Hayek Was Right: The Worst Do Get To The Top

(Note: This week marks the anniversary of the first publication of F. A. Hayek’s "The Road to Serfdom." It was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1944, and remains one of the most powerful critiques of socialism ever written. Hayek won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974. In 1991, the year before Hayek died, President George H. W. Bush bestowed upon him the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for "a lifetime of looking beyond the horizon." The following essay first appeared in the February 1998 edition of "The Freeman," the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.)

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In spite of freedom’s remarkable, global progress in recent years — from the collapse of the Soviet empire to the growth of "privatization" — there is no sign yet of a shortage of statists with goofy and destructive schemes. The best explanation of why and how such people get into positions of power is still found in "Why the Worst Get on Top," which is chapter ten of F. A. Hayek’s immortal masterpiece, "The Road to Serfdom."

When Hayek wrote his best-known book in 1944, the world was captivated by the notion of socialist central planning. While almost everyone in Europe and America decried the brutality of Nazism, fascism and communism, public opinion was being shaped and molded by an intelligentsia which held that these "excesses" of socialism were avoidable exceptions. If only we make sure the right people are in charge, said the statist intellectuals, the iron fist will dissolve into a velvet glove.

Those who, in Hayek’s words, "think that it is not the system which we need fear, but the danger that it might be run by bad men," are naïve utopians who will forever be disappointed by the socialist outcome. Indeed, this is the history of 20th century statism — the endless search for a place where the dream might actually be made to work, settling on a spot until disaster is embarrassingly apparent to all, then blaming persons rather than the system and flitting off to the next inevitable disappointment. Perhaps someday, the dictionary definition of "statist" may read, "Someone who learns nothing from human nature, economics or experience and repeats the same mistakes over and over again without a care for the rights and lives of people he crushes with his good intentions."

Even the worst features of the statist reality, Hayek showed, "are not accidental byproducts" but phenomena which are part and parcel of statism itself. He argued with great insightfulness that "the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful" in any society in which government is seen as the answer to most problems. They are precisely the kind of people who elevate power over persuasion, force over cooperation. Government, possessing by definition a legal and political monopoly of the use of force, attracts them just as surely as dung draws flies. Ultimately, it is the apparatus of government which allows them to wreak their havoc on the rest of us.

Hardly a day goes by that, a half century after Hayek wrote, the newspapers fail to provide new examples of the worst getting to the top. Two recent ones from opposite ends of the globe will permit me to illustrate Hayek’s wisdom.

In France on October 10, 1997, the socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin proposed a law to forcibly cut the allowable workweek. Employers would be required by the year 2000 to reduce the hours their employees work from 39 to 35, with no loss of pay. Jospin demagogically promised the French people that the law would create "lots of jobs." Of course, this was not meant to be a friendly request of the nation’s employers; it is to be a requirement, meaning that employers who strike a different deal with their own workers for more than 35 hours will have to be fined, jailed or both. The Prime Minister made no mention of the fact that one of Europe’s most regulated and expensive welfare states had priced French labor out of many markets and produced the high unemployment he now professed an intent to reduce.

In Malaysia during that same week in October, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lashed out at assorted "rogues," "morons" and "neocolonialists" whom he blamed for the fall in value of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit. Reminiscent of crazed power mongers of the recent past, he even suggested that Malaysia’s economic troubles were the result of a "Jewish agenda." He called not for an end to his government’s policy of cranking out paper ringgits for boondoggles like the world’s tallest building, but rather, for outlawing the trading of currencies as "unnecessary, unproductive and immoral."

Jospin’s belief that job creation will result from making it illegal to work more than 35 hours and forcing employers to pay workers for less output is, of course, ludicrous. It is the sort of thing one would expect from lunatics who seize control of their asylum. It is doomed from the start to produce more unemployment, not less, because it makes every employee more costly to his employer.

Mohamad’s attempt to foist blame on anything but his own previous interventions is just as ludicrous. Perhaps he fancies himself a modern King Canute, commanding the waves of currency trading to stop and thereby solve his problems for him. Of course, the waves will still come for Mohamad, just as they did for Canute, but he may lop off plenty of heads in the process.

These two ignorant characters on the stage of national politics don’t know it, but they are reading from Hayek’s script. In his "Why the Worst Get on Top" chapter, he says of the central planner or "potential dictator," ". . . he will be able to obtain the support of all 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." At last report, the docile and the gullible are firmly in Jospin’s and Mohamad’s corner.

The statist demagogue, avers Hayek, appeals to "hatred of an enemy" and "the envy of those better off" to gain the "unreserved allegiance of huge masses." For Jospin, it’s the greed of private employers; for Mohamad, it’s the Jews. The worst love to employ bigotry to score political points on the road to accumulating power.

Hayek notes "an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups. To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group." Perhaps both prime ministers would personally oppose an individual who forced his boss at gunpoint to raise his pay, or an individual who tarred and feathered a currency trader, but they have no problems with making these activities national policy.

Give government lots of power and silly people who have little tolerance for the lives and views of others will line up to get government jobs. Those who respect others, who leave other people alone and who want to be left alone themselves, apply elsewhere — namely, for productive jobs in the private sector. The bigger government gets, the more the worst get to the top of it, just as Hayek warned us in 1944.

The French and the Malaysians are but two of many peoples at the moment who, if they read chapter ten of The Road to Serfdom, would find F. A. Hayek describing precisely the woeful course they have chosen to take.


Postscript: In 2002, Lionel Jospin finished a dismal third in a national election for President of France and prominently retired from politics. In recognition of the economic damage inflicted by the 35-hour workweek, the requirement was effectively abolished by the French National Assembly in March 2005. After nearly 22 years at the top, Mohamad Mahathir departed the office of Prime Minister of Malaysia in October 2003 and is now widely seen as an angry man with a tarnished legacy, carping on the distant sidelines of power. If either Jospin or Mahathir deserve a footnote in history, it should read, "Joined the ranks of the many whose actions testified to the wisdom of F. A. Hayek, whose ideas will forever live in the hearts of all who love liberty."


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.