The Allure Of Total Systems In A Scary World
12 Jun 2024

The world is a scary place; man is a sense-making animal; if we figure out a system of how the world works then we can keep all the scary things at bay and live happily ever after. This cascade plays through the heads of second-hand idea peddlers like a refrain. The universality and truthfulness of the first two statements enable them to gloss over giant leaps of logic present in the last, and yet somehow this very cascade continues to persist in human thinking, sabotaging us and messing with us despite our best intentions.

We are confronted again with the immateriality of intention. Good motives are not only cheap, they are banal – they not only mean nothing but can often effect their opposite in consequence. Hades’ Highway gives the contract to the Good Intentions Paving Company PLC – and we who live through history get to enjoy re-run after re-run.

It’s 1944 on the world is a different place. Like it or not, might alone makes right and humanity is in a desperate struggle for survival. On the one hand, imperfect chaos, organic freedoms that gradually adapt over time and sometimes leaving many behind (if the many are passive and have no agency) – and on the other hand – the perfect system in which resources are divided fairly, by the intelligent, for the benefit of everyone, and the brotherhood of all as well, to boot. Or so it is claimed.

Systems are attractive. Large overarching cognitive superstructures that explain everything, that makes the world make sense. An antidote to uncomfortable ignorance and ineffectual stupidity.

But once we understand things – once our theory of everything neatly explains things – we can then plan. And in planning things, we can improve things. Not just gradually over time but radically and immediately.

In 1944 mulling over these ideas were expensive. The men were off killing each other at a scale never before seen and never since repeated, and the women butched-up because they are the ones on the homefront now building tanks. Paper was rationed, so publishing philosophy seemed like a luxury, and yet it is in this year that Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom was first published. The message was that important. It was also that immediately important.

Common among the left-wing thinkers – then, as now – theories of everything hang on tenaciously – the theory that Nazism was the deathbed reaction of capitalism against the liberating forces of collectivism.

Not so fast, says Hayek, himself a refugee from the Fatherland, himself a witness to the conception, growth, implementation of fascism.

Left wing intellectuals of this time all repeat Nazi talking points, whether they know it or not. In fact, Nazisms talking points are not inherently right-wing at all – but left-wing. There was a clue in the name… the Social in National Social… and also being the party of arbeiters (labourers).  

Stop, says Hayek. Look closely. Look under the hood and you’ll see… fascism, communism, socialism, Nazism… they look more alike than they differ, and the engines run the same, their recipes are carbon copies.

Take a handful of idealism (noble, exalted, highly evolved, ethical, moral and high ideals work best). Combine that with a conviction in its own smartness and competence. Mix with a cognitive framework that can explain everything in the world neatly. Bake with responsible parties willing to do the hard work on behalf of all the masses. Plan a better world, nay, a perfect one. And execute every dumb motherfucker who dares to step in your way. And c’est viola, you’ve successfully created a failure, each and every time. No matter if you come from the left, the right, or anywhere else.

You bake it any way you like, you will get oppression and tyranny, inevitably, every time. It’s been a long time since 1944 – and since its publication the Road To Serfdom has been attacked, critiqued and hated by intellectual opposition.

But the recipe it exposed still works exactly, and every experiment before or since 1944 has proved that the Road To Serfdom – whether you like it or not – has proved correct in practice.

It may not fit in with your theory of how the world works, and you can pull the Chomsky trick and argue very effectively and convincingly against it by controlling the Overton Window and the language of the discourse. But ultimately you can’t argue with it except with what is essentially a form of ‘this time it will be different’ – and once you say that, you know that you and your system is the sucker and not the wise warnings of Friedrich Hayek.

He’s nicer than most of the people who quite him (but then, he only argued the points originally, those who quote him have to still contend with the same discredited systems and the same disproven arguments by the same ridiculous characters). He read Marx more sympathetically than Marx deserved. He acknowledges moral and principled intentions by Marx – which is a step many rational and clear thinkers would know is far too generous. It’s just that intentions are not worth the paper they aren’t printed on, and like big theories that explain everything, and the smartest, most sophisticated plans, mean nothing.

It’s all in the implementation baby, and there it falls down, each time, every time.

It feels good to have one system that explains it all… but nothing that explains it all can be true.

It feels great to have those lofty ideals – boy, every campus and every march and every oversimplified meme and every Guardian column proves it feels GREAT. But systems are judged by their outcomes, and lofty ideals are more often than not the problem.

It feels awesome to plan. To be smarter than all those silly people who can’t think for themselves and force on them a beautifully designed system that will work better (promise, cross your heart and hope to die). But Collectivism – all those varied systems that put the interests of the group above the individual – inevitably morphs into totalitarianism.

Every step away from individual liberty and free markets lead to a loss of freedom, a loss of choices, a loss of resources, a loss of potential, a loss of efficiency, a loss of positive outcomes and tyranny.

Intellectuals are attracted to socialism because it involves the rational application of the intellect to the organisation of society, while its utopianism captures their imagination and satisfies their desire to make the world submit to their own design. But it leads to despotism enacted in the name of liberation, in every case study he mentioned that occurred before, and each one that occurred since.

Again, Hayek argues with sensitivity. He doesn’t have the data of Sowell. He lacks the contempt of Rand. He lacks the benefit of larger sample sizes enjoyed by Friedman. But his thinking is clear and almost lyrical – and while his polemic can be attacked reality itself has rendered his warning irrefutable.

We know now, all too well, what waits for those of us who do not want to go along with perfect systems that is in all of our interests and bring us all together in a wonderful, happy brotherhood of homo sapiens.

And thanks to him, and those like him, us, and those like us, will simply not deviate one bit toward that Road that leads to serfdom.