Friedrich von Hayek wrote “The Road to Serfdom” during World War II. The book sets forth the dangers of abandoning the virtues upon which an individualist society rests, including independence, self-reliance, the willingness to bear risks, and voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors. Hayek argues that abandoning these principles in favor of collectivism leads society down the path to tyranny. While the book was written nearly 70 years ago, Hayek’s warnings remain relevant today.
To the collectivist, the “good of the whole” is the criterion by which public policy is formulated. Pursuing the common goal knows “no limits in any rights or values of any individual.”
President Obama and his party are collectivists. Good intentions are their justification for trampling on individual liberty and the rule of law at every turn. They sought to increase access to health insurance. So they used every legislative trick in the book to ram the Affordable Care Act through Congress. When trying to sell the bill to the general public, the individual mandate was a penalty. When arguing before the Supreme Court in favor of the bill, it was a tax.
The law mandated free birth control pills for all. The Catholic Church opposed the mandate as running against their deeply held convictions. However, the “good of the whole” outweighed their religious freedom.
After the Senate blocked appointment of Richard Cordray to head the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama unilaterally appointed him to the post claiming it was a “recess appointment.” One problem; the Senate was demonstrably in session. So much for the Senate’s constitutional “advise and consent” function.
The DREAM Act died in the Senate. No worries. Obama just issued an executive order to accomplish largely the same goal. He decided to simply stop enforcing immigration laws duly passed by Congress. One former constitutional law professor had spoken out against this very power grab. “With respect to the notion that [the president] could suspend deportations through executive order, that's just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed and ... we have three branches of government. Congresses passes the law.” Who was that former constitutional law professor? Barack Obama.
This wasn’t the first time Obama decided to simply stop enforcing duly passed laws on the books. President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, defining marriage as the legal union of a man and woman. On his own, Obama decided the law was unconstitutional and declared his administration would no longer enforce the law.
In “The Road to Serfdom” Hayek warned us of the means by which collectivists slowly strip our liberties and freedoms. Hayek wrote that collectivists deliberately disparage activities involving economic risk and criticize the gains which make risks worth taking, but which only few can win, as immoral or worthy of public scorn and derision. The people are taught that enterprise is “disreputable and the making of profit ... immoral, ... to employ a hundred people is represented as exploitation but to command the same number [is] honorable.”
We have seen this play out in plain view recently. Obama recently told a throng of supporters he was “struck” by successful people “who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.” He then went on to give the more publicized quote: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Obama was clearly disparaging entrepreneurship. He was attempting to convince the mass before him that the gains recovered from entrepreneurship aren’t the result of hard work, risk taking and smarts, but rather the product of the collective.
The collectivist strives to create an “us” versus “them” mentality. Hayek argued that human nature is such that “it is easier for people to agree on a negative program — on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off — than on any positive task.” This is an essential ingredient in “any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.” Obama’s entire re-election campaign is built upon an “us” versus “them” mantra: Rich versus poor; man versus woman; old versus young.
Collectivists disdain truly blind rule of law. Hayek stresses the need for blind justice in a free society, “even if in a particular instance we feel it to be unjust.” The law should not be twisted or ignored to reach the outcome deemed just in a particular instance.
That’s exactly what the Obama administration did in managing the Chrysler bankruptcy. Well-established bankruptcy laws give preference to secured creditors over unsecured creditors. As such, Chrysler bondholders should have stood first in line for the proceeds of any liquidation. However, in this instance, hundreds of years of bankruptcy precedent were tossed aside. The bondholders received 29 cents on the dollar, including Indiana pension funds which had invested millions of dollars in Chrysler. Retired teachers and state policemen lost a minimum of $4.6 million in the deal. Those with unsecured interests, but better political connections, including the United Auto Workers, received more than 40 cents on the dollar. The UAW was also given a 55% interest in the company.
The collectivist also preaches equality. But Hayek noted they seek equality in restraint and servitude as opposed to liberty. To allay these concerns, collectivists promise a different kind of freedom. The word “freedom” had come to mean “freedom from coercion, [and] freedom from the arbitrary power of other men.” But collectivists put a new spin on the term, arguing in favor of “freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice.” They favor a system by which a few persons decide who is to get what, over a system that “depends at least partly on the ability and enterprise of the people concerned and partly on unforeseeable circumstances.”
Obama decries income inequality and claims the rungs of the ladder of upward mobility have grown too far apart. Hayek acknowledged that a man who starts poor has a much smaller probability of reaching great wealth. But the free market is the only system where “it depends solely on [the individual] and not on the favors of the mighty, and where nobody can prevent a man from attempting to achieve this result.” Those millionaires and billionaires regularly disparaged by Obama have much less power over the individual than that which the smallest bureaucrat “possesses wielding the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how [the individual is] is allowed to live or to work.”
Obama and his collectivist allies argue the wealthy have too much influence over governmental policy. However, it’s the policies they advocate, creating an ever expanding, all powerful government, which attracts the monied interests. The more coercive power of the state determines who gets what, the more people will seek to “share in the exercise of directing [that] power.”
The definitive edition of “The Road to Serfdom” opens with a quote from David Hume: “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” Sadly, our liberties have been chiseled away for generations. Re-electing Obama and his collectivist allies will serve to hasten the pace to serfdom.