The road to serfdom

January 26, 1994|By Walter E. Williams

PEOPLE recognize my friend Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, as a scholar who has distinguished himself in the analysis of race and ethnicity both in the United States and internationally. But that's really an add-on skill, plus a diversion, for which I am partly to blame.

Dr. Sowell's real forte lies in the history of economic thought, placing him among the world's top four or five economists in that area. Nowhere has his breadth of knowledge been so concisely put than in his recent Forbes article on the thought of the late Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek.

Fifty years ago, Hayek wrote a critique of socialism bearing the title "The Road to Serfdom." It is the most powerful unrefuted argument that fascism, communism and socialism are kindred forms of collectivism whose survival critically depends upon the undermining of private property rights, rule of law, limited government and other institutions that make liberty possible.

According to Hayek, collectivists are "dangerous idealists" who have "prepared the way for totalitarians," though they themselves are morally incapable of doing the things necessary for the preservation of the collectivist state. These "dangerous idealists" build the Trojan Horse for tyrants. Or as Dr. Sowell says, "Once you open the floodgates, you cannot tell the water where to go." If collectivism is to survive, there must be state terror to suppress dissent. In renouncing the use of state terror, Mikhail Gorbachev unwittingly doomed communism and the Russian empire.

Like Hayek, Dr. Sowell doesn't spend much time criticizing the intentions of socialists because "[t]he issue is not what anyone intends but what consequences are in fact likely to follow." Dr. Sowell says the Bush administration's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Clinton health plan are large downpayments on socialism. You say, "But the ADA and universal medical coverage are socially good things!" That's the problem. The emphasis is focused on promised results and not process, as collectivists do everywhere.

Here are a few process questions: What happens to people's rights to engage in peaceable voluntary exchange? What about the principle of equality before the law and private property rights? What happens to people's rights to be free to make their own decisions? If you say those questions are not as important as achieving the results promised by the ADA and universal medical care, your vision differs only in degree (but not in kind) from that of people like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Answers to the next set of questions may suggest not that much of a difference in degree. Suppose President Clinton's health plan mandates fixed doctor's fees, and my doctor and I agree to a higher one. Would you have me fined or jailed for committing what the Soviets called an economic crime against the state? What if I refuse to designate handicapped parking slots at my place of business, the government orders the shop closed and I refuse? Would it be OK for armed agents to use force and shoot me if necessary? You say, "But you're violating the law." That's right, but so were the Soviet citizens sent to the Gulag.

We Americans must stop asking and allowing Congress to trash the Constitution and our liberty-enhancing institutions. If we don't, we will travel farther down the road to serfdom and meet with the same disasters of other collectivist nations.

Walter E. Williams is a syndicated columnist.

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