Monday, October 26, 2009
Reargued October 11, 1972
Decided January 22, 1973
Roe v Wade is arguably the most famous and controversial case ever decided by the Supreme Court. It touches on a number of issues that will likely never be completely settled, such as when life begins, when rights begin, and the flexibility of interpretation of the Constitution. The question at hand is not whether abortion should be allowed or not; the question is, can the state bar women from having this procedure? While this Court declared the states could not, I maintain that the Court did not base this decision on the Constitution, that the Constitution clearly leaves this power with the states, that abortion is not a fundamental or explicit right protected by the Constitution, and that this was a political decision the Court had no right to make.
I intend to summarize only the aspects of the case dealing with the final argument. Other sections of the case will not be summarized, though to avoid the pitfall of waiving off anything inconvenient as not relevant, I will explain why particular sections are not worth going into detail.
Sections I-IV of the majority's decision deal with whether the plaintiffs had standing on this issue, ruling that Roe does while another plaintiff, "Doe", does not. I do not see a controversy worth discussing herein these sections as they state that the plaintiffs can indeed bring this case to court, something I do not disagree with. They have no bearing on the actual decision, however, and are therefore not relevant to this discussion.
Section V states the plaintiffs claim, that abortions are a protected right under the 14th Amendment or "in personal, marital, familial, and sexual privacy" that was supposedly "discovered" in Griswold v Connecticut (a case worth discussing in its own right at another time).
Section VI is a strange section in that it details the history of legal and moral thought on abortion going back to Greek times. It constitutes a large portion of the case's text. Unfortunately, it does not deal with the Constitution; while this information may be interesting, it is not indicative of whether there is a Constitutional right to abortions. This is, in legal terms, called obiter dictum. It has no place in this decision as it in no way informs us as to how the Constitution should be interpreted on this issue. This section, though verbose, is irrelevant to the actual discussion at hand.
Section VII resembles section VI but focuses on reasons used to justify abortion bans in the United States. However, as the Court explicitly makes this section the basis for its decision, it needs to be summarized. Three particular reasons are put forth: Victorian concern over "immoral conduct," the medical aspect for the mother, and the protection of prenatal life. The State of Texas did not choose to defend the first and was dropped. The second reason was supposedly used during an era when such procedures were dangerous but states still need to regulate such procedures. The third argument stands if the State has an interest or duty to protect life or the potential for life.
Section VIII is the heart of the issue in that it attempts to find a Constitutional basis for a right to abortion. The Court explicitly acknowledges that "The Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy"; however, the Court argues that rights discovered in the penumbras of the Bill of Rights include a right to privacy. They conclude that "This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." However, the Court also recognizes that the State has a duty to protect life at some stage, so an unlimited right to abortion does not exist.
Section IX deals with objections made by both parties to this middle ground decision. The Constitution does not state when life begins; all mentions of "persons" appear to be postnatal. The Court also acknowledges that the woman's "right to privacy" is murky since it involves another living being, the fetus, which the state may at some point protect. Again, prenatal beings have never been accorded the full rights of law according to the Court's history.
Section X acknowledges the State's progressive interest in protecting prenatal life as the pregnancy continues. States have a "compelling" interest at "viability." Texas' law was too broad and therefore was unconstitutional.
While Section XI claims to summarize the case, it actually points out something new: "For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health." Abortions prior to this point cannot be regulated.
The Court's decision is based exclusively on the concept of "privacy." However, as the Court itself admitted, there is no Constitutional provision for a "right to privacy." I find the argument that such "rights" can be found in the "penumbras" of legal terms rather frightening. Their argument can almost be summarized as "I claim such a right in this murky legal region; dare prove me wrong." A great many horrible things can be defended with a similar argument. How do I know a right to rape does not exist in those "penumbras?" Sounds ridiculous, but try proving it is not there. Our legal theory needs to be based on more solid ground.
This decision was based primarily in 14th Amendment to the Constitution, along with the 9th. This Amendment consists of five sections; 2-5 deal with the right to vote for representatives, judicial and executive functionaries, Confederate debt not being a responsibility of the United States, and Congress' ability to enforce this Amendment. Only the 1st section has relevance today. It states:
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The supposed right to abortion is not going to be found in the first sentence concerning citizenship. The privileges and immunities of the citizens of this nation are laid out in the Bill of Rights and following Amendments; none of them say abortion is a right, so this does not apply, either. In theory, this law could apply to men if they could become pregnant; that there is a biological difference between men and women is not a violation of the equal protection clause.
The only part of the 14th Amendment that could relate to abortion is whether the State is depriving the pregnant woman her life, liberty, or property sans due process. Punishment of abortion could take any of those forms (capital, imprisonment, or fines). The question is, are laws restricting abortion in accordance with due process? The procedural aspects are hard to challenge: this issue is not one delegated to the Federal Government; no Amendment or provision in the Constitution explicitly prohibits this law; the law was created by a republican form of government guaranteed by the Constitution. Where, exactly, was "due process" violated in banning abortions?
The actual impact of having to take a baby to term is that the woman cannot remove the infant from her body until nature chooses to do so. This might be seen as the State violating a woman's liberty in controlling her own person. However, this is not a punishment; the State did not impregnate her. In the vast majority of cases, the woman had an option to have sex and exercised it, an act of liberty which carries repercussions the woman may not pawn off. Those concerning rape are a different matter; I am not certain the State cannot prohibit abortions there, either, as again it is not the State inflicting a punishment. The 14th Amendment does not, in any way, shape, or form, defend a "right" to an abortion.
What about the 9th Amendment? It states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." This is a problematic Amendment, along with the 8th, that I believe the Founding Fathers erred in including. However, it is still the Supreme Law of the Land and has legal force...if it can be understood. And so I pose to those who use this Amendment to defend any case, what are the "rights" mentioned in this case and how did you discover them? How does a proposed "right" become valid under this Amendment while the ridiculous "right to rape" does not? Until a sound theory is put forth for determining what rights this Amendment speaks of and how we shall know them, I propose we employ the 10th Amendment, which reserves all powers not expressly delegated to the Federal Government to the States and to the People, who may give such powers to the States as they see fit via republican forms of government. That being so, the people of Texas gave the power to restrict abortions to the State. The Constitution is actually fairly clear here: this is a power reserved to the States to deal with as they see fit and the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to overrule the People of Texas or any other State that may choose to restrict abortions.
Note the distinctions between my opinion and that of the majority's. I am capable of citing the Constitution without resorting to magical hidden realms of penumbras. I take the areas supposedly protecting such a right and analyze them word for word.
In terms of shear reason, this case was a disaster. The Court actually claims that after the 1st trimester abortions can be regulated but not before. Where in the Constitution does the Court find this? It doesn't even claim such a foundation, but rather than the dictum explaining the past of abortion. Even if that history is accurate, the Court does not have any right to impose its views on the people. Such decisions are left to the democratic institutions that represent the people. The Court has a right and a duty to step in when the Federal Government exercises powers not delegated to them; when the State Governments exercise powers delegated to the Federal Government; and when either violates express rights protected in the Constitution. Outside of that, however, the Court performs an illegal and tyrannical legislative function that the Constitution does not give it legitimacy to perform. This is clearly such a situation.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
POLITICAL APATHY: IGNORANCE IS BLISS
One of the great concerns of democratic theory in the United States is the perceived lack of political participation by the vast majority of citizens. This concern stems from fear that the elites in our society wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence, which they will use to further their own political, economic, and personal interests at the expense of the mass public. While it is certainly true that we desire not to be ruled by an oligarchy, I am not convinced that the apparent apathy shown by most citizens concerning politics is harmful either to the individual citizen or to society as a whole. Rather, the elites and the mass public form a symbiotic relationship where both groups stand to gain by this imbalance of power and influence within our democratic nation.
In order to make a normative judgment on what levels of political interests the mass public should take, an understanding of what they do know and care about concerning government is important. The field of political science has given scholars amazing empirical insights into the political behavior of citizens. Voting is one of the most important and common ways for Americans to participate in politics. During the 1950’s, the first empirically driven effort to understand voting behavior, called The American Voter, was published, revealing many important trends about how Americans think about politics. One of the greatest predictors of whether a citizen would vote or not was his or her sense of political efficacy, which is whether or not the citizen believes their vote will have much of an impact on the outcome and whether or not it matters which party gains political power. Not surprisingly, those with a high belief in the importance of the outcome of an election were very likely to vote, while those who were indifferent to the results stayed home.
What, then, determines whether a citizen will care? Two interrelated concepts seem to be the answer: the strength of party identification and the level of development of their political ideas. The stronger one’s attachment is to the party, the more one will want to see that party win (much like how intense fans of a particular sports team will be more likely to be at a ballgame than a less rabid fan). The more educated a person is about their own political beliefs, the more likely they will find a difference between the candidates running for office and identify which one holds policy preferences closest to that voter.
The authors of The American Voter were able to categorize Americans into four levels of political sophistication. Level A, or those with clear ideologies, includes those who are able to absorb “some of the ideological abstractions of our day, and are able to put them to use in their political evaluations” (227). Only 12.5% of the population possessed this level of political sophistication. Level B, while not employing political abstractions, could identify party position mainly by identifying which groups that party tended to support. For example, a respondent would be classified in level B if they charged the Republicans with supporting big business or Democrats with big labor. This group was by far the largest, containing 40% of the population. Level C based their political decisions on how the times felt to them at a gut level. These individuals escaped the bottom classification merely by making any vague reference to a political policy and constituted 24% of the population. The final category, level D, made political decisions without any reference to political issues and were largely basing their vote on the characteristics of a candidate. This final category contained a little more than 20% of the American public. Over 40% of Americans made their decision to support a candidate without a strong reference to ideology.
Philip Converse, one of the authors of The American Voter, conducted an independent study on the level of political sophistication in the general public and in the elites of society. The elites in society (in general, the well educated), have a high level of political sophistication and “constraint.” Constraint, as used by Converse, is using a person’s ideology to predict their likely position on a particular policy. For example, it might be expected that a pacifist who abhors all killing in war would be influenced by his or her hatred of killing when it comes to the death penalty debate. A conservative who openly despises judicial activism should oppose judicial activism even by conservative judges. This kind of ideological sophistication requires a high intelligence and time devoted to learning the issues thoroughly. Elites tend to be consistent in their political preferences, while the masses take their cues from the elites without considering the philosophical implications for other policy areas, leading to a greater level of contradiction in that individuals ideology.
The average American, then, seems to fall into one of two groups: those who care enough to think about politics in a serious manner, and those who do not find politics worth their time to understand. The former tend to vote; the later are more apt to stay at home. Those who have the mental capacity and willingness to understand politics tend to be a very small portion of the population, however (only 1 in 10 reached Level A in The American Voter’s political sophistication scheme). While political theorists seem to wonder at the lack of voting participation in the United States, at least when compared to other Western liberal democracies, political scientists are puzzled why anyone would vote at all. John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina (1974) explain the voter’s paradox and attempt to find a solution to it. Voting is not a costless action. In order to vote, a citizen must first take the time to get registered; that citizen must take at least the amount of time to flip a coin to decide between the candidates; that citizen must actually go the polling station and wait for their turn to vote, in whatever weather. These costs, admittedly, appear small, but what does the citizen gain that overcomes even this minuscule cost? Even most local elections are won by more than a hundred votes, while most state and national elections are determined by thousands or millions of votes. Adding one more vote has absolutely no impact.
This is the rational choice analysis of voting, where the rational decision is to stay home because the expected utility of voting is smaller than the expected utility of not voting. Ferejohn and Fiorina note that political scientists have been stumped by this question, because it implies that nobody should be voting (or that those who do are irrational, making a scientific inquiry into their actions impossible). In order to overcome this imbalance in favor of not voting, political scientists have tried to add a benefit to voting, mostly in the form of a good feeling for having done one’s civic duty. The authors rightly find that this explanation is not particularly good, and so they try to present a different explanation of the same paradox without the civic duty kicker. They argue that voter’s do not make their decision based on a rational choice of choosing the option with the highest utility, but rather that they apply a minimax strategy, whereby they vote because the cost of voting is smaller than the agony the citizen would feel if their preferred candidate lost by a single vote. How many American citizens actually think like this is unknown, but this explanation from over thirty years ago has not stymied debate on why voters vote. It is clear that the cost of voting is higher than the cost of not voting on average.
Most of our voters are not well informed about politics, but they still receive enough information to make a decision. This is where the role of elites comes in as a positive force for American democracy. Elites are in a position to send cues to the public about how to think on any particular issue. Since elites rarely work in harmony, but rather have conflicting political goals, the public will be able to take cues from the leaders it prefers and give their support (whether it be the vote or monetary contributions) for a cause they support without needing to become informed, preserving the legitimacy (or at very least the perceived legitimacy) of the system.
This process of elites cuing the populace has found significant support in both the game theoretic and empirical political science literature. In An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs points out that gaining political information is not a costless process. In terms of dollars and cents, the cost is small, flipping on the television, reading a newspaper purchased with a dollar, opening mail sent by political candidates, etc. The real cost comes in terms of time and energy. After working an eight hour shift, individuals feel tired and want to relax; they certainly don’t want to analyze the pros or cons to the Democrats or Republicans of whatever bills came before Congress and their state governments that day. This hypothetical worker certainly doesn’t have time to go out and do the investigative research. As we have already seen in terms of the voting paradox, the cost of gathering and analyzing information only increases the cost of voting for a benefit that is likely to equal zero. This leaves the citizen in a state where he or she gains information in a passive manner, where elites (such as the media, interest groups, political parties, etc.) select the most crucial information to them and present it in the clearest possible terms to their audience. There is a clear trade off here. The condensed news and information is subject to the biases of those doing the reporting and clarity comes at the expense of in depth knowledge. More detailed and harder to process information which may be important is left out, but if it was included the average citizen will likely ignore it altogether, leaving the masses even less informed than if the media had just presented the simplified version of events.
This process leaves citizens’ opinions remarkably easy to mold. John Zaller, in his book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, uses survey responses with the same respondents over a number of years to show that people’s opinion of any particular issue is not necessarily fixed but rather wobbles over time. These wobbles can be caused by a number of factors, most of which are cues given by various sources of authority believed by the individual. People spend remarkably little time thinking out their opinions on even salient issues, and when questioned about their opinion their response will be based on whatever happens to be salient to that individual at that particular time (77). While the most obvious source of cuing when determining peoples’ opinion is the poll itself, Zaller finds that media coverage also plays an important role (155). Not everyone is equally susceptible to political cuing, however. Those who have thought out their own political preferences are less likely to be swayed by cues, either because they already side with the cuing party or because they strongly belong to the opposing position. While moderates are more likely to be swayed by a message, they are also the group that follows politics the least and are therefore least likely to actually receive the cue in the first place (148).
Political cues come from sources outside of the media as well. One important source of cues is interest groups. Interest groups tend to get a bad rap due to their overt partisanship and their inordinate amount of influence compared to the average citizen. However, interest groups are an important aspect of the political process. David-Austen Smith and John R. Wright (1994) find that lobbying by interest groups is an important part of informing representatives in state governments and Congress about the public’s assessment of an issue. Political issues that are salient enough to generate an interest group almost always generate groups both in favor and opposed to that interest. Groups will be forced to be truthful (or at least not blatantly lie) if there is another, opposing interest group that will point out the falsehoods to the representative. In this way, information is provided to the representative at the cost of the interest groups.
A possible objection to interest groups from a democratic point of view is that they generally are composed of large numbers of people who support that interest groups policy, but the group itself is run by a small number of highly influential people. However, Mancur Olson in his book, The Logic of Collective Action, shows that egalitarianism is not conducive to an effective interest group. Interestingly, group members tend to be less interested in the conduct and less willing to make sacrifices for large groups rather than of small groups (48). In the large group, members can enjoy the benefits brought by the group without having to make a contribution, while the survival of small groups requires everyone’s participation. Only the most motivated (those with the most at stake, generally the well to do) will be willing to sacrifice their time to the advancement of the large interest group, and so their personal interests will be reflected more than the more numerous, less active population.
Another important, though much maligned, group with a disproportionate amount of influence is political parties. Elections would prove incredibly difficult without the existence of political parties. As noted in the review of The American Voter, voter identification plays an enormous role in determining who a citizen will vote for. Voter identification is very similar to the idea of a brand name: even if a citizen cannot name their representative in Congress, if they know which party their representative belongs to, they can make an accurate assessment of what the representative stands for on a variety of issues. Parties, therefore, find it extremely important to maintain a measure of unity on salient issues and to keep their party image as positive as possible.
This need to maintain the issues which define party identification leads parties to reward and punish their members in government as they feel is needed. In order to keep members of a party voting for an issue the individual might not want to comply with (whether because the representative is personally opposed or believes it will hurt their chances of reelection), the party must provide incentives that overcome the individual’s desire to defect. John Aldrich, in his book Why Parties, argues that parties provide important resources for reelection that a candidate cannot live without, such as party identification, money, access to community leaders, and the time and energy of the party’s workers. Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins, in Legislative Leviathan, show that Congressmen have personal and political reasons for wanting positions on the various committees of Congress. Committees have the power to forge or prohibit legislation that passes their jurisdiction, making the score of Congressmen on that particular committee as powerful as the whole House. Positions on committees are determined by party leadership, which strongly encourages its members to tow the party line.
These committee posts are important to Congressmen as they must be able to convince their constituency that reelecting the Congressman is in their interest. David Mayhew, in Congress: The Electoral Connection, argues that the behavior of Congressmen can be explained by their strong desire to be reelected. Placement on a committee allows a Congressman the opportunity to initiate legislation that will be beneficial to the constituents back home. The Congressman can claim credit for that legislation which he or she could not do for bills that the Congressman plays no role until he or she becomes one of 435 votes on the floor (52).
As we have seen, voting, one of the least costly forms of political participation requires not insignificant amount of time and energy that proves too costly for a great many citizens. Other more active forms of participation, such as writing letters to the editor and actively taking part in elections, political parties, and interest groups, requires an even higher investment of time, energy, and money, which predictably lowers the percentage of the population who are willing to take part in these activities. In a study on resources impact on political participation, Henry Brady, Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schilozman (1995) find that individuals with more money, time, and civic skills participate more in these higher forms of participation. Lack of time and money are well known detriments to political participation, but the novel result of this study was that those who have experience and skill in areas like writing, public speaking, and organization tend to be more active. While the upper class tends to gain more of these skills in the workplace than the less advantaged in terms of socioeconomics, those in the lower strata are still able to gain these skills by participating in church related functions.
Empirically, it has been shown that elites play an important role in keeping the American populace involved in the political process, even if not to the extent that many political theorists would like to see. Information is not cheap and most Americans do not see the results of elections, petition drives, or protests as worth the cost of participating in these events. The normative question we must now ask is whether either the citizens as individuals or the society as a whole stands to gain anything by having a better informed citizenry and how this could be achieved. It is my position that society does not stand to be significantly improved by a more politically active society and that therefore it is not in the interest of the apathetic citizen to become more politically aware.
An important distinction must be made between the concepts of actual influence and potential influence. These concepts come from Robert Dahl’s classic work, Who Governs?, a case study on the rule of power and government in New Haven, Connecticut. By and large, the citizenry of this country is, while maybe not enthusiastic about our government, at least content enough with the situation not to bother making an effort to change it. Should the government abuse its powers to the extent that it negatively affects the lives of many people, they will make their objection known in the next election. Those in government can use that position to further their own ends but they also must make efforts to placate the hoi polloi. Failure to do so leads to electoral defeat and the loss of all special power invested in the office.
Unless the actions of the government are severely and adversely affecting the life of a citizen who otherwise is apathetic, that citizen gains little by becoming more active in politics. A thorough understanding of the various elements of politics requires knowledge of a vast number of areas, from understanding the formal institutions; the relationship between those institutions; the political theory behind why our government is designed the way it is; understanding the policy preferences of various political figures; following the votes of political actors at the national, state, and local level; and critically evaluating one’s own political ideology to insure a measure of consistency. In order to gain this kind of understanding of politics, a citizen would need to dedicate hours every single day gathering and analyzing political information in addition to the other aspects of their lives that require attention. Most people who already have such an understanding of politics find, for whatever reason, politics to be a field of interest, much like how a Boston Red Sox fan finds baseball worth following whereas another person could not muster enough willpower to follow a single baseball season. For most people, politics is just not a subject that can hold their attention for more than a half hour of news coverage. So long as the average apathetic citizen continues to enjoy the benefits provided by government (protection from outside powers, protection from criminals, courts to settle disputes, infrastructure, etc.) without grievous loss, they will remain blissfully ignorant.
The apathetic citizen gains little by adding the burden of understanding politics to his or her already hectic lifestyle, but does society as a whole stand to gain enough from more political participation to offset the loss to the individual? The answer is likely no. To date, there is no evidence that a significant portion of apathetic citizens would belong either to the right or left of the political spectrum. In terms of voting, less apathy would lead to a higher turnout rate but not necessarily a change in who would be elected or by what margin. While some may see a higher turnout rate as increasing the legitimacy of the new government, this is not necessarily the case. The legitimacy of government at almost all levels in this nation is not seriously questioned by the population. Non voters understand that their apathy is not a vote against the system but a quiet acquiescence to the choice made by the more politically cognizant portion of the nation.
Legitimate democratic government does not require an egalitarian system. There is no doubt that political power and influence are not spread evenly throughout the population of this country, but the less politically active still have an open door to changing the policies of this nation if they should see fit to do so. That they do not, that they are content not to participate, is not an indictment against the system or its claim to be democratic. Elites play an important role by providing information cheaply to those who want to participate but do not have the resources to investigate the political world themselves. While theorists may desire to see a more egalitarian system, the average citizen is content to have a stable world providing a high quality of life, real effects that heavily outweigh academic abstract concepts.
Alrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Austen-Smith, David and John R. Wright. 1994. “Counteractive Lobbying” in American Journal of Political Science, 38 (1), 25-44.
Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. 1995. “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation” in American Political Science Review, 89 (2), 271-294.
Campbell, Angus, and Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Converse, Philip E. 1964. “The Nature of Mass Belief Systems” in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter. London: Free Press of Glencoe.
Cox, Gary W., and Mathew D. McCubbins. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper Collins.
Ferejohn, John A. and Morris P. Fiorina. 1974. “The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis” in American Political Science Review, 68 (2), 526-536.
Mayhew, David H. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Olson, Mancur. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Zaller, R. John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Friedrich August von Hayek
University of Chicago Press, 1944 (original publication)
One of the most important and influential books of the 20th Century, von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom makes two profound arguments relating to the differences between classical liberals (modern libertarians) and statists (cultural conservatives and modern American liberals). The first of these arguments is to show the bankruptcy of notion that the government can improve upon the free market by "rationally organizing" resources. The second, and more disturbing, thesis is that setting up a truly organized society, economic or otherwise, can only be accomplished via totalitarian methods. While I have a few quibbles about Hayek's willingness to redistribute wealth to set up a "minimum standard," the case made against the statist philosophy is amazingly strong.
Rather than outlining or summarizing the book, I will present a few of the ideas that I found surprising and worthy of deeper thought. That isn't to say the aspects I present were the only parts worth knowing; the book as a whole was presents a hell of a wallop that just doesn't exist in isolated chunks. Nevertheless, these ideas stood out to me. It's not often a book presents novel ideas to me; it is even rarer for a book to present as many questions to seriously ponder as this one did.
Hayek points out that the success of liberalism (again, classical, not modern American) may very well bring about its own demise. The freedom to innovate and profit from that innovation inspired untold entrepreneurs and inventors into action; we saw a correspondingly amazing growth in technology and wealth at all levels of society from the end of feudalism until the time this book was written. However, this amazing increase in wealth has made us unwilling to accept any imperfection, as we see it, in society. Our skyrocketing wealth, combined with the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and unbounded potential, leads us to conclude we could solve problems like poverty and inequality of wealth if we could only organize society more rationally. Rather than acknowledging the success of the system, critics will point out that not everyone has risen equally, though even that implicitly acknowledges that everyone has indeed risen. Imagine a group of starving peasants suddenly having enough meat to eat, but rather than being happy they become incensed over the fact that some get filet mignon and others only get a rib eye.
Democratic governments are particularly libel to this problem. No matter how much they may gain by a capitalist system, only a few will rise to the top (by definition, only a few can be at the top). The vast majority who have not gained as much, though in absolute terms they have indeed gained much, will be jealous. Certain politicians and other "enlightened" men proclaim to be able to fix this inequality if they could but "organize" society along more "rational" grounds that they supposedly can see. However, even if these reformers obtain a majority in government, the details of how best to organize society will lead to infighting. One may wish to expand railroads (his constituency has lots of them); another, farm work (her's is teaming with farmers); another, computers (Silicon Valley's man). The conservative and classical liberal representatives will vote against all of them, while the statists will only support the reorganization that helps their constituents. In this way, despite having a majority, the statists will not be able to use democratic institutions to impose a state run economy. The danger lies in that the people, still jealous and still demanding more, quickly become fed up with parliaments and democracy. They will turn to a few "experts" or a single man and will give them whatever authority they need to impose their will and organize society as they see fit. Society is now in the hands of a dictator or an oligarchy, individual rights (which would impede the "reorganization") are thrown out, and what more is needed for a totalitarian system?
The main argument of statists is that government can provide more for us because they are more efficient than multiple companies competing against each other. Well, nothing is more efficient than a dictatorship. Democracy is not efficient and the American Republic was built with the intended purpose of having a slow government that would need to compromise at every turn, hardly the tool for reorganizing society. Our armed forces are not a democracy; wars are much, much simpler than the economy; why, then, should we believe a government controlled society will be democratic?
The Rule of Law cannot coexist with statist philosophy. The Rule of Law is applying equally the rules (whatever they may be) to everyone. This exists to give everyone in the society a clear notion of what is acceptable and what actions will bring about costs. For statism, however, costs can be inflicted upon individuals irrespective of those individuals. An example: a pig farmer is forced to give up some of his money to give to the apple pickers. The pig farmer did nothing to warrant this act, save for having money. The pig farmer can do nothing to avoid this act, save for having money. The pig farmer, then, has no incentive to work hard or to produce, as the pig farmer has absolutely no reason to believe he'll enjoy the fruit of his labor. Rule of Law is based on a passive system of rules that does not make any distinction between people save whether they have transgressed a rule or not; statism is an active system controlled by people (with all of the faults of greed, corruption, etc.) who arbitrarily take from some.
Interestingly, Hayek shows that socialism and its offshoots have to be nationalistic. Think of it this way: if the government of the United States decided to become internationally socialist, that government would have to send the wealth of this nation over to Africa, Asia, and the tribes of the Amazon. The people here would not stand for it! Socialism is Nationalist and we should remember the threat of National Socialism well.
From page 228: "Exclusive control of an essential commodity or service (as, for example, air travel) is in effect one of the most far-reaching powers which can be conferred on any authority. And as there is scarcely anything which could not be justified by 'technical necessities' which no outsider could effectively question...there is little possibility of controlling that power....this would inevitably become the worst of all conceivable rackets..." Food for thought for those seeking to put the Federal Government in charge of our health care. The government could put the screws to any opposition in the future by denying them coverage. This does not have to apply to the current administration (though it could). Unless we are certain no administration in the future will use this power inappropriately, we should not grant such excessive powers to the government. The burden now rests on those supporting such an expansion of government powers to show no government will indeed abuse this massive power.
These are but a few of the amazing questions that are raised against the statist philosophy by Hayek's book. I am fairly well versed in both political theory and libertarian thought, but this book was still worth the time and effort to read. His analyses on statism's influence on Fascism and Communism is indispensable for anyone who wishes to know what those two ideologies really were, as is his warning to those who would collect too much power in the hands of any person for any goal. Despite being written over 60 years ago, The Road to Serfdom remains remarkably relevant today, a testament to Hayek's ability to move beyond the policy issues of his day to examine the philosophical underpinnings.
What Others Have Said
George Orwell, 1944, The Observer
Ludwig von Mises Institute
Matthew Lymburner, 2008, CulturalShifts.com