F.A. Hayek on ‘the Supreme Rule’ That Separates Collectivism From Individualism

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The principle that ends justify means is one where the ethics of individualists and collectivists collide, F.A. Hayek saw.

Born in Vienna on this date (May 8) in 1899, Austrian economist and political philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek lived to see almost the entirety of the 20th Century. He won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974 and died in 1992 at the age of 92.

The 20th was perhaps the most collectivist century since the Incan Empire of the 16th—a tragic irony since Hayek offered the world some of the most trenchant criticisms of the collectivist poison.

Hayek’s insights on collectivism are sprinkled throughout his many works and are expressed particularly well in his classic 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. Excerpts are offered here as a tribute to him on this 122nd anniversary of his birth. (Additionally, I urge readers who have a special interest in this existential matter to consult the selection of readings I provide at the bottom of this essay.)

Collectivism is a perspective on human life and action. It views people as a blob requiring unified (if not unanimous) direction. Individualism is its opposite because it sees “humanity” as an abstract, composed of unique individuals, each one with a mind and rights of his own. While a collectivist would readily subsume the individual to such notions as majority vote or “the general will,” an individualist is wary of any person or group claiming to speak for others without their consent.

Hayek pointed out what ought to be obvious but is often glossed over, namely, that the “plans” of collectivist authority are bullied into place at the expense of the plans of individuals. That means that all forms of socialism are, essentially, collectivist and that all criticisms of collectivism apply to socialism in one form or another. Socialism invariably utilizes collectivist rhetoric and, most importantly, it attempts to achieve its ends by collectivist methods. Taken together, the contributions of Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises constitute such a complete and powerful dismantling of the socialist vision that socialists’ only effective response has been to ignore them.

“Nearly all the points which are disputed between socialists and [classical, free market] liberals,” Hayek writes, “concern the methods common to all forms of collectivism and not the particular ends for which socialists want to use them…”

For example, almost everyone favors education in the abstract. An individualist would encourage a multiplicity of methods and institutions to acquire it through personal choice and private entrepreneurship. A socialist supports a collective approach—state schools, state curriculum, mandates from authority, one-size-fits-all. An individualist would never homogenize education by command. He might even quote Mao and really mean it: “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” A collectivist like the socialist Mao would see no purpose in a hundred flowers blooming except to cut them down to common, obedient stumps.

To a collectivist, leaving the flowers alone or permitting endless varieties of them is tantamount, Hayek notes, to no plan at all. The plans of individuals are chaos by definition, whereas the plans of centralized authority are somehow inherently rational. “What our planners demand,” says Hayek, “is a central direction of all economic activity according to a single plan, laying down how the resources of society should be ‘consciously directed’ to serve particular ends in a definite way.”

This distinction reduces to this: Shall there be competition or not? The individualist would answer that question with an enthusiastic “YES!” because competition implies individual choice, accountability, and a tendency toward efficiency. It implies experimentation, with consumers by their free selections ultimately deciding whose plans produce the best results. The collectivist is instinctively anti-competition because the plan he wants might not be the one that other people choose in a competitive arena. A free and individualist society, explains Hayek,

…regards competition as superior not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority. Indeed, one of the main arguments in favor of competition is that it dispenses with the need for ‘conscious social control’ and that it gives the individuals a chance to decide whether the prospects of a particular occupation are sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages and risks connected to it.

Collectivist policymaking is inescapably the summit of arrogance. It is not the wise undertaking of an omniscient, benevolent Wizard of Oz. As in the movie, the “wizard” turns out to be just another mortal (or his lackeys) behind the collectivist curtain, pretending to be smarter and bigger than the rest of us. Why should his plans take precedence over those of other humans? You can claim, as collectivists do, that he represents the majority plus one, or that he possesses superior intentions, or whatever, but you cannot explain away the fact that such claims are nothing more than arrogant presumptions. “Might makes right” is what collectivist planning is all about.

Students today are often taught that on the imaginary “political spectrum,” socialism and communism are “left of center” and capitalism and fascism are “right of center.” As I wrote in a recent essay, The Only Spectrum That Makes Sense,” this is frightfully misleading. Socialism, communism and fascism are all peas in the same collectivist pod. Hayek held that they all despised both competition and the individual, and he was precisely right.

“The idea of complete centralization of the direction of economic activity still appalls most people,” wrote Hayek, “not only because of the stupendous difficulty of the task, but even more because of the horror inspired by the idea of everything being directed from a single center.”

In Chapter Ten of The Road to Serfdom (“Why the Worst Get to the Top”), Hayek lands a blow from which collectivists will never recover. Why? Because it is rooted fundamentally in a moral argument:

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 of the whole’ is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done. The raison d’etat, in which collectivist ethics has found its most explicit formulation, knows no other limit than that set by expediency—the suitability of the particular act for the end in view…There can be no limit to what [the collectivist state’s] citizen must be prepared to do, no act which his conscience must prevent him from committing, if it is necessary for an end which the community has set itself or which his superiors order him to achieve.

Friedrich August von Hayek was a giant of an intellectual. One need not be himself an intellectual to appreciate him. You simply must be an individual who appreciates the fact that we are all individuals, and that only God himself is fit to plan the lives or economies of others.

Happy Birthday, F. A. Hayek!

*****

This article was published on May 8, 2021 and is reprinted with permission from FEE, Foundation for Economic Education

 

 

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