GOP Must Heed Hayek's Warning

Despite a reviving economy, war successes, and continued high-approval ratings for President Bush, many Republicans are feeling uneasy. They are concerned not with losing the next election, but given the Republican-approved spending spree in Washington, with losing their party’s soul on the basic issue of the size of government.

Many feel that the party must return to its core principles, and it is therefore fortuitous that this year marks the 60th anniversary of Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, one of the greatest critiques ever written on the ills of big government.

Recalling Hayek’s masterpiece is especially timely as President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress preside over a record expansion of government spending.

According to a Heritage Foundation analysis, between 2001 and 2004 total discretionary federal spending skyrocketed by 39%. The common perception that much of this increase is due to higher wartime defense costs is false. In just fiscal year 2002-03 alone, non-defense federal spending increased by a whopping 18.6%.

Aside from the green-eye-shade issue of creating massive budget deficits, the most insidious problem created by greatly increasing federal spending is the consequent expansion of government control and intervention in the lives of citizens.

For example, President Bush wants the institution of marriage in America to be strong. However, in order to achieve this laudable goal Mr. Bush has proposed a $1.5 billion federal program to strengthen people’s marriages. Under his proposal, federal tax dollars would go to training programs to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain healthy marriages. Yet, while pursuing this seemingly noble end, Mr. Bush seems to have forgotten why his means–an ever-expanding big government–is fraught with dangers.

In the Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek warns that when government seeks to impose specific effects on people, “It must, of necessity, take sides, impose its valuations upon people and, instead of assisting them in the advancement of their own ends, choose the ends for them.”

The result is, says Hayek, “As soon as the effects of the particular law are foreseen at the time the law is made, it ceases to be a mere instrument to be used by the people and becomes instead an instrument of the lawgiver upon the people for his own ends.” In other words, when big government rather than individuals dictates ends and choices, individuals lose freedom.

Hayek further observes, “that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people.” Although it may take generations, he says, “even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine that spirit.” One can see such a transformation occurring in the American people. From a people that once demanded “give me liberty or give me death,” the first demand of many present-day Americans to any perceived problem is “give me a government program.”

When Hayek wrote his book, the great totalitarian ideologies of Nazism, Communism and fascism were violently vying for world supremacy. Years later, however, he emphasized that his warnings applied just as much to the policies, for instance, of Britain’s Labor Party governments.

Indeed, Hayek noted, “the advocacy of policies which in the long run cannot be reconciled with the preservation of free society is no longer a party matter.” Given the increasing symmetry between Republican and Democratic politicians when it comes to the overall size of government, he was certainly prescient.

Republicans, therefore, must return to their first principles of defending freedom on all fronts. Defending freedom means not only fighting enemies abroad, but also limiting the scope and power of government at home. As Hayek concludes, “Without a revised conception of our social aims, we are likely to drift in the same direction in which outright socialism would merely have carried us a little faster.”