The Worst (Still) Get on Top

How often when discussing politics, listening to the news, or hearing about the latest government debacle do you hear something like, “If only John Doe was in office” or “If we could just get the right people in there, things would be better?” How often are issues like corruption, waste, and other perverse outcomes viewed as a preventable and lamentable byproduct of “the wrong people?”

But is this necessarily the case? Would things really be so different if different people were in power?

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek addressed this very question in one of his most famous works, The Road to Serfdom. One chapter of the book is titled, “Why the Worst Get on Top.” In it, Hayek responds to the immensely popular idea that the ills of socialism could be avoided. Although most people found “extreme” forms of socialism (Nazism, fascism, etc.) to be repugnant, it was thought that the particularly nefarious parts of these systems could be avoided. An “American socialism” would certainly look very different than the Soviet regime. Hayek challenged this notion. He argued that the very nature of the system would ensure that the worst came to power. Those who would become political leaders would be those individuals who sought power and were willing to use violence and other coercive methods to achieve their goals.

Hayek offered three reasons why the leaders of a system tending toward totalitarianism would consist of the worst, not the best, individuals. First, he argued that in order to obtain a “high degree of uniformity in outlook,” we have to look to a group of people with low moral standards. Second, in order to obtain and maintain power, leaders in the system must gain the support of the gullible and “those whose passions and emotions are easily aroused.” Third, in order to bring together supporters, leaders will unite people behind a “common enemy.”

Hayek goes on to say that the survival of a totalitarian system depends on the willingness to supplant the needs of the collective over the needs of the individual. He states,

The principle that the end justifies the means…becomes necessarily the supreme rule. There is literally nothing which consistent collective must not be prepared to do if it serves ‘the good of the whole.’….Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarianism which horrify us follow out of necessity.

The worst sufferer…is the word “liberty”….‘Collective freedom’ is not the freedom of the members of society, but the unlimited freedom of the planner to do with society that which he pleases.

Hayek’s points are still relevant today. Though few would argue for Soviet-style central planning, there are many who advocate centralized planning in the form of foreign intervention and domestic programs. They place their trust in the bureaucratic apparatus of government to achieve some larger goal. As Hayek points out, the actions of these leaders is often justified to the public via emotional appeals and some idea of the “collective good.” The result is detrimental to liberty.

Take for example a recent interview with retired General Stanley McChrystal. In it, he argues that American youth should be expected to do “a year of service.” Further, he suggests that jobs and educational benefits should be tied to such activities. Why? Because self-sacrifice will “bind” young people to one another and “the nation.” Individuals should sacrifice their liberties in the name of the “greater good” as envisioned by the political and military elite.

Without a doubt, the world is experiencing some scary things. Ukraine is imploding. There is an Ebola outbreak in Africa. Syria is engaged in civil war. Iraq is in turmoil. There is a chance the violence could resume in Israel. But it’s important to remember that it’s not a matter of who is in political office, who runs the military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, or who heads the humanitarian mission in Liberia and the rest of Africa. The issue is more fundamental. Those who will seek out those positions are the ones who gain the most from being there. As Hayek pointed out, those are likely the last people we would want.

Though we may not be able to outright alter the institutions that influence political actors, perhaps there is something individuals can do. As citizens, we take responsibility for ourselves. Individuals must champion personal liberties. Each of us has the choice to think critically and to value the rights of the individual over some notion of the “greater good.” It may be small, but it’s a first step in ensuring we protect our freedoms from the “worst on top.”

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
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