Monday, August 03, 2009

Antimoral Societies

In his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, Nobel winning economist F.A. Hayek discusses the muddled moral thinking brought on by “fifty years’ approach toward collectivism.” His discussion of morality on pages 231-233 is thought provoking.
“Issues in this field have become so confused that it is necessary to go back to fundamentals. What our generation is in danger of forgetting is not only that morals are of necessity a phenomenon of individual conduct but also that they can exist only in the sphere in which the individual is free to decide for himself and is called upon voluntarily to sacrifice personal advantage to the observance of a moral rule. Outside the sphere of individual responsibility there is neither goodness nor badness, neither opportunity for moral merit nor the chance of proving one’s conviction by sacrificing one’s desires to what one thinks right. Only where we ourselves are responsible for our own interests and are free to sacrifice them has our decision moral value. We are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else’s expense nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice. The members of a society who in all respects are made to do the good thing have no title to praise. As Milton said: “If every action which is good or evil in a man of ripe years were under pittance and prescription and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise should then be due to well-doing, what gramercy to be sober, just, or continent?”

“Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.

“That in this sphere of individual conduct the effect of collectivism has been almost entirely destructive is both inevitable and undeniable. A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth. Can there be much doubt that the feeling of personal obligation to remedy inequities, where our individual power permits, has been weakened rather than strengthened, that both the willingness to bear responsibility and the consciousness that it is our own individual duty to know how to choose have been perceptibly impaired? There is all the difference between demanding that a desirable state of affairs should be brought about by the authorities, or even being willing to submit provided everyone else is made to do the same, and the readiness to do what one thinks right one’s self at the sacrifice of one’s own desires and perhaps in the face of hostile public opinion. There is much to suggest that we have in fact become more tolerant toward particular abuses and much more indifferent to inequities in individual cases, since we have fixed our eyes on an entirely different system in which the state will set everything right. It may even be, as has been suggested, that the passion for collective action is a way in which we now without compunction collectively indulge in that selfishness which as individuals we had learned a little to restrain.

“It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now—independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors—are essentially those on which the working of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it has destroyed them it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good. The periodical election of representatives, to which the moral choice of the individual tends to be more and more reduced, is not an occasion on which his moral values are tested or where he has constantly to reassert and prove the order of his values and to testify to the sincerity of his profession by the sacrifice of those of his values he rates lower to those he puts higher.”
Hayek goes on to allude to the German (and perhaps Russian) atrocities—of which the public at that time had only the tiniest bit of knowledge—by mentioning various vices that have come to be “accepted more and more as a matter of course; injustices inflicted on individuals by government action in the interest of a group are disregarded with an indifference hardly distinguishable from callousness; and the grossest violations of the most elementary rights of the individual, such as are involved in the compulsory transfer of populations, are more and more often countenanced even by supposed liberals. All this surely indicates that our moral sense has been blunted rather than sharpened.”

Of course, 65 years have passed since Hayek penned these lines. The world has had ample time to absorb the inexpressible horror of the WWII-related atrocities, even if it has never fully come to grips with the extent of the Soviet atrocities that killed even more people. The point is that compulsory collectivism expunges significant moral virtues from the individuals that make up society. Without these virtues, society evolves into something never intended by its designers.

This didn’t happen overnight in Germany. It began in the 1870s and only reached its apex decades later as new generations were raised without firsthand experience with the virtues Hayek discusses. Without this individual morality, anything could be justified in the name of the collective—“the People,” the “good of society,” or whatever you want to call it. My Dad spent his entire childhood in Germany surrounded by people that accepted this paradigm; some enthusiastically so.

Although the early German socialists intended a system that truly promulgated goodness and equality, the system they designed eventually required ruthless coercion to reach its goals. This system removed some of the emoluments common to public office in freer systems (ostensibly because those benefits were considered immoral). The result was that an entirely different character of individual was attracted to public office. The people, in fact, demanded leaders that could ‘get the job done.’

This is why collectivist systems cause the cruel and ruthless to rise to leadership. It happened with Hitler. It happened with Lenin and Stalin. But if these particular individuals hadn’t been on the scene at the operative moment, the system would have conscripted some other equally benighted despot.

Some countries today are attempting to achieve benevolent collectivism, believing that they are wise enough to devise systems that will avoid the barbarity of Germany and the Soviet Union. They are playing with a force they cannot control.

As new generations lose touch with virtues that can only be developed when liberty is maximized, today’s benevolent dictatorial rulers will eventually be replaced with those that will find no means so cruel that they cannot be justified by the goals being pursued. There are ways to avoid this, but a return to liberty often requires significant unpleasantness.

Could this same kind of thing happen in “the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Go back and read the Hayek paragraphs quoted above and consider where we are today as well as our current trajectory. Then you tell me.


David said...

You've now quoted from "The Road to Serfdom" multiple times recently - I think I need to go read this book (I've added it to my reading list).

Reach Upward said...

Bear in mind that the Road to Serfdom is written in the high academic language used in the U.K. in the 1940s. Although Hayek was born, raised, and educated in Austria, his command of the English language is quite impressive.

What I am saying is that, although the Road to Serfdom isn't a very long book, it can be somewhat difficult to read. (At least for someone of my poor intellect.) It also requires some grasp of British and European history.

Still, it is a very valuable read. With the way things are currently going, it seems prescient, deja vu, or some combination of both.

Incidentally, you can read the Reader's Digest condensed version here. But I felt that I got more out of the full version.