In many key respects, F.A. Hayek’s fears that the modern social-democratic welfare state would lead to totalitarianism did not come to pass. Even soft despotism seems only to have been partially realized. However, rereading The Road to Serfdom in the opening days of Donald Trump’s presidency offers an uncomfortable glimpse of where our national politics might be heading.
Greg Weiner’s Liberty Forum essay highlights the many unfortunate ways in which events have proven Hayek right. Yet Weiner also offers a mild criticism of Hayek: that he is perhaps too anti-political. While I don’t disagree that sometimes Hayek’s desire for a “hands-off” constitutionalism appears impossible to achieve, his emphasis on how democracy can be destroyed by the slow erosion of constitutional limitations seems particularly prescient. By reminding us of the difference between a politics chastened by the rule of law and a politics emphasizing the desire for action, the Austrian’s political philosophy offers rich lessons.
Weiner’s reading of Hayek into the contemporary political scene points up how much politicians must avoid telling the public the truth about what they might realistically accomplish—that is, if they wish to be successful at the ballot box. The public punishes the reasonable statesman who confines himself to the practical. It favors instead those with a loftier vision, who intone that we must “think big and dream even bigger.” The electorate is willing to accept airy hopes, dreams of greatness, schemes of vengeance, and a future of endless promise, but not a sober accounting of the national debt, a reminder of the limitations of military force, or less still, a simple call to restore the rule of law. We should not be surprised by Presidents who govern through executive order rather than patiently observing legislative procedure. Weiner makes it easier for us to understand, too, why such officials do so little to persuade the public that their cause is just.
One of the dangers of this kind of aspirational politics is that the absence of robust public discourse by political leaders—their failure to engage in the sort of dialogue with voters necessary for genuine “ruling and being ruled in turn”—means there are few, if any models, for the people to follow when it comes to engaging in genuine political conversation. Instead we have the ghettoization of the news. People read to confirm what they already think they know, rather than to be informed or (heaven forbid!) persuaded. It’s hard not to conclude that some of Hayek’s worries about the dangers of homogenization have been realized.
I would like to think that a significant number of Americans make an effort to hear opposing arguments, but neither major candidate’s base in Election 2016 seemed to be taking in what those on the other side had to say, watching each other’s networks, or participating in a common conversation. The reality here may well be far worse than what Hayek predicted. Large and well-organized groups with homogeneous views, he claimed, were unlikely to be formed by the best a society can offer, because of the overwhelmingly negative way we bond together. Considering the vulgarity of last year’s campaign, and the rhetorical tendencies of our new President, it is hard to dispute his logic.
Hayek thought that in most cases, education would be a check upon homogeneity. In the chapter of The Road to Serfdom that Weiner focuses on, “Why the Worst Get on Top,” Hayek writes:
in the first instance, it is probably true, in general, the higher the education and intelligence of individuals become, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values.
He prudently hedges his argument there and clearly does not discount the possibility of ideological or homogenous education. Indeed we live in just such a world, where higher education is a net creator of homogeneity in society and where living inside the bubble of our own worldview seems all too easy. The ease with which we can live in an intellectual monoculture does nothing to invalidate Hayek’s general claim. Relying on real unity of opinion and cultural uniformity was not something that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump attempted to do. Instead, both utilized exactly the organizing principle that Hayek believed “the worst” must rely upon: the negative campaign.
Hayek suggests that negative political appeals are tempting because they afford leeway to those seeking power. As long as the leader appears to be doing something against the “enemy” of the people, that leader can then pursue whatever other goals he or she desires. One is reminded of then-candidate Trump’s assertion that he could “shoot someone and not lose voters,” and his other relentless verbal assaults on opponents. And then there is his social media presence.
This is not, be it noted, simply a problem embodied in the new President. Had the Democratic Party’s candidate won, her first days in office would no doubt have featured attempts to make the most salient aspects of her “Stronger Together” theme a reality. The Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate appealed to strength—perhaps only a euphemism for power—and it is here that Hayek’s insights also resonate.
Early in “Why the Worst Get on Top,” he asks his readers to consider the conditions that give rise to centralizing, illiberal rule:
In this stage it is the general demand for quick and determined government action that is the dominating element in the situation, dissatisfaction with the slow and cumbersome course of democratic procedure which makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough to “get things done” who exercises the greatest appeal. “Strong” in this sense means not merely a numerical majority—it is the ineffectiveness of parliamentary majorities with which people are dissatisfied. What they seek is somebody with such solid support as to inspire confidence that he can carry out whatever he wants.
Hayek feared that this would give rise to parties organized along military lines, like those of the fascists and communists. Mercifully, as dangerous as militarized parties might be, that seems like a more distant threat than other, subtler ones. While too many Americans embrace a perilous version of “decisionism,” our underlying disunity along religious, socioeconomic, and cultural lines conspires against its becoming too immediately threatening. Our parties, after all, are coalitions, not military units. On the other hand, while partisan identification may be at an all-time low, this should not make us feel too secure. We place too much faith in leaders and their political movements to deliver results, and this has profound consequences for liberty.
The most prominent casualty of a tendency to value action over procedure is the rule of law, which, as Weiner notes, Hayek held up as his standard to almost an anti-political degree. Even if Hayek argued this to excess, the slow erosion of once-accepted checks on executive power presents challenges of its own. It isn’t that Donald Trump intends to make himself a tyrant. As Joshua Mitchell suggested in September, there are good reasons to think that the President’s defining trait will be pragmatism. And yet from a Hayekian point of view, the pragmatic attitudes that suffuse our politics generate enough trouble all by themselves. They spill over from the executive to the legislative and judicial branches, and undermine our sense of the importance of procedure.
To take a small example: President Trump’s nomination of General James Mattis to be the Secretary of Defense was an eminently defensible pragmatic choice, but when presented with the choice of amending the relevant law governing military personnel moving into civilian positions (10 U.S.C. 113), Congress proceeded with a simple waiver. This is how things are done in Washington today: not general law but the law of the specific case.
I don’t deny Mitchell’s implicit pre-election contention that something had to change and that the old republican compromise with its public adherence to at least some of Hayek’s principles was already doomed. But there is something to lament here in the loss of principled constitutionalism and adherence to rules of procedure.
Hayek held pure pragmatism to be an impossibility, as it is always driven by its underlying assessment of the goods we desire. President Trump has articulated his overriding principle of “America First,” a path that “Why the Worst Get on Top” foresees as very dangerous. The goals of protectionism are, I grant, a very soft version of what Hayek aimed to combat in Road to Serfdom, but protectionists share the same militant opposition to today’s globalized economy that full-fledged socialists did to interconnected world trade in Hayek’s day. Socialism, he tells us, always turns nationalist in practice. The President intends to restore growth and prosperity, but I wonder if the habits of thought that spring so easily to a nationalist don’t also open the door still wider to a resurgence of socialist dreams? American populism has a long tradition of turning to socialism.
Weiner writes that President Trump’s efforts to bring back American industry are “simply pressing the private sector into the state’s service, compelling it to deliver social welfare benefits in a market-distorting fashion.” Just so. This promise to do good for the American people flies in the face of everything Hayek teaches about why states and their leaders fail so often when they substitute their flawed judgments for the information transferred through market prices. Again, this wishful thinking is part of a broader challenge in our national culture: We still think that we can banish the evil effects of government power by transferring power to a hero, a benevolent father figure. It’s a tradition that began with George Washington and resurfaces periodically almost as a central element of our civil religion. As Hayek tells us,
This remains true even though many liberal socialists are guided in their endeavors by the tragic illusion that by depriving private individuals of the power they possess in an individualist system, and by transferring this power to society, they can thereby extinguish power. What all those who argue in this manner overlook is that, by concentrating power so that it can be used in the service of a single plan, it is not merely transferred but infinitely heightened; that by uniting in the hands of some single body power formerly exercised independently by many, an amount of power is created infinitely greater than any that existed before, so much more far-reaching as almost to be different in kind.
In this respect, Trumpism presents some of the same challenges Hayek ascribes to collectivism. In his inaugural address, the President expatiated on all the ways the Establishment has failed, protecting itself rather than the interests of the people. As Weiner points out, the President may not have an actual plan or policy to restore those interests and vindicate them, but he promised this restoration—and having heard that promise and taken it to heart, many will say we simply must support him.
Weiner concludes that the ultimate problem with Trumpism is that a focus on the day-to-day deals to be made (and the “wins” he will undoubtedly rack up) obscures the real threat to liberty. President Trump appeals, just as his most successful opponents did—just as President Obama did—to the idea that we must move beyond politics to action, and this is the most dangerous aspect of where our politics is heading. The aspiration to turn our life together over to a tough father figure tempts too many, and Hayek did indeed try to warn us.
 F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents: The Definitive Edition, edited by Bruce Caldwell (University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 160.
 In this respect, the theme of Trump as postmodern anti-hero is probably something Hayek would not have seen coming.
 Road to Serfdom, p. 159.
 F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 129.
 F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order (University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 57-58.
 Road to Serfdom, p. 162.
 Road to Serfdom, p. 165.