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Hayek and the End of Truth 

Adolf Hitler waves to German citizens from the head of a parade.

On January 30, 1933, young Friedrich August von Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, watched in horror as Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The, anticipating the apocalypse about to descend upon the heart of Europe.  The same totalitarian wave that had been drowning Soviet Russia for over a decade was about to engulf the West, victim to a suicidal ontological and moral relativism.  “It is obvious,” he wrote, “that, from this intellectual relativism, which denied the existence of truths which could be recognized independently of race, nation, or class, there was only a step to the position which puts sentiment above rational thinking.” 

The manuscript, titled “Spring 1933,” would lay forgotten in the Hoover Institution archives for over half a century, until serendipitously discovered by economics professor Bruce Caldwell. Published as an appendix to the 2007 edition of The Road to Serfdom (RtS), it proved that Hayek had long grasped the inseparable relationship between the anti-liberalism and anti-rationalism of international communism and fascist national socialism.  

And for good reason: both ideologies had spawned from Karl Marx’s distinctly German anti-capitalist, virulently antisemitic hatred of individual freedom and the notion of truth itself. As Hayek had explained in 1933, what had destroyed the belief in the universality and unity of human reason was Marx’s teaching of the class-conditioned nature of our thinking, of the difference between bourgeois and proletarian logic, which needed only to be applied to other social groups such as nations or races, to supply the weapon now used against rationalism as such. 

Exactly ninety years later, that weapon is being wielded again by proponents of critical race theory, for whom truth is “contextual,” meant to justify power.  

The uncanny contemporary resonance of Hayek’s words might well have surprised him. “If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds,” he counseled in his introduction to the 1960 edition of another classic, The Constitution of Liberty, “they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations.” Not in his case. Fellow University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who declared in his 1971 introduction to a German edition of RtS’that the book’s “message is no less needed today than it was when it first appeared,” repeated that assessment in his 1995 introduction to the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication in the United States. He even thought “[i]ntellectual opinion was far more hostile to [the book’s] theme [at the time of its original release] than it appears to be now.” Admittedly, practice was still lagging far behind. Maybe it would catch up, thought Friedman, ever the rationalist.  

It didn’t. Hayek’s warnings against socialist practice were blithely ignored despite repeated confirmations of its deleterious, even horrific results. Theory soon turned against the old truths, with escalating vengeance. Having succumbed to relativism, truth itself was being abandoned with increasing impunity in exchange for “propaganda.” But Hayek’s principal concern was not merely, let alone primarily, practical. It was moral. 

The effects of propaganda, wrote Hayek in RtS, are “destructive of all morals because they undermine one of the foundations of all morals: the sense of and respect for truth.” That the road to the underworld of serfdom is often paved with good intentions only obscures the subliminal narcissism at their core. A zealous propagandist with delusions of virtue “may be guided merely by an instinctive dislike of the state of things he has found and a desire to create a new hierarchical order.” Spin gurus stand ready, meanwhile, to help him spawn “theories which seem to provide a rational justification for the prejudices which he shares with many of his fellows.”   

Not everyone, just enough of them. Call them a “vanguard,” and proceed to the “process of creating [what George Sorel called] a ‘myth,’ or Plato’s “noble lies,” writes Hayek. The result is highly “confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed.”  

Implementation requires marching through institutions: 

And the whole apparatus for spreading knowledge – the schools and the press, radio and motion picture – will be used exclusively to spread those views which, whether true or false, will strengthen the belief in the righteousness of the decisions taken by the authority, and all information that might cause doubt of hesitation will be withheld. 

So as truth falls by the wayside, the criterion of knowledge becomes whether it fits the authority’s narrative. Anything else is dangerous to the public health, demanding strong measures. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky alongside Nietzsche, when objectivity is dead, everything is permitted.  

That includes lying and attributing one’s own ruthless tactics to one’s opponent. Helsinki University professor Jan Strassheim, for example, accuses Hayek of basically using “the modern trend towards scientific rationalization to build an influential political rhetoric.” As Strassheim sees it, “[i]n Hayek’s version, the ‘neoliberal’ epistemology behind this rhetoric paradoxically combines a subordination of democracy to expert ‘truth’ with a sweeping criticism of experts.” Actually, only some experts: “[f]or Hayek, neither ordinary citizens nor even most economists but only a small group of what he calls ‘philosophers’ grasp this paradoxical epistemology in which experts reject expertise on expert grounds.”  

“Paradox” is political rhetoric to mask lying. In fact, Hayek warns against all so-called experts who lack “an attitude of humility before [the] social process and of tolerance to other opinions and is the exact opposite of that individual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.” Never advocating subordination to experts, he categorically rejects “the demand that the mind of some individual should rule supreme.” Human action is unfathomably complex, and knowledge takes many forms. “Truth” in the ordinary sense means the “interaction of individuals, possessing different knowledge and different views [which] is what constitutes the life of thought.” Without such open-minded and respectful interaction, whatever else life may be, it isn’t human. 

By far the most common tool inside the post-modern sophist’s toolbox, however, is the old staple, the ad hominem. Strassheim is typical in calling Hayek a “neoliberal,” a label he never applied to himself.  despite his never having so described himself. “The word [neoliberal] has become a rhetorical weapon,” explains journalist Stephen Metcalf in The Guardian on August 18, 2017. It is wielded against “the reigning ideology of our era – one that venerates the logic of the market and strips away the things that make us human.” Unphased by the unwarranted ideological smear, his objection is of a different nature. That “Hayek is considered the grandfather of neoliberalism – a style of thought that reduces everything to economics – is a little ironic given that he was such a mediocre economist.” So much for the Nobel Committee that awarded its 1974 prize in economics to one of the most celebrated founders of modern classical liberalism. 

Nothing, however, is as effective in the war on truth as the modern equivalent of book burning. Few students today have even heard of RtS, let alone read it.  And a new book titled Liberalism’s Last Man: Hayek in the Age of Political Capitalism, by Hobart and Ebert College Professor of International Relations Vikash Yadav, was recently published, in August 2023, by the University of Chicago Press, undoubtedly to the posthumous delight of both Hayek and Friedman. There, Yadav captures the essence of Hayek’s important insight that “[t]he erosion of truth occurs because propaganda cannot confine itself to discussing ultimate values; it must extend to questions of ‘facts,’ since the state needs to justify the relationship between public policies and outcomes that support particular ultimate values.” 

In RtS, Hayek had indeed argued that “totalitarian propaganda … must extend to questions of fact, where human intelligence is involved in a different way.” The underlying purpose of linguistic sabotage, logical incoherence aside, is to justify the power of a few. The actual meaning of an oxymoron like collective freedom, for example, “is not the freedom of the members of society but the unlimited freedom of the planner to do with society what he pleases. It is the confusion of freedom with power carried to the extreme.” The result is enslavement of all. Hayek had witnessed it during the 1930s as it unfolded in Nazi Germany; it had already been demonstrated to anyone willing to see it in Soviet Russia. As early as 1933, moreover, he had predicted that “the other nations have been for a long time steadily following Germany – albeit at a considerable distance.” 

By no means is this march against all civilized institutions inevitable, but it will take courage to resist. If the old ideas of free action and unfettered dialogue have failed so far to persuade, “we must try again. The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only true progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century.” It is certainly the morally right one, which alone would be progress enough. 

Truth does not end. The same, alas, cannot be said of civilization.

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