In the trajectory laid out by F.A. Hayek in his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, dictatorship is the end game of a period of immense government failure. The ruling class begins by tinkering with the normal function of markets and society with some high goal in mind (think: virus eradication) and the results are the opposite of what is intended. The crisis gets worse but the public becomes more incredulous. At this point, there is a choice to make: continue with the supposed inefficiencies of democracy or move to full-on dictatorship.
It’s not hard to know where Hayek got the idea. After the onset of the Great Depression, the notion of democracy fell into widespread disrepute in elite circles. Reading high-end material from the period you gain a quick realization that everyone agreed that freedom and democracy really have seen their day. They are ill-suited to the planning needs of the day, which require power from the top and expertise throughout the administrative bureaucracy.
The word fascism was not always unpopular. In 1933-ish, books on the planned society included adoring chapters on the subject. The most fashionable dictator at the time was Benito Mussolini, who was celebrated in the most respected news sources including the New York Times. The liberals of the time were aghast at the trends but greatly outnumbered. The intellectuals knew exactly what they needed to get through the crisis. They wanted a dictator.
Ah but we’ve come such a long way since then, right? Not so much. A few minutes ago, I read a big editorial in the Washington Post by Thomas Geoghegan that just appeared last week. The purpose of his editorial is to inveigh against the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia vs. EPA. This was an amazing decision because it deals with a topic that should have been prominent in court deliberations for 100 years. It takes on the administrative state directly and says outright that such a beast is nowhere in the Constitution and yet it makes law daily. It is the real ruler of the country.
The decision was glorious because it gives hope. So too the Trump-era executive order on Schedule F that would reclassify many federal employees so that they are subject to at-will employment rather than enjoy unmitigated lifetime power. After Brownstone highlighted many of these trends, the opposition press went into massive overdrive in defense of the administrative state. We have to have it because democracy is so inefficient!
The language in Geoghegan’s essay is a perfect mirroring of what was everywhere in the early 1930s:
The court’s conservative majority is out to shrink the administrative state in favor of decision-making by Congress, but it’s a Congress incapable of deciding much at all. Or at least the Senate is incapable — and the House is ineffective without the Senate. The inaction may have been survivable in the past, when Congress was merely too dysfunctional to deal adequately with health care, labor law or many other issues….This is true for any parliamentary body in a republic — it is incapable of turning on a dime to educate itself and take emergency actions on technical or scientific questions.
He reviews the history to show that all elite circles came to believe in a “mild species of dictatorship.” Keep in mind, he says this not as criticism but as praise! And he puts a fine point on it too:
If the planet continues to burn, while this virus or a new one continues to ravage it, we will need a far more flexible Constitution with an administrative state that may need to be larger, not smaller, than the one that the court is trying to shrink.
Alarmed by climate change, even a champion of Congress like Biden is beginning to sour on the place. In a speech Wednesday, he called the warming climate a “clear and present danger” and vowed to take action. He has so far stopped short of formally declaring a climate emergency, but thanks to an active court and an inactive Congress, we may have no alternative but “a mild species of dictatorship.”
Hmmm, here we go. I’m glad that I took pains to write an article making the case against dictatorship. It is more necessary now than ever. Democracy has plenty of problems but at least it allows criticism, challenge, and a change of course when things go wrong. Public opinion under such a system has some measure of influence. It enables peaceful change.
Dictatorship does not allow any of this. State managers keep repeating the same errors without admitting that they are errors. Public opinion does not have influence over methods or outcomes. And because dictatorship is not just about strongmen at the top but rather massive bureaucracies invading every possible area of life, a lack of real accountability becomes a pervasive feature.
This is the huge problem with every plan to achieve some preset social, economic, cultural, or scientific outcome. What happens if it does not work? Who will pay the price? The answer is: no one. Not only that: there will be a reluctance ever to admit that any planned solution failed. It will be the same with “climate change” as it was with Covid. The bureaucracies will scramble to pass the blame onto someone else and then quickly change the subject.
This is what is going on with inflation right now. You might think it would be a simple issue: discover what is causing it and then fix that using rational tools. Instead, we are given an immense fog of blather such that no one knows anything for sure other than the reality of pervasive monetary debasement. The excuses are all over the place but the fix is elusive. Here is the essence of how politics works under the dictatorship of the administrative state: no one is held responsible for bad outcomes and therefore no one has any reason to change direction.
Maybe it strikes readers as preposterous that at this late stage in history we would need to make a strong case against dictatorship. But with history as our guide, we should not be so presumptuous. A national crisis can generate all the conditions necessary for an end to freedom and democracy, as we should have learned in the interwar period. Such a crisis is upon us now, and many high-end intellectuals are screaming for the administrative state to obtain more power, and to stop the courts that are becoming incredulous toward their extra-constitutional power.
The great debate between democracy and dictatorship, between freedom and despotism, between a government by the people and a government imposed upon the people is here at last. I’m glad for the clarification of terms. They are saying the quiet part out loud: they want dictatorship. All partisans of freedom should similarly stand up and say the loud part even louder: we tried life without freedom and found it intolerable. We are never going back.