Robert Manne has an op-ed piece on equality and George Orwell in this morning’s SMH. He ends with this observation:
Orwell wrote a brief review of the most important anti-socialist manifesto of the 20th century, F.A.Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Orwell was honest enough to admit the truth of Hayek’s warning that a “collectivist” economy gives a “tyrannical minority” terrible potential power. But because he believed that the evils of laissez-faire capitalism were even worse, all he could offer as an answer to Hayek was a politics where “the concept of right and wrong” had been restored.
This is astonishingly lame. In the end, because Orwell’s democratic socialism was founded on ethics rather than economics, it proved utterly vulnerable to the power of the neo-liberal critique.
In fact Orwell’s complete Hayek book review is almost as brief as Manne’s mention of it:
The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus
Taken together, these two books give grounds for dismay. The first of them is an eloquent defence of laissez-faire capitalism, the other is an even more vehement denunciation of it. They cover to some extent the same ground, they frequently quote the same authorities, and they even start out with the same premise, since each of them assumes that Western civilization depends on the sanctity of the individual. Yet each writer is convinced that the other’s policy leads directly to slavery, and the alarming thing is that they may both be right….
Between them these two books sum up our present predicament. Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
Both of these writers are aware of this, more or less; but since they can show no practicable way of bringing it about the combined effect of their books is a depressing one.
Observer, 9 April 1944
I suspect Orwell may have lost his faith in the planned economy had he lived to see the results of the various European attempts in subsequent decades. However, his observation about the atomising effects of corporate capitalism and its progressive stripping away of morality (in the sense of shared values of decency, fair treatment and a sense of community) is as relevant as ever. Manne’s dismissal of Orwell’s critique as ineffectual because grounded in ethics rather than economics strikes me as a tad glib when you look at the societal effects of economically-based social recipes, whether of a neo-liberal, communist or democratic socialist flavour.
I mused about all this shortly after I started blogging, in an essay titled “Adam Smith and morality“. It seems to me that the disease and its symptoms are fairly clear, and “neo-liberalism” is part of the disease rather than the cure. Trouble is, like Orwell but at a much more prosaic level (though with the benefit of an extra 50 years of hindsight), I don’t have a clue how the manifest ills of capitalism can be reformed without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Communitarianism asks some of the right questions, I think, but its answers to date have been less than convincing. The same goes for the neo-Rousseau-ian mung bean reveries of Clive Hamilton and his unlikely acolyte Ross Gittins. Money may not buy you happiness but it purchases a much more comfortable brand of misery, and the growth Hamilton and Gittins so despise brings basic improvements to developing nations that unquestionably improve the sum total of human happiness. Nevertheless, these questions are worth asking.