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Variations: Nothing new under the sun

F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” published in 1944, pulverized the arguments for socialism — a system of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the government in the name of “the workers,” and there is no private property (except for personal property such as earned income and articles of everyday use).

Leftism, however, cannot be refuted with logic, however unassailable, or “facts,” however obvious. Leftism is a moral stance. It is a belief in transformation and redemption. Hence its enduring attraction. It insists that it should be judged by its pure and noble intentions — and certainly not by its ghastly and often inhumane results.

Recently, I came across a similar book but much older than Hayek’s. Herbert Spencer’s “The Man Versus the State” was written in the early 1880s and first published in 1884. In 1944, the modern liberal, former Communist, historian Richard Hofstadter branded Spencer as a social Darwinist. That was like calling Darwin a scientific Satanist, but the label stuck on poor Spencer who was a classical liberal: an early feminist who supported women’s suffrage and civil liberties for all, and was against racism, coercion and collectivism. 

Regarding do-gooders in politics, Spencer wrote:

“The theory on which he daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates intently the things his act will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues.”

But not to worry. “Failure does not destroy faith in the agencies employed, but merely suggests more stringent use of such agencies or wider ramifications of them.” For example, “[l]aws to check intemperance, beginning in early times and coming down to our own times, not having done what was expected, there come demands for more thorough-going laws, locally preventing the sale altogether….” This was written, as I’ve said, in the early 1880s. Prohibition was implemented in the U.S. in 1920. It was such as spectacular success that it was repealed — and then applied to narcotics which is why there is no more drug abuse in the world.

We take for granted, Spencer said, “that every evil can be removed.” But “the truth being that, with the existing defects of human nature, many evils can only be thrust out of one place or form into another place or form — often being increased by the change.”

Alas, “the more numerous governmental interventions become, the more confirmed does this habit of thought grow, and the more loud and perpetual the demands for intervention.” The more numerous public instrumentalities become, he added, “the more is there generated in citizens the notion that everything is to be done for them, and nothing by them. Each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.”

As for the then-and-now prevalent notion that having educated officials ought to do the trick, Spencer said:  “Yes, if the education were worthy to be so called, and were relevant to the political enlightenment needed, much might be hoped from it. But knowing rules of syntax, being able to add up correctly, having geographical information, and a memory stocked with the dates of kings’ accessions and generals’ victories, no more implies fitness to form political conclusions than acquirement of skill in drawing implies expertness in telegraphing, or than ability to play cricket implies proficiency on the violin. ‘Surely,’ rejoins someone, ‘facility in reading opens the way to political knowledge.’ Doubtless; but will the way be followed? Table-talk proves that nine out of ten people read what amuses them rather than what instructs them; and proves, also, that the last thing they read is something which tells them disagreeable truths or dispels groundless hopes. That popular education results in an extensive reading of publications which foster pleasant illusions rather than of those which insist on hard realities, is beyond question.”

And so, “the people at large, led to look on benefits received through public agencies as gratis benefits, have their hopes continually excited by the prospects of more. A spreading education, furthering the diffusion of pleasing errors rather than of stern truths, renders such hopes both stronger and more general. Worse still, such hopes are ministered to by candidates [for elective offices] to augment their chances of success….”

And all this before the age of TV, the internet and social media.

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