– March 11, 2020

Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, asserts that he opposes authoritarianism. He says Fidel Castro’s literacy programs were good, but his authoritarianism was unfortunate. In Bernie’s mind socialism doesn’t have to be authoritarian. This is a pernicious idea. To fight socialism it must be put down every time it is encountered. Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom that even benevolent socialists must become authoritarians. Worse, people in power under socialism are unlikely to be benevolent.

The common definition of socialism – government ownership of the means of production – helps socialists avoid the label. American socialists, like Elizabeth Warren, note that since they do not advocate government ownership of the means of production, they are not socialists. 

Socialism should be understood broadly to mean the use of government power to replace private economic decision-making with collective economic decision-making. Sanders, Warren and Biden may differ (slightly) on the best scope of collective decision-making, but they are all socialists. Hayek’s argument applies to this more inclusive definition.

To non-socialists, the “public” is merely the aggregate of individuals of which it is constituted. There is no public apart from its individuals. The “public interest” is what emerges from individual free choice and voluntary exchange in the absence of force and fraud.

Everything done by government is done by people wielding government power. They are subject to the same limitations with which we all must contend. What a government knows is simply what individuals in that government know.

Individuals try to do the best they can for themselves according to their subjective perceptions of goals they wish to pursue and means they have to deploy in that pursuit. Individuals learn by trial and error. Innovations happen because it is in the interest of individuals to be alert to opportunities for gain. 

Prices, which change in response to changes of the actions of hundreds of millions of people, guide them into making decisions that are consistent with the decisions others make. The pattern of outcomes emerges spontaneously from the decisions of, and exchanges among, all individuals involved. 

In any socialist country, democratic or not, those who wield government authority have to make decisions about what to do without having any idea of what the hundreds of millions of their subjects want to have done. 

Even benevolent government decision-makers must fall back on their own perceptions of what is best. They never know, much less understand, the variety of incentives to which individuals respond in making their own decisions. They cannot know, and therefore they must ignore most of the relevant facts. They have little incentive to innovate. They are more likely to seek the comfort of routine.

So what happens when the decisions made by benevolent socialist bureaucrats conflict with the myriad of actions and exchanges that individuals want to undertake? The bureaucrats must impose their decisions. They must be authoritarians. 

For example, suppose benevolent bureaucrats in a Department of Human Happiness decide that true human happiness depends on substituting plant-based food for animal-based food. Suppose also that as a result of millions of individual decisions people have made, on the basis of their own preferences and opportunities, the demand for plant-based food is too low to meet the bureaucrats’ vision of true happiness. Even benevolent bureaucrats would conjure up calumnies, such as higher taxes and increased restrictive regulation, to impose on suppliers of animal-based food. They also would seek to bless producers of plant-based food with subsidies taken from unenlightened eaters and transferred to enlightened eaters. They would openly and honestly be authoritarian because of their own views of the “public interest.”

Of course, as both Hayek and Buchanan understood, those who choose to become government bureaucrats are likely to love wielding power over others. They are the sort to be convinced that their beliefs, values and intentions are correct, and that individuals who dissent are simply wrong, even immoral. They are the sort to send unenlightened eaters to reeducation camps.

Lenin said dissenters suffer from “false consciousness.” Bernie might say they are not “woke.” Biden may say they fail to “choose truth over facts.”

It is common for socialists on college campuses, those who expect to control others in a socialist government, to shut down speech that conflicts with their view of truth no matter what the facts are. The more force they wield, the more they enjoy wielding force. They are not in the least benevolent. If they were to gain government power the ability of individuals to make their own decisions about what to do and how to do it would shrivel. 

People can choose to be able to make their own choices or to adopt socialism. Socialism and authoritarianism are inseparable.

Charles Baird

Charles Baird

Charles W. Baird is Emeritus Professor of Economics at California State University, East Bay and a past Vice President and member of the Board of Directors of the Mont Pelerin. He was Director of the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies at CSUEB from its founding in 1991 to his retirement in 2007. His research specialty is in law and economics of labor relations.

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