Why the worst rise to power

"Collectivism makes personal liberty its victim."



Friedrich Hayek was one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. While he is best known for his work in economics, he also made significant contributions in political philosophy and law. He is most widely known for his book, The Road to Serfdom, written during World War II.

Hayek exposed the danger posed to freedom by attempts to apply the principles of wartime economic and social planning to the problems of peacetime. Hayek argued that the rise of Nazism was not due to any character failure on the part of the German people, but was a consequence of the socialist ideas that had gained popularity in Germany in the decades preceding the outbreak of war.

History’s most notorious dictators did not rise to power randomly. In one of the chapters of his book, Hayek explains why the most despicable people always end up with political power and why, to paraphrase Lord Acton, absolute power always corrupts absolutely:

“The totalitarian leader must collect around him a group which is prepared voluntarily to submit to that discipline they are to impose by force upon the rest of the people. They [economic and social reformers] still hoped for the miracle of a majority’s agreeing on a particular plan for the organization of the whole of society. Others had already learned the lesson that in a planned society, the question can no longer be on what do a majority of the people agree but with what the largest single group is whose members agree sufficiently to make a unified direction of all affairs possible.”

“There are three main reasons why such as numerous and strong group, with fairly similar views, is not likely to be formed by the best but rather by the worst elements of any society.”

“First, the higher the education and intelligence of individuals become, the more their tastes and views are differentiated. If we wish to find a high degree of uniformity in outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail. This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards.”

“Second, since this group is not large enough to give sufficient weight to the leader’s endeavors, he will have to increase their numbers by converting more to the same simple creed. He must gain the support of the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party.”

“Third, to weld together a coherent body of supporters, the leader must appeal to a common human weakness. It seems to be easier for people to agree on a negative program—on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of the better off—than on any positive task.”

“The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they,’ is consequently always employed by those who seek the allegiance of huge masses. The enemy may be internal, like the ‘Jew’ in Germany or the ‘kulak’ in Russia, or he may be external. In any case, this technique has the great advantage of leaving the leader greater freedom of action than would almost any positive program.”

“Advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things. The principle that the end justifies the means, which to individuals is regarded as the denial of all morals, in collectivism, 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 that is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done.”

“Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarianism which horrify us follow of necessity. From the collectivist standpoint, intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, deception and spying, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual, are essential and unavoidable. Acts which revolt all our feelings, such as the shooting of hostages or the killing of the old or sick, are treated as mere matters of expediency; the compulsory uprooting and transportation of hundreds of thousands becomes an instrument of policy approved by almost everybody except the victims.”

“To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, therefore, a man must be prepared to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him. In the totalitarian machine, there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous. Neither the Gestapo nor the administration of a concentration camp, neither the Ministry of Propaganda nor the SA or SS are suitable places for the exercise of humanitarian feelings. Yet it is through such positions that the road to the highest positions in the totalitarian state leads.”

“A further point should be made here: collectivism means the end of truth. To make a totalitarian system function effectively, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the ends selected by those in control; it is essential that the people should come to regard these ends as their own. This is brought about by propaganda and by complete control of all sources of information.”

“The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those they have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before.”

“It is not difficult to deprive the great majority of independent thought. But the minority who will retain an inclination to criticize must also be silenced. Public criticism or even expressions of doubt must be suppressed because they tend to weaken support of the regime.”

“The worst oppression is condoned if it is committed in the name of socialism. Intolerance of opposing ideas is openly extolled. The tragedy of collectivist thought is that while it starts out to make reason supreme, it ends by destroying reason.”

The bottom line: With great power and rigor of reasoning, Hayek sounds a grim warning to those who look to the government to provide the way out of all our economic difficulties. He demonstrates that fascism and dictatorship are the inevitable results of the increasing growth of state control and state power, of national “planning” and of socialism. Collectivism makes personal liberty its victim.

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Topics: Friedrich Hayek , Collectivism , The Road to Serfdom , Socialism
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