A Short Overview

On “Why the Worst Get on Top” by Friedrich Hayek

Is the problem today Right vs Left or something bigger?

Photo by Andy Feliciotti

Friedrich Hayek argued that when it came to large central planners, most people assumed ‘that the rise of [dictators wasn’t] the necessary consequence of a totalitarian system,’ that benevolent dictators were possible and that just because large central planners in the past devolved into Nazism or Maoism, it wasn’t the case that they had to end up this way.¹ Is this true? If so, the problem isn’t so much about Right vs Left, but Up vs Down (as Kohr warned).

Hayek points out that ‘those who think that it is not the system which we need fear, but the danger that it might be run by bad men, might even be tempted to forestall this danger by seeing that [the large system] is established in time by good men.’² Unfortunately, we learn from St. Augustine that there is no such thing as “bad intention,” and thus all men are “good men” according to themselves. However, this tells us nothing about if the consequences of their actions will ultimately be good for the rest of us.

‘There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce.’³ This is Hayek’s key claim: there seems to be something about large systems that necessarily produces people who exhibit the worst features of humanity. Bad people are not accidental to totalitarian systems but essential (and if bad people occupy a system, there would thus be reason to think the market, State, etc. system is too big).

Hayek notes that bad people can enjoy indulging in ‘the pleasure of being obeyed,’ and generally good people don’t like controlling others, and so good people will find little appeal in totalitarian power.⁴ In power, there is ‘little to attract those who hold moral beliefs of the kind which in the past have guided [good people],’ but on the other hand, ‘there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous.’⁵ For those who enjoy having control, they will be attracted to where the power to control is available.

Problematically, if we can no longer shrink systems due to “The Global Debt Bubble,” and if in fact systems can only grow, then it is likely that increasingly we will be run by bad people who enjoy holding ever-growing power over us. ‘To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior,’ Hayek notes; similarly, the same seems to happen when people act on behalf of a large system.⁶ As we can hide in numbers, so we can hide in power, especially if that power is manifest through a large bureaucracy. If the State today can only grow, then bureaucracies will get all the bigger, and we may feel like a character in a Kafka novel.

Indeed, the more a system grows, the more good that can be accomplished if good people control it, and so there will always be a temptation to keep growing the system for the greater good. And there will be “good reason” to give into that temptation, but as this occurs, the centralized power may become increasingly attractive to bad people and less attractive to good people. Thus, there is an inverse relationship between how much potential good a system can do and how much it attracts good people to realize that potential. The closer the ideal is approached, the more unlikely the ideal is realized.

Could AI be different? Though big systems might attract the worst people, if a computer ran them, surely the systems wouldn’t bring out the worst parts of a computer, right? But wouldn’t the worst programmers be attracted to construct these “benevolent” computer systems? Perhaps not — the question of if AI could solve the problems outlined by Hayek seems to be one of the next great frontiers of inquiry.

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Notes

¹Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 148.

²Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 148–149.

³Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 149.

⁴Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 166.

⁵Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 166.

⁶Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 157.

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