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Towards a new‘road to serfdom’?



The classical liberal order is under threat from ‘woke’ progressives

After the Second World War, Fredrich Hayek, a young professor at the London School ofEconomics wrote a book, The Road to Serfdom,which pilloried the growing acceptance of socialismin the UK, and made the case for a return to classical liberalism. He also set up an academy of classical liberal scholars —the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) — in1947 to discuss the ideals and ideas of economic andpolitical liberty as a counter to the existing collectivistsocialist dogmas, which he described as the “Road to Serfdom”. The MPS held its latest meeting this monthat the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Amajor theme was the threats to the classical liberalorder, which had seemingly triumphed world widesince the end of the “evil empire”.

One major worry expressed wasthe growing number of the young inboth the UK and the US who proclaimed themselves as socialists, advocating the dirigiste panaceas that had failed worldwide in the past. Thus, in the UK, a 2017 survey found 70 percent of university students planning to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s far left Labour party. In the US, young Americans aged 18-29 surveyed in 2018 said they were more positive about socialism (51 per cent) than capitalism (45 per cent).

Various explanations have been provided for thisturn of the young to socialism: The domination byleft wing professors of the academy, the laziness ofthe “snowflake” generation, and the capture by theleft of the cultural narrative as advocated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. But none of these are persuasive.The academy has been left wing in both the UK and the US since I joined it in the mid-1960s. Theyoung have always been dismissed as lazy by the old, and I doubt if the US and UK millennials have evenheard of, leave alone been influenced by Gramsci. A more cogent explanation is provided by their experienceduring the Great Recession. 

This is best exemplified by the leading charismatictribune of the US left, the 29-year-old AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez (AOC). (See Prachi Gupta: AOC,Workman, NY 2019). She was born in Puerto Rico buther parents moved to the Bronx in New York soonafterwards, where her father had a small business. Asthe Bronx had the highest school dropout rate of anycounty in the state, her father pooled money fromrelatives to buy a modest house in Yorktown Heightsin affluent Westchester county, where his two youngchildren could have access to better public schools. AOC did well in school, and by age 17 was set to pursuea science-based career at Boston University. Then tragedy struck, when in 2008 her48-year-old father died of lung cancer. This destabilised the family. Hermother barely staved off foreclosureand eviction. AOC realising that herchosen medical career would takeover 10 years to fructify switched to economics and international relations, in which she graduatedcum laude in 2011 but with “thousands of dollars in student debt, adding to her financial burden”. Throughout college, AOC “had witnessedthe corporate greed thatfuelled the financial crisis and watched taxpayers bailout Wall Street executives who faced virtually no consequences.This recession deepened wealth inequalityand it was the middle and lower classes, disproportionatelycommunities of colour like hers, that sufferedmost” (p.17). This and the public activism shehad shown since high school radicalised her.

Professor Edward Glaeser in Boomer Socialism ledto Bernie Sanders (WSJ, Jan 18, 2020) also argues thatyoung people have been radicalised because the economy isn’t working that well for them. “Many public policies make it harder to get a job, save money orfind an affordable home, leaving young idealists thinking,“Why not try socialism?” But Boris Johnson’s victoryin the recent UK election faced with similar youthsupport for Jeremy Corbyn shows the victory of socialismis not inevitable.

The second fear is of the undermining of the constitutionalorder of the US. The late Oxford political scientist Sam Finer in his magisterial 3 volume, The History of Government, summed up the legacy of theAmerican revolution as embodied in the US constitutionas “having shown how political power may bebridled; and it has stood for two centuries as the ultimateexercise in law-boundedness. This is aformidable achievement”. As the Hon. Douglas Ginsberg, Chief Judge, US Court of Appeals for theDC Circuit, explained in his paper for the MPS meeting, the major reason for this achievement is that the US has a written Constitution. “To be faithful to the written constitution a jurist must make it his goal toilluminate the meaning of the text as the Framersunderstood it”. Despite some exceptions this was thenorm till the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s determinationto pass his New Deal “put the Supreme Court’s commitment to the Constitution as writtenunder severe stress, and it was then that the wheelsbegan to come off” with FDR’s threat to pack the court (though voted down by the Senate) hanging like thesword of Damocles over the Court’s “adherence totheir announced understanding of the Constitution.”

Since then there has been an ongoing battle between progressive jurists who believe in a “living”(hence changeable) constitution and traditionalistswho believe in fidelity to the written constitution.

This debate has been overtaken, argues Christopher Caldwell in an important book (The Ageof Entitlement, Simon and Schuster, 2020), by theCivil Rights Act of 1964, which rightly banned racialdiscrimination but created a vast enforcement mechanismto monitor nearly every aspect of Americanlife for the proper racial balance, acting against racism“even if there was no evidence of racist intent.”Ordinary citizens were afraid to speak for fear of beingcalled racist. “America had something it never had atthe federal level. Something the overwhelming majorityof its citizens would never have approved, anexplicit system of racial preference”.

This change in constitutional culture, argues Caldwell, was then extended to women’s rights, sexualpreference and recently to gender identity. “The new system for overthrowing the traditions that hindered black people became the model for overthrowing every tradition in American life.” The civilrights revolution was not just a major new elementin the Constitution. It was “a rival constitution, withwhich the original one was frequently incompatible”.The disagreement over the two constitutions“ the de jure constitution of 1788 with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuriesof American culture behind it, or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditionalkind of legitimacy but commands the near unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educatorsand the passionate allegiance of those whoreceived it as a liberation” will continue to polarisethe polity. Who wins in these disputes —the traditional constitutionalist or the “woke” progressiveswill determine whether the West is now on anotherroad to serfdom.

Source: Business Standard