Obama's Road to Serfdom

Hayek's ominous warning and why it may already be coming to pass.

0117-Obama-NSA-reforms_full_600Barack Obama has his pen and his phone and as this report notes, the President of the United States is poised to bypass Congress and “use his control of federal agencies to impose his progressive agenda on the economy and society throughout 2014.”

This is more evidence that Barack Obama has not read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, the 1944 book endorsed by John Maynard Keynes “in deeply moved agreement” both philosophical and moral. Hayek’s book nevertheless remains enlightening about president Obama and his administration in several ways.

Last year in a piece on Obamacare Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson cited Hayek on the challenge of technocratic planning: limited information. The knowledge, Hayek wrote, “never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

According to Hayek, a Nobel laureate in economics, the dispute is not about “whether planning is to be done or not.” Rather, the key question is whether the planning is to be conducted “centrally, by one authority” or “divided among many individuals.” Obamacare purports to plan health care for an entire nation. By any standard, that has not worked out well.

The federal website was dysfunctional but Obamacare bosses opted to roll it out anyway.  Federal officials remained uncertain how many people had “enrolled” and whether enrollees had in fact secured a policy. Among other technical and economic problems, the federal website remains insecure and state exchanges have troubles of their own.

“So maybe the problem is not Obama or Sebelius,” Gerson wrote, “but rather a government program that requires superhuman technocratic mastery.” That validates Hayek on the information problem. Another section of his “grand book,” as Keynes called it, may be even more relevant.

That would be Hayek’s chapter on “Why the Worst Get on Top” in societies trending toward central control. In those, the dominating element is “the general demand for a quick and determined government action.” Therefore it is “the man or party strong enough to ‘get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal.” But for such a man and his party, the problems range far beyond the lack of information.

“Where there is one common all-overriding end,” Hayek notes, “there is no room for any general morals or rules.” The principle that the end justifies the means is in fact “the denial of all morals.” The leader who really wants to get things done will “soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure.” The necessary practices for such a leader include “cruelty and intimidation, deliberate deception and spying.”

Likewise, the “democratic statesman” determined to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of “either assuming dictatorial power or abandoning his plans.” That is why, Hayek says, in a society trending toward central control, “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful.” Examples abound on the current scene.

The president is mounting a surge in his practice of legislating from the White House, a clear violation of the Constitution. This is precisely the kind of power grab outlined by Friedrich Hayek, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush in 1991.

The Obama administration has deployed the IRS to intimidate groups the president dislikes. His NSA continues to spy on ordinary Americans, strip-mining their private lives beyond any legitimate security needs. Deception also abounds.

“If you like your health care plan,” the president said repeatedly, “you can keep it.” This was not, as the New York Times wrote, an “incorrect promise.” It was the sort of deliberate deception that, as Hayek noted, even democratic statesmen must indulge if they believe the end justifies the means. Barack Obama, President of the United States, is up to the task, and the results are evident. 

His signature plan strips Americans of their health care policies and steers them to a dysfunctional and insecure website whose “navigators” can be convicted felons. If Americans decline to participate, the IRS will fine them. Millions of Americans are now in dire straits but Barack Obama says as long as he is president Obamacare will never be repealed. 

Embattled Americans can doubtless find other evidence that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are already on top, and the nation progressing down the road to serfdom.  But could this happen in the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave? Consider Hayek’s warning:

“Even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.”

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