Kevin Williamson writes A Problem Like Putin in National Review. (paywalled – but Kevin alone is reason to subscribe)
Williamson refers to the chapter in Road to Serfdom, “Why the Worst Get on Top.” I found this same chapter the most striking of the volume when I blogged about it in 2011.
Hayek’s thesis was that central economic planning inevitably led to tyranny. Writing in Europe in 1944 this seemed empirically true. The flaw in Hayek’s argument is the underestimation of the power of a liberal constitutional system to counter the flaws in central economic planning. He addressed the importance of this feature in 1960 in his Constitution of Liberty.
The flaw in economic central planning was addressed by economic thinking post WWII. While the central government may achieve the power and the legitimacy to plan it still lacked the competence. The development of our understanding of the pricing system and the dispersal of knowledge in a market economy offered an explanation of the exhaustion with progressive economic planning in 1920 and again in 1980. In both cases progressive governments lost in landslides, first to Harding/Coolidge (Harding died in his first term) and then in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. In both cases Coolidge and Reagan easily won a second term.
Coming to power in the pit of the Great Depression The New Deal gave great hope to the power and benefits of central planning, but the era was bookended by the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson which displayed the limits of central planning, leading to the stagnation of 1970s. Unlike Europe and socialists nations we had a constitutional system that led to peaceful transitions.
Kevin’s application of Hayek to Putin is far more illuminating than the binary analysis of good and evil that dominates the coverage. The strength of our constitution lies in its fundamental understanding of both the permanence and flaws in human nature. The division of power vertically (federalism) and horizontally (checks and balances) has checked the power of those ‘at the top’. Whatever flaws exist in our constitution, and there are many, we must not lose sight of that underlying principle, expressed brilliantly in Federalist #51:
“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
from KW’s A Problem Like Putin:
It is not as though these tendencies do not exist in liberal societies. American politics often attracts the worst sort of men and women our country can cough up, and they achieve power through the same dynamic Hayek described in the totalitarian states, welding together effective factions of the low-minded but like-minded. We have the testimony of no less a totalitarian than Adolf Hitler that the greatest strength of the totalitarian states is that they force those who fear them to imitate them, a principle that can be seen at work in the distinctly autocratic and centralizing tendency of the Franklin Roosevelt administration or in the desire of the Trump administration to become Beijing’s mirror image. What liberal societies have is not better men — it is independent courts, a free press, the rule of law, checks and balances, democratic accountability, competitive elections, powerful private institutions, and vibrant civic life. There have been some men of remarkably low character elected to the American presidency, but the American system has limited the damage they could do.
The Russian system does not limit the damage a man such as Putin can do. It amplifies the evil he can do. And that is why, the perfervid hopes of Senator Lindsey Graham and others notwithstanding, simply removing Vladimir Putin from the scene by means of a palace coup would not solve our problem. The Praetorian guard can depose Caligula, but that doesn’t restore the republic — it just gets you Claudius and then Nero. There wasn’t anything especially wrong with the Romans. There wasn’t anything especially wrong with the Germans. There isn’t anything especially wrong with the Russians. The world has a bottomless supply of men such as Putin. Russia is ruled by them because of the character of its political and social systems. Opening a McDonald’s in Pushkin Square wasn’t enough to change all that.
I have observed in the past that either socialism is the unluckiest ideology in the history of politics — inexplicably being taken up by Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao, Honecker, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, etc. — or there is something wrong with socialism. Which, of course, there is.
All voluntary constraints on power create advantages for those who do not accept such constraints — that is one of fascism’s genuine political insights and the reason fascists and fascist organizations reject constraints on power in principle. This is true both of the sort of fascist who calls himself a fascist and of the sort of fascist who calls himself a socialist (Lenin, Castro, etc.) and of the sort of fascist who spurns ideological language for vague promises of national greatness.
Two final observations.
There are more similarities than differences between fascism and socialism. Both depend on a mythical general will and unrestrained central power.
Our constitutional government is not designed to achieve unity, it is designed to manage our differences. Hayek is correct that central economic planning assumes a general will that does not exist, thus inevitably forcing the use of power of one segment over another. Hayek as explained by Williamson does articulate a flaw in the Madisonian concept of the extended republic; the potential threat of a faction of low common denominators to achieve power. This only makes our division of power more important.