Ten Simple Ideas from Hayek: Why the worst get on top

in literature •  3 months ago

Ten simple ideas from the chapter, Why the worst get on top in Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

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In this article, I'm experimenting with a new review style. Following in the footsteps of the PLOS Ten Simple Rules style of articles, I'm going to try reviewing a book chapter or two, and maybe some papers by writing about Ten Simple Ideas from the chapter or paper. If anyone finds it interesting, maybe I'll turn it into a series. This is my first article to follow this structure.

With one set of cable news channels constantly reporting about President Trump's pending impeachment and the other cable news channels reporting on the coming accountability for a government cover-up of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and pay-to-play schemes, I can't help but think that the 2016 election yielded us - by far - the worst American presidential candidates in recent memory. It is a near-constant reminder of a chapter in Hayek's The Road To Serfdom titled, Why the Worst Get on Top.

So this seems like a perfect time to mine 10 simple ideas out of the chapter. I somehow managed to misplace my copy of the book, so I'm reviewing from the online copy linked above.

Ten Simple Ideas

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.

  • Anonymous
Image Source: pixabay.com, License: CC0, Public Domain

1.) The chapter was written to address the difference between theory and observation in the implementation of socialist societies.

In this chapter, Hayek claims that although socialism and its kindred ideologies - fascism and communism - may stem from high minded universal principles and goals, the implementation is doomed from the start to be nationalistic and immoral. He acknowledges that there are differences among implementations and that some forms of totalitarianism may be preferred over others, but argues that they are all inevitably illiberal. After introducing the topic, Hayek spends the rest of the chapter making his case.

2.) Hayek argued that there are compelling reasons to believe that the negative features of socialist societies are caused by selective processes within the system itself, not just because the 'wrong' people implemented the ideas.

The people in power in a collectivist system have a set of goals to accomplish, and they choose their leaders from among the people who claim that they can accomplish these goals. The more intelligent and moral people who wish to be society's leaders will realize that democratic processes place limits on what is possible, and they will make realistic promises for the voters. On the other hand, people with unrealistic ambitions and people with lower morals will say whatever the voters want to hear. Eventually - and it is only a matter of time - the voters will pick someone from this second group and place that person in a position of power.

3.) Hayek claims that when confronted with opposition, a person who is determined to implement a particular plan of government will always have to choose between failing or succeeding through the use of immoral methods.

Once in power, the leader will eventually be confronted with opposition. In this case, the first resort will be persuasion, but persuasion does not always work. When persuasion fails, the leader will be confronted with a choice between failing or resorting to more extreme measures. Hayek states it like this:

Just as the choice architect who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure.

This phenomenon implies that in the long run, the only person who can succeed as a leader in a collectivist totalitarian system is a person who is willing to cast aside "ordinary morals" in pursuit of collectivist planning.

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4.) In this chapter, Hayek was not considering the morality of socialism as a system, but instead the morality of its methods.

As alluded to above, in Hayek's view, the form of collectivism doesn't seem to matter. Although some forms may be preferred over others, they will all eventually follow a similar illiberal path. Throughout the chapter, Hayek switched his target of criticism from socialists to communists to fascists, and even to imperialists. It is worth noting that this book was written in 1944, when all of these forms of government were still in contention for control of the European continent. Hayek's observations were not merely theoretical, but were based on real time observations of Germany's socialism, Russia's communism, and Italy's fascism.

5.) At a moment of crisis, a socialist society will demand faster action than can be delivered by democratic deliberation.

As a contemporary American, this observation seems almost prescient. It is only in the last couple of decades that I recall hearing complaints about so-called obstructionism in government. Until recently, it seemed to me that deliberative conduct and other checks and balances of our democratic republic were considered to be features. During the recent decades, it seems that the American populace is demanding faster decision making to the degree that even the age old Senate filibuster seems to be on its way out and that partisans across the political spectrum are only satisfied with something that approaches instant gratification.

Hayek's point was that this impatience with the slowness of government is exactly the phenomenon that opened the door for people like Hitler, and Mussolini.

6.) When people are dissatisfied with the responsiveness of government, they will seek a "strong man" who will overcome resistance to implement their preferences quickly. The democratic process will happily hand over control to a totalitarian with sweet sounding promises.

As hinted above, when society becomes dissatisfied with the slowness of democracy, they choose a leader who they believe can implement their agenda quickly. Complaints about obstructionism give way to installation of a "strong man". A leader who can get things done. In addition to installation of the WWII leaders that Hayek was referring to, I think this may also fit historical events in the lead up to Robespierre and Napolean. The primary qualification for this "strong man" is effectiveness - defined as the leader's ability to implement an agenda.

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7.) There are three reasons why this "strong man" tends to be a person of poor moral character.

i. People of higher education and intelligence tend to be more discerning. Thus, they are not likely to agree on issues en masse. Thus, to get widespread agreement, you need participation from people with less education and intelligence. i.e. the people with the widest agreement are likely to be the people with the lowest standards.
ii. That group is still probably not large enough to form a majority, so add to it the people who are most malleable and gullible; and
iii. Hatred of an enemy is usually far more persuasive than any positive goal, so the strong man will, invariably, make use of this tactic.

ok, so this idea is not so simple, but it makes up the foundation of Hayek's argument. I tried very hard to paraphrase the first argument in a way that doesn't sound elitist, but I'm not sure if I accomplished that. At its core, the argument is just the observation that in order to receive the approval of "the masses" a leader needs to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The claim is that education and intelligence lead to diversity of thought and preferences, so the people who are most lacking in education and intelligence form the largest voting block. If his argument has a weak point, I think this is probably it.

In the second point, Hayek points out at that even appealing to the lowest common denominator will not be enough to obtain control, so the "strong man" will also need to be one who appeals to the most gullible and malleable from outside the group. These are the "go along to get along" type of people who just don't want to rock the boat.

Finally, Hayek notes that this still won't be enough, so the voting block is capped off by appealing to hatred, one of the most easily harnessed of emotions. In modern terms, this is sometimes referred to as "othering". The hated group can be "the rich" or "illegal immigrants" or people of a certain gender, race, religion or other cultural group. I'd expect that nearly all of us have seen this play out in one form or other.

8.) Decentralization and separation of political power from economic power are ways to protect liberty, so the "strong man" will demand - and society will agree to - centralization and combination of political and economic power.

In the end, there are two different forms of morality, and only one can win. If collectivist ethics are in play, then the ends justify the means, and the rights of the individual must give way to the desire of the group. If individualist ethics are in play, then the desire of the group is secondary to the rights of the individual. When society places a strong man in place to overcome obstructionism, it is a statement that collectivist ethics override the rights of the individual. The only leader who can succeed in this atmosphere is the leader who is willing to disregard the rights of the individual.

Here at steemit, we are quite accustomed to hearing about the virtues of decentralization, but upon second reading, what really strikes me about this chapter is the strong man's desire and need to merge political and economic power. As Hayek notes, there is a degree of coercion that's associated with economic power, but as long as it is independent from political power there are limits to that coercion. As soon as society agrees to merge political and economic power, there are no remaining limits.

Hayek summed it up nicely in this paragraph:

The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule; there is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves "the good of the whole," because the "good raison of the whole" is to him only criterion of what ought to be done.

9.) Centralized power is necessarily more intrusive than decentralized power.

Hayek counters the argument that shifting power from individuals or localities to a central planning board is merely a relocation of power, but it is only the power to do precisely the same things. However, Hayek says this argument is incorrect because the central planning board is making these decisions on behalf of numerous individuals or localities. If the power were the same, there would be still be diverse policies, but that's not what happens. Instead, many policies get replaced by a single policy. By definition, centralized power is consolidated power, and consolidated power overrides the autonomy of a larger number of people.

10.) The only way known to reliably minimize the power exercised by man over man is decentralization and competition.

In individualistic ethics, regardless of the intentions or results, it is held to be wrong to cheat, steal, kill, torture, or betray a confidence. In collectivist ethics, all of these may be permitted in pursuit of the group's ends. Groups seeking a "strong man", therefore, will find a person who is willing to follow the collectivist ethics, not the individualistic ethics. To prevent this, both political and economic power must be separated and decentralized, so that competition may place a firm limit on the abuses that are possible by any particular leader.


In this chapter, Hayek attempted to show that finding "the right" leader for a collectivist system of government is not an achievable goal. We can have academic debates about the morality of a totalitarian system that's implemented for the common good, but in practice, such a system just cannot happen. To show this, he pointed out that all totalitarianism systems, such as socialism, communism, fascism, and imperialism all share certain common features that eventually lead to the subversion of individual rights. He also demonstrated the common techniques that "the worst" leaders often exploit in order to rise to power in a democratic society. These characteristics include the appeal to the lowest common denominator, propaganda and disinformation, and invocation of hatred and "othering." Finally, he attempted to demonstrate that the best way to preserve individual rights is by separation of economic and political power in conjunction with decentralization.

Of course, a blog post can't do justice to this chapter, and even if it could, the whole book is a must read, so if you haven't read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, please do. It is a thought provoking book, and is definitely worth your time.

You may also enjoy this 5 1/2 minute video (with music by Samuel Barber):

As a general rule, I up-vote comments that demonstrate "proof of reading".

Thank you for your time and attention.

Steve Palmer is an IT professional with three decades of professional experience in data communications and information systems. He holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a master's degree in computer science, and a master's degree in information systems and technology management. He has been awarded 3 US patents.
Steve is a co-founder of the Steemit's Best Classical Music Facebook page, and the @classical-music steemit curation account.
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Wish I had seen this before voting closed, but I like this format. Hope you continue the series!

nice article and the video was awesome ;)


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