Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Frighteningly modest proposals

Consider the following proposals:

  • Our nation has goals that society should support, regardless of the problems and goals of other nations or peoples;
  • It should be the job of our economy and of society to achieve those goals, rather than (or at least before) we worry about our own selfish plans;
  • We should be able to support our national goals without having to rely on other countries for trade or support;
  • It would be best if we could stop politicians from wasting time arguing, set their goals, and make them implement them; and 
  • People who do not share commitment to our national societal goals are antisocial and should be made to contribute to the plan. 

This doesn't seem wildly out of line with what many mainstream voters believe. Or perhaps they believe that it's impossible, but a nice idea. Playing up this sort of thinking has been key to the early success of the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, given how unremarkable this proposal seems, it constitutes the building blocks for fascism*, a set of political beliefs that, despite its fall to the level of pejorative insult, was a popular idea for Western governments following on the heels of the Progressive Era.

Fascism was seen as a way to implement the economic planning and stabilization measures that experts believed could overcome what they saw as the failures of capitalist** economies. The mobilization during World War I of nations under total war was seen as a model for how a country could pursue its goals: Don't waste time debating and persuading. Set the direction and get things done.

People who believe the above proposal is modest and reasonable don't believe that we should have totalitarian government, but rather an interventionist one. They probably don't think we should have a planned economy, but a managed or mixed one. But the interventionist state nudging a mixed economy toward national goals is not divided by a bright line from fascism. I don't believe (and you shouldn't, either) that most of the people who lived through the rise of 20th century totalitarianism wished for it.

Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is not a "slippery slope" argument, but an analysis of how totalitarianism rose in Europe from good intentions for national plans, and of why the socialists of his day were in danger of the same fate. More of us should seek to understand his arguments today, for these modest proposals, without a deep appreciation for the roles of liberalism and markets in a free society, are dangerous ones.

*The link on fascism is excellent and not too long.
**By 'capitalist', I mean a system in which capital is owned privately, that is, by capitalists. Nothing more or less.

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