Hayek’s Harsh Wisdom

Most of us are scared by the blunt truth because it often posits questions we are unable answer, and questions without answers can cause oodles of damage to cherished beliefs. Demagogic political rhetoric is much more palatable: it offers enough of the truth to seem refreshing, avoids cumbersome long-term thinking, and places the blame for past failures elsewhere. In his famous anti-totalitarian work “Road to Serfdom,” F.A. Hayek identified two noteworthy reasons “Why the Worst Get on Top.”

Observation one: a disturbing number of voters across the political spectrum are primarily moved by  emotions such as hope, anger, frustration, and fear. According to Mr. Hayek, potential dictators exploit this fact –

“he will be able to obtain the support of all the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party”

Observation two: politicians constantly use the rhetoric of battle, and then regularly question the motivations those who will not join them. Professor Hayek believed this tendency was dangerous –

“It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program – on hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off – than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they,’ the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.”

An incisive thinker by training, Mr. Hayek was even less charitable to individuals who were united by shallow thinking; he was convinced an aspiring dictator could gain a loyal following by appealing to the “lowest common denominator.” Today the lowest common denominator is naked self interest – a disease that cuts through the heart of our political society. Politicians exhibit self-interest when they ignore the United State’s substantial budgetary problems, or speciously claim that economic growth and a few relatively painless cuts will enable the US to retire the national debt in a short period of time.

Citizens can no longer afford to ignore reality because they find it distasteful or disturbing. Now is the time for thoughtful voters to ferret out their own self interest; freedom is sustained by a willingness to endure political and personal hardship, but freedom dies where a firm resolve is absent. The United States will only remain free and wealthy if thoughtful Americans undertake the arduous task of sublimating their self interests and eschewing demagogues.


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