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From 1944 to Nineteen Eighty-Four

Sheldon Richman

I’m inclined to think of George Orwell and F. A. Hayek at the same time. Both showed great courage in writing the truth, undaunted by the consequences awaiting them. Both valued freedom, though they understood it differently.

Orwell, a man of the “left,” could not remain silent in the face of the horrors of Stalinism. Twice — during the Spanish Civil War and again at the dawn of the Cold War — he refused to permit his comrades to blind themselves to where their collectivism had led and could lead again. For his favor he was called a conscious tool of fascism, a stinging accusation considering he had gone to Spain to fight fascism. (But for a few inches, the bullet that penetrated Orwell’s neck in Spain would have denied us the latter warnings, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. We would have never known what the fascists had cost us.)

Hayek, a man of the “right,” risked ostracism and worse in 1944 by publishing The Road to Serfdom, in which this Austrian-turned-Briton, writing in England at the height of World War II, warned that central economic planning would, if pursued seriously, end in a totalitarianism indistinguishable from the Nazi enemy. That couldn’t have been easy to write at that time and place — central planning was much in vogue among the intelligentsia. While a good deal of the reception was serious and respectful, a good deal of it was not. Herbert Finer, in Road to Reaction, called Hayek’s book “the most sinister offensive against democracy to emerge from a democratic country for many decades”; it expressed “the thoroughly Hitlerian contempt for the democratic man.”

Not surprisingly, it was The Road to Serfdom that brought Orwell and Hayek together in print. Orwell briefly reviewed the book along with Konni Zilliacus’s The Mirror of the Past in the April 9, 1944 issue of The Observer. The man who would publish Animal Farm a year later and Nineteen Eighty-Four five years later found much to agree with in Hayek’s work. He wrote:

Shortly, Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism, and that in Germany the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialists had already done most of their work for them, especially the intellectual work of weakening the desire for liberty. By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it. Britain, he says, is now going the same road as Germany, with the left-wing intelligentsia in the van and the Tory Party a good second. The only salvation lies in returning to an unplanned economy, free competition, and emphasis on liberty rather than on security. In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often — at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough — that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.

This is a significant endorsement, for no one understood totalitarianism as well as Orwell. Indeed, in Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens points out that Nineteen Eighty-Four impressed Communist Party members behind the Iron Curtain. He quotes Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, who before defecting to the West was a cultural attaché for the Polish communist government: “Orwell fascinates them [members of the Inner Party] through his insight to the details they know well…. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.” (An audio interview with Hitchens about Orwell is here.)

But true to his left state-socialism, Orwell could not endorse Hayek’s positive program:

Professor Hayek is also probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian-minded than the common people. But he does not see, or will not admit, that a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.

…Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

Short Shrift

It’s disappointing to see Orwell give such short shrift to Hayek’s positive thesis. He is glib and dogmatic, which is unbecoming a serious intellectual such as Orwell. His ignorance of economics leaps from the page.

“[A] return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.” It’s hard to believe that someone so familiar with Stalinism could have written that. Even without knowing much economics, could he really have thought that what goes on in market-oriented societies, even during depressions, could be worse than the famine Stalin inflicted on the Ukrainians, the show trials and executions, or the labor camps in Siberia?

“The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” In a market producers compete to better serve consumers. The losers in that competition are not exiled or executed. They find other ways to serve consumers, just as producers are trying to serve them.

“Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led….” Where has monopoly arisen without the aid of the State? We find no market-generated monopoly in England or the United States. There, major business interests actively promoted protectionism and other interventions precisely to tamp down competition and protect their market shares. Of course, for many people, Orwell presumably among them, that is capitalism, a topic I return to below. (I should note that Hayek forswore laissez faire in his book, but that is a topic for another day.)

“[T]he vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment….” But that’s a false choice. Slumps and unemployment, as Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises taught, are products of central-bank manipulation of money and interest rates, that is, of government not of the free market. The Great Depression, which must have been on Orwell’s mind, was no exception. The real choice is between freedom and security (including mutual aid) on the one hand, and State “regimentation,” slumps, and unemployment on the other.

I must pause here to focus on Orwell’s disgraceful use of the word “regimentation.” I say “disgraceful” because he committed the sin he himself so eloquently condemned in his justly famous essay “Politics and the English Language”: the sin of euphemism. In that great essay he wrote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so”. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

Regimentation is the least of what goes on under a totalitarian regime.

Capitalism versus the Free Market

“Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war.” I think that part of the problem for Orwell is that a truly free market is not among the possible options. For him and many others, the choice is between a system run for employers and one run for workers. (The preferable alternative is not obvious.) In this view, the former is capitalism, sometimes dressed up as “the free market,” and the latter is socialism. We shouldn’t be too hard on Orwell for thinking this way, for many defenders of the market are just as careless when they write about mixed economies such as the one in the United States. Despite pervasive government intervention, we often hear business conduct defended because “under capitalism” consumers have the power to punish firms that ill-serve them. Tell that to consumers who chose not to buy GM and Chrysler cars. Tell that to people who lost land through eminent domain so that a big-box chain might prosper. Generations of business-inspired intervention to some extent must have rigged the market against consumers and workers. If not, what are the economists complaining about?

As for his inclusion of war in his list, let it be said that the scramble for markets and other economic objectives cannot be a sufficient condition for war. War requires the State, that is, the socialization of costs through taxation and conscription.

One wonders how Orwell avoided despair. He couldn’t accept (state) capitalism, and he saw the totalitarian tendencies of socialism up close. Yet he could write, “There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.” (Emphasis added.)

Hadn’t he just read Hayek’s Chapter 11, “The End of Truth,” in which Hayek described how a serious commitment to central planning must produce “contempt for intellectual liberty”?

The word “truth” itself ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief; it becomes something to be laid down by authority, which has to be believed in the interest of unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require it.

The general intellectual climate which this produces, the spirit of complete cynicism as regards truth which it engenders, the loss of the sense of even the meaning of truth, the disappearance of the spirit of independent inquiry and of the belief in the power of rational conviction, the way in which differences of opinion in every branch of knowledge become political issues to be decided by authority, are all things which one must personally experience — no short description can convey their extent.

But of course Orwell had experienced those things in Spain and knew how it was in Russia. He certainly put a heavy burden on that word “somehow.” How restoring the concept of right and wrong to politics would make central planning either decent or practical is a mystery no one has solved. (Of course, Mises had long before shown that socialism could not be practical because without prices arising out of the exchange of privately owned means of production, the socialist planner could not make rational calculations with respect to what should be produced, in what manner, and in what quantities.)

To end on a partly optimistic note, though Orwell presumably would not agree, central economic planning is not on the modern agenda. The threat today is not state socialism. It’s bureaucratic corporatism dressed up as progressive democracy.

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