By Philip Pilkington, a writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London. You can follow him on Twitter @pilkingtonphil
It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.
– Marcel Proust
Friedrich Hayek was an unusual character. Although well known to be a libertarian political philosopher, he is also commonly associated with being an economist. And it’s certainly true that at one time Hayek’s focus was solely on economics. In the 1920s Hayek was still within the fold of pure economics, publishing papers and works that were taken seriously by the discipline. However, by the 1930s Hayek’s theories had started to come apart at the seams. Exchanges between Hayek and John Maynard Keynes and Piero Sraffa show Hayek as confused and even somewhat desperate. It was around this time that Hayek discontinued making any substantial contributions to economics. Not coincidentally this overlapped with the time when most economies, mired as in Great Depression, demonstrated that Hayek’s theories were at best impractical, at worst a complete perversion of facts.
So, Hayek turned instead to constructing political philosophies and honing a metaphysics rather than engaging in any substantial way with the new economics that was emerging. When pure logic and empirical reality ceased to support Hayek’s emotionally charged ideology he turned, to the more malleable sphere of meaning and metaphysics. He became concerned with watery terms like “freedom” and “liberty”, which he then set out to impregnate with a meaning that would support his dreams. The most famous result of this period of conversion, which resembled less St. Paul on the road to Damascus and more so an alcoholic who had hit rock bottom, was Hayek’s 1944 work The Road to Serfdom. In a very real way it was this book that marked the close of Hayek’s career as a serious economic thinker and set him on the path of the political propagandist, agitator and organiser.
The over-arching argument of the book is well-known and need not be repeated too extensively here. Hayek thought that all totalitarianisms had their origins in forms of economic planning. Economic planning was the cause of totalitarianism for Hayek, rather than the being just a feature of it. Underneath it all this was a rather crude argument. One may as well make the observation that totalitarianism was often accompanied by arms build-up, therefore arms build-ups “cause” totalitarianism. But Hayek pushed it and most probably believed it anyway, for reasons that we shall soon see.
The implicit argument here was that, Britain for example, which had begun to increasingly plan its economy during the war, was on a slippery slope that would end in totalitarianism. It must be understood that Hayek’s argument had no factual basis. Only a polemicist could argue that the two totalitarianisms that existed in this period – namely, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union – had formed because a naïve democratic government had engaged in some economic planning that then got out of hand and resulted in tyranny. But Hayek’s motivations probably lay somewhat deeper – probably so deep that he himself could not properly recognise them.
The Rise of the Third Reich: Hayek’s Historical Repression
To understand Hayek’s “reasoning” a bit better we should consider the political situation that he refused to return to after Austria’s annexation by Hitler in 1938. The broad reasons for Hitler’s rise to power are beyond dispute among serious historians today. The sweeping picture of Germany in this era is that she was not only humiliated after the First World War but was also subject to vicious reparations payments – payments which ultimately set off a hyperinflation in the country. The average German knew that the national humiliation and the economic turmoil were intimately connected and so they became increasingly bitter about the Treaty of Versailles which they thought, quite rightly, had subjected the country to both economic and political bondage. It was into this vacuum that Hitler and his cronies stepped and began, in the early to mid-1920s, to accumulate political support.
However, after the hyperinflation came to an end and thanks to loans from the United States, the reparations troubles eased and the German economy began to return to moderate growth. Hitler’s popularity fell enormously in this period. But the 1929 stock market crash soon came and the loans from the United States promptly dried up. Unemployment soared in Germany and the government, like so many others across the world, engaged in severe austerity in order to attempt to balance the budget. They believed that this would return the country to economic prosperity.
In retrospect it is quite obvious that Hitler’s immediate rise to power was due to the economic downturn and the government’s deflationary policy response. In 1930 the Nazis had become the second largest party, obtaining 18.3% of the votes. When compared with the 2.8% of the vote they received in 1928 during an era of high employment and an economically optimistic outlook it quickly becomes obvious what the underlying forces driving Hitler’s election actually were.
That the economic policies the Weimar government had engaged in had led to the election of Hitler was and is obvious to any unbiased observer. But there were many who actively repressed this fact. The liberals that had supported the government’s austerity measures no doubt felt some burden, whether unconscious or otherwise, of guilt. This is best illustrated by an anecdote that the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith relates regarding the Chancellor who presided over the austerity, Heinrich Brüning, which he published in his book Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went:
In the 30s, Brüning joined the Harvard faculty as Professor of Government. At a welcoming seminar one evening I asked him if his Draconian measures at a time of general deflation had not advanced the cause of Adolf Hitler. He said that they had not. When, unwisely, I pressed the point, he asked me if I disputed the word of the former Chancellor of the German Reich.
This was then, rather unsurprisingly, a touchy subject for Brüning which he preferred to evade. After all, the facts were simply not on his side and there was no way he could rationally argue to the contrary. Likewise too for those liberals like Hayek who firmly believed that the austerity measures were the only road to salvation. Mark Ames at the eXiledonline sums up rather nicely the reaction this provoked in Hayek and the other Austrian school libertarians:
Von Hayek and his fellow Austrian aristocrats who were forced to flee from the fruits of their economic programs, did a complete revision of history and retold that same story as if the very opposite of reality had happened. Once they were safely in England and America, sponsored and funded by oligarch grants, hacks like von Mises and von Hayek started pushing a revisionist history of the collapse of Weimar Germany blaming not their austerity measures, but rather big-spending liberals who were allegedly in charge of Germany’s last government. Somehow, von Hayek looked at Chancellor Bruning’s policies of massive budget cuts combined with pegging the currency to the gold standard, the policies that led to Weimar Germany’s collapse, policies that became the cornerstone of Hayek’s cult—and decided that Bruning hadn’t existed.
An Existential Choice
It is not hard to discern whether Hayek was lying or simply deluded. He was not lying – at least not consciously. For the rest of his life he was driven by a genuine belief in the idea, put forward in The Road to Serfdom, that economic planning was what had led to totalitarianism in Europe. It was not hard to discern if Hayek was lying simply by looking at the zeal with which he pursued the crusade against planning. This was not the cynical enthusiasm of a charlatan, but instead the forward impetus of a man who, as if riding a bicycle, would come crashing down emotionally if lost his momentum.
Hayek’s entire ideology and career had begun to come apart in the 1930s. His theories were shown to be inconsistent in the academic journals of the time and the practical implications of those theories had shown themselves to be both discredited and dangerous. A man in such a position only has two choices: he can either completely re-evaluate his ideas which, if they were held with unshakeable conviction and constituted a core component of his emotional make-up, as seems to have been the case with Hayek, would have likely resulted in a mental collapse; or, alternatively, he can engage in a massive repression, shut out reality and construct around himself a fantasy world.
Hayek opted for the latter. So too did all of what was to become the neo-Austrian school which soon developed into a sealed hermetic cult of True Believers who reinforced each other’s unsubstantiated ideas and defended each other from the threatening world outside the circle. But this cult was largely fringe. Although it did command some respect among neoliberals in the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, it was the respect accorded to the eccentric rather than that accorded to the practical man. Lip service was paid to the doctrines of Hayek and the Austrians, but their extremist and impractical economic policy implications were sterilised and kept out of immediate contact with the levers of power. Milton Friedman’s more pragmatic doctrines of monetarism were preferred so far as economic policies went.
But we should not fool ourselves. Hayek’s delusion did indeed have profound effects on history. Indeed, as we shall see, it was even directly responsible for Friedman’s rise. For Hayek, in his crusade against what he thought the germ from which totalitarianism spread, became a tireless worker and organiser. With the ingenuity of a Leninist, Hayek formed around him a host of like-minded thinkers and politicians. Backed by the funding of right-wing millionaires, Hayek constructed a network of people who he initiated into his delusion and convinced that every manifestation of collective intervention into the free market was just one more stepping stone on the road to serfdom.
Likewise in the popular mind – for Hayek did effectively become a political propagandist rather than a respected intellectual in the 1940s – Hayek’s delusion, with all its emotional overtones, spread quite effectively. Today whenever we encounter an anxiety-ridden Tea Partier or a fearful and paranoid internet Austrian, it is Hayek’s delusion that we are hearing echoed through the chambers of history, albeit in slightly vulgarised form. It is the fear, distrust and paranoia which Hayek’s portrait of a free society descending into barbarism evokes that captures the minds of those it touches. That it is completely deluded and ignorant of history only makes it more effective, like all propaganda, in its role as propaganda. The bigger the lie, the more emotional investment it requires to believe in and so the more it captures the uncritical and the emotionally weak.
The inner sanctum from which Hayek’s delusion emanated was called the Mont Pelerin Society. In the next piece in this series we will turn to how Hayek’s delusion was diluted by those in the Mont Pelerin Society to fit with the American political system; this is what we might call the American version of neoliberalism. While in the final piece we will consider how Hayek’s delusion was gradually converted into the European form of neoliberalism when it was confronted with the problem of trade unions. As we shall see there is much overlap between these two forms of neoliberalism and each borrows from the other – this, of course, being the reason why they are not generally distinguished between – but most importantly, they share a common root in the wall that Hayek erected in his mind in the 1930s and 1940s to block out a world that he himself had played a part in creating.