There’s been a little flurry in the blogosphere of late about what F. A. Hayek thought about the welfare state, apparently touched off by a remark made by the late Tony Judt in a newly published book, the result of a collaboration between the late Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt makes the following charge.
Hayek is quite explicit on this count: if you begin with welfare policies of any sort — directing individuals, taxing for social ends, engineering the outcomes of market relationships — you will end up with Hitler.
Tyler Cowen, in a generally favorable and admiring take on the book and Judt’s writings, observed that Judt was being unfair to Hayek.
Then, Henry Farrell weighed in on Judt’s side and cited the discussion between Andrew Farrant and Edward McPhail who contend that Hayek wrongly held that any form of welfare statism would lead to totalitarianism while Caldwell denied that this was Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom, maintaining that Hayek’s subsequent criticism of the welfare state was more subtle and less categorical than the argument of The Road to Serfdom against full scale planning. Farrell criticizes Cowen and Caldwell for defending Hayek, even while acknowledging a bit of sloppiness on Judt’s part in not making clear that Hayek did distinguish between the provision of some forms of social insurance from welfare-state policies. To support his case against Hayek, Farrell quotes from Hayek’s introduction to the 1956 American edition of The Road to Serfdom in which Hayek cited the experience of England under the post-war Labour government in warning that the statist policies of the Labour government would cause an adverse change in public attitudes that would eventually erode even the English pubic’s attachment to liberal principles.
However, even if Hayek qualifies his claims in the first paragraph quoted, he’s changed his tune towards the end. He very explicitly claims that the paternalist welfare state is creating the conditions under which (unless the policy is changed or reversed) totalitarianism will blossom, reducing the populace (as described in the bit of Tocqueville that Hayek quotes) into a “flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd,” which will surely sooner or later come under the control of “any group of ruffians.” More tersely: Welfare Statism=Inevitable Long Term Moral Decline=Hilter! ! ! !
Hayek surely had his moments of brilliant insight, but this wasn’t one of them – for all his protestations of anti-conservatism it’s a fundamentally conservative, and rather idiotic claim. I don’t think that Judt was being unfair at all.
Responding to Judt’s attack on Hayek as reinforced by Farrell, Kevin Vallier tried to shift the conversation toward an understanding of what Hayek actually thought about the welfare state, offering a conceptual distinction — of whose relevance I am somewhat skeptical — between a welfare state of law and a welfare state of administration, the former referring to a welfare state in which benefits are administered in a uniform fashion according to legally prescribed rules and a welfare state in which the benefits are distributed by officials at their own discretion.
In reply, Farrell dismisses the point that Hayek was not opposed to the provision of a safety net and various forms of social insurance. Farrell regards this as an irrelevant detail.
This is, in fact, agreed to by all parties – hence my suggestion in the original post that “Hayek clearly believes that there are non-statist, non-paternalist ways of achieving some (if not all) of the same ends.” But the reason why Hayek sees this as allowable, as Vallier acknowledges in his own defense of Hayek, is that it is not statist – it involves coercion, but does not have the statist logic that Hayek views as pernicious.
Now if you find this a bit confusing, I can’t blame you, because it is. But the confusion is not all Farrell’s. It is also Hayek’s. He did try to get more mileage out of his argument in The Road to Serfdom than it could sustain, and to do so he had to resort to sociological intuition, hand-waving and rhetoric, in contrast to the comparatively rigorous argument of The Road to Serfdom. Nevertheless, the avowedly socialist postwar Labour government nationalized many industries, and tried to implement central planning, so Hayek’s concerns about the consequences of the Labour government must be considered in a wider context than just expansion of the welfare state.
What was unfair about Tony Judt’s comment was a failure to distinguish between the different levels of the argument that Hayek was making. The arguments may have been related, but they were not the same. The argument of The Road to Serfdom was an argument about the logical implications of central planning. The argument about the welfare state was an argument about a slippery slope. Those are very different arguments, and not to acknowledge the difference is unfair, even (or, perhaps, especially) if Hayek’s argument about the welfare state was less than compelling.
HT: David Levey