing the aggregate production function, but she was completely correct on this, and her criticism mirrors arguments made in Hayek's 1941 Pure Theory of Capital about heterogeneous capital. I knew someone who knew this individual (now dead) and have been told that he had personal habits that might be associated with making exaggerated statements.

PrestoPundit said...

Let's cut the bullshit.

The problem was that Samuelson didn't give Hayek's ideas the dignity of dealing of actually grappling with them -- he went straight for the anti-intellectual smear.

Samuelson did this repeatedly to Hayek.

It's an intellectual embarrassment for Samuelson, and reveals much about his character.

Let me repeat, let's cut the bullshit.