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The new road to serfdom: the Covid-19 crisis and its possible consequences in light of the past 75 years

Matthieu Creson

Article originally published in French on April 30, 2020 on the website of Revue Politique et Parlementaire

In 1944, the economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, which was to become one of the most significant books of liberal1 thought in the 20th century. In this book the author underlined the tendency of the state to always impinge on individual freedom, a propensity thus opening the way to totalitarianism and general enslavement. How do such ideas retain their relevance in the context of the health crisis we have been going through for more than two years and its aftermath?

The fight between liberals and statists in the 20th and 21st centuries: a brief look back at the 1945-2010 period

Far from being inspired by the ideas of Hayek, Western political leaders during the post-war economic boom largely favored the precepts of Keynes, applying in many cases a curious mixture of capitalism and statism. This is hardly surprising: as the economist Pascal Salin has often said, the British economist was precisely offering political leaders (something which remains true today) the economic justification for their political action. A period marked by continuous growth and a low unemployment rate, the post-war economic boom was nonetheless characterized by the steady growth of the state and the uninterrupted enlargement of its sphere of influence in our societies. In Great Britain, the alternation of the Tories and the Whigs was accompanied by the same Keynesian way of conducting the affairs of the country, thus transforming the latter into one of the most state-run and bureaucratized European societies that were then.

And then suddenly occurred the oil crises of the 1970s as well as the ensuing stagflation, leading more and more people in Western countries to question Keynes’s theories. The “conservative revolution”, to use the words of the essayist Guy Sorman, then sprang to life, whether in the United States with Ronald Reagan, in Great Britain with Margaret Thatcher, or in New Zealand with Roger Douglas. In his nomination speech delivered on January 20, 1981, Reagan asserted the famous sentence: “Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” Even today, in 2020, we remain amazed, in a country such as France, at the audacity of this statement, which was not made by some politician or other, but by the president of the first world power in person. This idea, even our current right-wing politicians in France could never come anywhere near conceiving it for a moment, let alone express it publicly. What ideological gulf separates the “conservative revolutionaries” of the 1980s from our extraordinarily timid political leaders, who, for the past thirty years, have thrived on ideas about the possibility of a “Third Way”, about the need to ” humanize” liberal capitalism and to make it more “equitable” – or solidaire, as the French say!

In view of this statement by Reagan, one wonders in passing who are in fact the real “reactionaries”: are they the disciples of Mises and Hayek, like Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, who took it upon themselves to free individuals from the stranglehold of the state, and to correct the harmful effects caused by more than 30 years of state control and collectivization of the economy? Or are they the followers of old Keynesianism, which had largely shown, in the 1970s, not only its inability to solve the economic problems of our societies, but even its counter-productivity and its harmfulness?

November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls; two years later, in December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announces the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the intellectual Francis Fukuyama published a resounding work, The End of History, in which he noted that the model of democratic and liberal civilization constituted the ultimate form of political, economic and social organization towards which converged humanity. Marx seemed dead and gone, Keynes irreparably discredited. And then, against all odds, started to develop, shortly after the disappearance of the USSR, an extraordinary campaign of disinformation and rehabilitation of social collectivism, which was initially believed to have been refuted by facts and swept away into the dustbin of history. This unthinkable ideological tour de force was masterfully analyzed, dissected and assailed by Jean-François Revel in his book La Grande Parade (Paris, Plon, 2000)2. At the same time, the “new enemies of open society”, to refer to the title of a book by the philosopher Alain Laurent3 – who himself drew on the title of the well-known book by epistemologist Karl Popper -, were working to undermine, inside and out, the fundamental principles of liberal civilization. The latter was now increasingly faced with a danger of a new kind: the “new PC”, as Alain Laurent aptly stated, that is to say, no longer the dying Communist Party – or “Parti communiste” (PC) in French -, but political correctness…

Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall came the 2008 financial crisis. Under the pretext of avoiding the bankruptcy of banks and putting forward the need to save the economy, states around the world embarked on immense economic stimulus plans, widening public deficits like never before and causing the explosion in public debts. The global financial crisis thus led to another crisis: that of government debt. Politicians on the right as on the left (Sarkozy in France, Obama in the United States) adopted economic policies largely based upon Keynesian principles, thus seemingly conferring on the author of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money a renewed topicality. Besides, Barack Obama, who is often said to have been a “progressive”, was in fact drawing on the old tradition of Big Government, to which had belonged an F.D. Roosevelt or a J.F. Kennedy. Unanimously decried in Europe – which remains the case today -, Reagan had endeavoured, during the eight years of his presidency, to deregulate the economy, which had become – even in the United States! – ever more bureaucratized under the growing weight of the state. Acclaimed by all in the Old Continent, Obama tried, on the contrary, during his two terms, to restore the primacy of the state over the individual. Freed economically from the yoke of the state under Reagan, individuals will in fact have seen their freedoms diminish under Obama, in favour of state power. Hence the emergence in 2008-2010 of the Tea Party movement in the United States, a phenomenon that remains poorly understood by Europeans, and by the French in particular.

The Covid-19 crisis: an indicator of the topicality of the fight between liberals and statists

November 2019: a new Coronavirus, called Covid-19, appears in the city of Wuhan in central China. Raised to the level of a pandemic, the infectious disease is declared, on January 30, 2020, a public health emergency of international scope by the WHO. With a few notable exceptions, countries have carried out one after another lockdown policies, suspending society’s usual business as well as economic activity.

In some countries, the crisis seems to have become an opportunity to justify growing authoritarianism. Thus, on March 30, the Hungarian Parliament, where Viktor Orbán’s party, the Fidesz, predominantly sits, passed a law giving the president full powers for an unlimited period of time. In the Philippines, the Congress also passed a law giving President Rodrigo Duterte extraordinary powers, and allocating $ 5.4 billion to respond to the health crisis4. These authoritarian excesses of power are in fact not so surprising when we think that the latter president seems to have compared the constitution of his country to “a scrap of toilet paper”, as reported by a Philippine society for the defence of human rights5? In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced the state of emergency, imposing curfews and censoring “false” information about Covid-19.

As the investigative journalist Selam Gebrekidan has rightly pointed out, if the pandemic “may be a boon to governments with an autocratic bent, […] robust democracies are also using the pandemic to expand their power”6. In France for example, drawing on the measures taken in countries such as Italy, Emmanuel Macron decided to impose, by means of a decree dated March 16, 2020, restrictions on travelling within the national territory, forcing citizens to have to print a “certificate of derogatory travel” when going to the grocery store, going for a walk just outside their homes, or going to work when it is not possible for them to telecommute. Fines of 135 euros are imposed on citizens failing to present authorities with the certificate in question. Admittedly, this situation is temporary: but can we be absolutely sure that the abdication by citizens of a significant part of their rights and freedoms in the name of a health ideal (certainly praiseworthy in itself) will have no consequences for the future? All the more so as governments, especially in France, are encouraged by a myriad of political professionals and so-called experts to go even further along the path of maximum state control. On the economic front, the state is seeking to buy social peace by promising individuals and businesses a gigantic recovery plan of more than 100 billion euros.

Thus, in the face of the crisis, “sovereignist” adulators of the “republican” state, such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement in France, are demanding a new “patriotic” fervour, notably at the industrial level, the former Minister of the Interior under French Prime Minister Jospin calling for the establishment of a “government of public safety” (Le Figaro, April 9, 2020).

As for political extremes, they are not to be outdone: in fact, beyond their apparent differences, both the far left and the far right still share the same hatred for globalization and the market, which they hold responsible for the sanitary crisis. “We are asking for a united, social and environmental relocation: otherwise the far right will appropriate this topic,” said Aurélie Trouvé, co-president of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens – Attac – (Le Monde, April 9, 2020). In an interview given to the French weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles, Marine Le Pen considers (as we would have expected) that the real culprit of this crisis is none other than the “globalized ultraliberal model”7: “The model”, she goes on to say, which is responsible for “the disappearance of borders, of nation states, of strategic states” and for “the running of the world dominated by the invisible hand of the market.8” So, according to this reasoning, crises are most likely to be avoided if we establish state control as much as possible. Has Marine Le Pen forgotten about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 … whose responsibility can scarcely be attributed to the “market” and to “globalization”…

In fact, it is because we still tend to believe in the alleged “benefits” of collectivism and statism that we have not been able to be sufficiently responsible in anticipating and managing the health crisis: in a society where the state acts quickly and well, but only within the limits of the power it was granted, the state along with the players of society are naturally led to show greater responsibility in their choices, their anticipations and their actions. It is in societies where statehood is strongest that irresponsibility, too, is strongest.

What consequences should we fear given the action taken by most states to seek to curb the Covid-19 crisis? In The Economist of March 28, 2020, one can read the following apt comments: “The scale of the response makes covid-19 more like a war or the Depression. And here the record suggests that crises lead to a permanently bigger state with many more powers and responsibilities and the taxes to pay for them”.

“Coronavirus delights all enemies of freedom! “, Mario Vargas Llosa also rightly observes (Le Point, April 9, 2020).

In the aftermath of Emmanuel Macron’s election as President of the French Republic, Guy Sorman wrote9 that the old right-left split was disappearing, giving way to a new dividing line between supporters of “open society” (like Emmanuel Macron ) and “closed society” (such as Marine Le Pen). Guy Sorman was, in my opinion, both right and wrong. He was right in the sense that the right-left split is in reality, and has even always been a false divide: we have indeed seen for decades, in our countries, right-wing leaders actually applying policies rather on the left (as in the case of the Chirac presidency); and, in the end, left-wing and right-wing political leaders share without distinction the same idolatry of the state. The true dividing line separates, as Karl Popper had already said, “open societies”, based on democratic and liberal capitalism, and “closed societies”, which are its negation. But Guy Sorman was also retrospectively wrong in my view: given the decisions made by the states, whether authoritarian or not, to face the current health crisis, and in view of the speeches and debates the crisis has given rise to, we can see that the opposition between liberals on the one hand, and collectivists or statists on the other, remains the great economic, political and philosophical division that still persists in our time. It is not at all true, contrary to what some have claimed, that we would have fully converted to liberal capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of socialist or communist regimes. Those who assert such a falsehood in France, a country where public spending accounts for 56% of GDP, generally convey the lie that we would live in an “ultraliberal” system. The system is perhaps “ultraliberal” seen from their own socialist or statist perspective; but if one agrees to look at the real economic situation of the country, one realizes that we live in fact in a society which is certainly not “ultraliberal” at all, but which is still on the contrary largely state-dominated. The distinction between “liberals” and “statists” therefore regains its full relevance in the present circumstances. This distinction had in fact never really lost its topicality, and it is rather recent events that have brought this topicality back to light.

We must therefore try to replace the Covid-19 crisis, and the economic crisis which will ensue, in the more general context of this struggle between liberal capitalism on the one hand, and social collectivism and statism on the other. (Let us not forget that the latter often tend to appear nowadays in the guise of the defence for “national sovereignty”, a theme which has become increasingly popular over the last few years). We must also ponder the following question: in what civilization do we really wish to live? Do we want to follow the difficult and demanding path of individual freedom and responsibility? Or do we want to continue to move forward, at our own risk, along this “new road to serfdom”?

Matthieu Creson

Teacher, researcher living in Paris, France; literature, philosophy, art history and business graduate

1 Since this article was originally published in French, the French term libéral was used, which is most often translated into English as “conservative”. Indeed, the English word “liberal” often refers to the exact opposite of the French word libéral. However, I chose not to use the word “conservative” in this translation, but rather the word “liberal”. As Alain Laurent wrote in his book Le Libéralisme américain : histoire d’un détournement (2006), the terms “liberal” or “liberalism” have in fact been appropriated by the left in the United States. This, however, should not lead us to renounce using these terms. And Friedrich Hayek himself did not accept the term “conservative” – see his postscript to Constitution of liberty (1960), titled “Why I am not a conservative”.

2 See the English translation of the book: Jean-François Revel, Last Exit to Utopia, the survival of socialism in a post-Soviet era. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. Tranlated by Diarmid V. C. Cammell.

3 Alain Laurent, La Société ouverte et ses nouveaux ennemis. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2008.

4 International New York Times, April 1, 2020.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 https://www.valeursactuelles.com/clubvaleurs/politique/interview-marine-le-pen-le-gouvernement-est-le-plus-gros-pourvoyeur-de-fake-news-depuis-le-debut-de-cette-crise-117518

8 Ibid.

9 https://www.city-journal.org/html/new-political-spectrum-15155.html

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