Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roads to Serfdom

One of the bibles of Libertarianism is Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. It argues, so I read, that state control of the economy and centralized planning lead to the enslavement of the individual.

I should note that I haven't read it, and don't actually plan to. Most of what I know of it comes from Wikipedia, linked above. At any rate, it seems clear to me that as with any religious document, its fans like to oversimplify and distort its message, usually to suit their own economic benefit. In particular, Hayek recognized an important role for government, especially in matters like protection of the environment, one of the favorite targets of many Libertarians.

Hayek's book had many fans, including John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell, but Orwell, in particular, was careful to point out that there was more than one road to serfdom. From the linked Wikipedia article:

George Orwell responded with both praise and criticism, stating, "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 dreamt of." Yet he also warned, "[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 real serfdom, we ought to remember, was not servitude to the state, but to the great landowners, and variations on that kind of serfdom have existed for thousands of years. The modern counterpart is a kind of servitude to the corporation. Of course we aren't bound to the corporation in the same way serfs were bound to the land - or are we? Old institutions like the company store may have faded away, but a potent new one is health insurance, which, in the US, is tightly linked employment in one of the sectors of the economy where providing such insurance is common.

Paul Krugman's May 22 column details many of the ways the policies of the so-called liberty loving Republicans have conspired to make American workers less free:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by...

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs...

You might say, with only a bit of hyperbole, that workers in America, supposedly the land of the free, are actually creeping along the road to serfdom, yoked to corporate employers the way Russian peasants were once tied to their masters’ land. And the people pushing them down that road are the very people who cry “freedom” the loudest.

In case anyone was wondering why I hate Libertarianism. What most Libertarians seem to be looking for is the freedom to enslave others.