Manne on Orwell

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Leaving aside the fairly major question you pose Ken – like, I’d have the answer – I read Manne’s piece less as “Manne on Orwell” and more as “Manne on Manne” – no bawdy pun intended.

I find Orwell endlessly fascinating, I find Manne considerably less so and his tendency to caricature himself – the imperiously ‘correct’ intalekshuel – increasingly depressing.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

Having read the article, what Geoff said. Plus if anything is “astonishingly lame” it’s Manne’s argument and his egregious conclusion. On second thoughts, drop the “astonishingly”.

homer Paxton
homer Paxton
2022 years ago

If I am wrong then I am confident Jason will quickly correct me but it seems to me you have to regulate to ensure the market works which is entirely different to which Hayek was saying.

To give an example cutting tariffs is sensible but you need to have retraining and education schemes to facilitate the market mechanism.
you need an ACCC, you need some sort of labour regulation otherwise employers will sack people because they are having a bad hair day, you need to protect older workers because employers are so stupid they don’t realise a person at 75 can be trained as well as a 25b year old etc etc.

Letting the market go hell for leather will ensure oligoplies , robber barons and consumers being ripped off.

Collectivism never works because we are all selfish, greedy sinners if we were altruistic then
every country would be communist!

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken,

I doubt that the idea of the economy over here, and morality and community over there, can be sustained. My reading of the history of economic development tells me that that logic of the free market has worked very powerfully when it has been combined with various notions of morality and community. Most famously, this was the basis of Weber’s thesis on the Protestant ethic to account for the very origins of capitalism. The ethics and sense of morality that underpin trust are also obviously integral, as are others we could readily think of. In short, the final destination of untrammelled neo-liberalism, I suggest, would be to destroy the pre-capitalist foundations upon which capitalism ultimately rests; which is to say that unless we can figure out how to get rid of the bathwater, we will eventually lose the baby anyway.

Nor am I confident that Manne’s correct about Orwell basing his views purely on ethics instead of economics. I make no claims to expertise on George, but I noticed some time ago in his famous essay on Politics and the English Language that he accepted economic determinsim in at least some respects (e.g. “it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes”).

mark
2022 years ago

< looks at Homer in astonished awe />

I think the “we don’t need no regulation”[0] crowd believes that the market can take care of itself: that people are smart and rational enough that they will always know the best way to maximise their utility and that, as a result, the whole Capitalistic system will just click. I’m not entirely sure how to dissuade them, especially as throwing fruit tends to be considered bad form.

Capitalism tries to answer the “how do we distribute resources fairly” question by crossing out the word “fairly” and declaring open slather, with certain caveats centred around trade. For some reason people seem to think this is a meritocracy. On the other hand, the best theoretical method of Communism I’ve heard of (for, as we all know, there are no practical ones) involves “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”: total equality. Which tends to upset — with good reason — the truly more deserving. I don’t have an answer for the problem, and I probably never will.

Best thing is to stick with Capitalism: at least we know it *works*.

[0] When we grew up and went to work, there were certain pollies who would hurt big business anyway it could. Pouring their derision upon every back-room deal, exposing every evil, however carefully hidden by the boss. But ’round the world ’twas well known when they went home at night their fat and psychopathic economics textbooks would lecture them on Marx’s historical stages…

Sorry, Pink Floyd moment. Y’know how it is.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Mark

It can only lay a claim to ‘meritocracy’ if there is a concomitant commitment to the liberal principle of equal opportunity … don’t get me started … particularly in Oz … where the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is on the threshold of abolition … he howls into the enveloping darkness …

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

The problem is laissez-faire capitalism is that it doesn’t work.
If you want capitalism to work you need to assist it like Teddy Roosevelt did.

Look at Australia under Menzies. It became an uncompetitive backwater because there was no competition.

On the other hand oyu cannot make communism work as people are not, have never been and will never be this side of the second coming altruistic.

The problem with secular humanists on either side of the political fence is that their view of mankind is inherently flawed.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Homer
I haven’t read Road to Serfdom for a while – I think Constitution of Liberty is a much better book but by no stretch of the imagination can Hayek be called a ‘laissez faire’ economist.

CS – HREOC has nothing to do with ‘equal oppotunity’ – it is a place for whingers who get upset by a few racist epithets to waste taxpayers’ money whinging about it (they should develop a tougher hide and get on with their lives). Good riddance.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

And the Office of Fair Trading has nothing to do with “Fair Trade” – it’s a place for whingers who get upset about being “ripped off” and waste taxpayers’ money whinging about it. If these people aren’t prepared to stump up the readies for a court action, why should the namby-pamby bureaucracy pander to them at taxpayer’s expense? Time to get rid of them too, along with the ACCC and ASIC.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jason,

I wrote a post on HREOC a week or two ago. Essentially I agree with you on racial vilification. However unpleasant the “name-calling” (and it may sometimes be more vicious and destructive than that label implies), I think its mischief is outweighed by the dangers to freedom of speech posed by having a regulator empowered to decide what speech is legally acceptable and what isn’t.

On the other hand, active racial, gender, sexuality etc discrimination in employment, accommodation, provision of goods and services, membership of clubs etc has serious ongoing effects, and many of those subjected to it can hardly be reasonably described as “whingers”. That said, my own experience is that a fair proportion of such complaints are indeed trivial, and emanate not so much from people suffering real and serious discrimination, as from whingers with too much time on their hands. It seems to me that it’s quite imporant to distinguish between them, and not simply dismiss HREOC and similar bodies out of hand as you do.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

Must … learn … impulse … control.