Is Hayek Still Relevant Today?
In March 1944 the world was at war over ideology. The Allied powers had weathered the worst that the Nazi war machine had to offer, the red Army under Zhukov was beginning to force Germany into retreat, and in the West plans for D day were being laid by Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. Yet division lay deeper than just the dichotomy of the Allies against Axis. Whilst a useful war time ally, communist ideology made the USSR incompatible for long term relations. In this world of conflict and division, Friedrich Hayek published what became the West’s rallying call in its 50 years of ideological struggle against communism. Hayek’s book, ‘The Road to Serfdom’, was a liberal call to arms against the oppression of central planning. Hayek’s premise was that the free market is the only way to guarantee freedom, any attempts to limit it will cause power to be accumulated by those who get to decide what is produced and how it is distributed. This was a powerful message in such a divided world, a message that still rings true in the equally divided world of today.
There are striking parallels between these two, seemingly distant, worlds. There is a distinguishable enemy for which society to rally against, for Hayek it was the Nazi’s, for us it is Islamic terrorism. The global economic system has crashed and society is re-evaluating the excesses of capitalism, for Hayek the Great Depression, for us the Great Recession. The most important similarity however, is that of a growing trend of intellectuals leading the masses towards socialist values. As Hayek argued, the movement towards state dictated actions, in the pursuit of the vague concept of ‘social welfare’, leads inevitably to arbitrary use of this power. No longer will power be conferred by the market, thus being distributed across society, but it will be accumulated by the state. This accumulation of power by the state, in the eyes of Hayek and liberals such as myself, leads eventually to malicious government. To hand over absolute power, to even the best intentioned individual or group, will always cause these intentions to become corrupted.
How then, can this dangerous trend be seen in our world? It can be seen in the increasing calls for the State to handle problems that should be left for the market. The Labour Manifesto calls for the renationalisation of the rails, a scary prospect when it is asked how John Mcdonnel would achieve this. Mcdonnel, the shadow chancellor, alongside Professor David Hall of Greenwich University, claims that there is sufficient precedent for Labour to renationalise without compensating shareholders at market value. If they deem the company to have acted against the nations interests, the shareholders are compensated less. This is the first step of tyranny. The kangaroo court of a Labour government would have full power, based on their own interests, to decide who to steal from. For the government to simply take from its population is undoubtedly stealing. To allow this policy, a popular flagship of Labour, is to allow the first domino of arbitrary rule to fall. As Hayek wrote, ‘It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once”, rather it is a process by which over time liberty is eroded, until one day the power of that Orwellian boot comes stamping down on the face of free thought and society.
Hayek’s relevance has not deteriorated over time, the basic principles of his market first approach to bringing prosperity have time and again been proved to do just that. Yet still, as in the time of Hayek, there are existential threats to freedom and to the mechanisms which ensures it. To be passive in the fight against such a threat, is to be compliant.