Playing the role of book critic in 1944, George Orwell — that “Trotskyist with big feet” as H.G. Wells once called him — reveals his size 13 footprints to be perfectly in step with populists of today, as he attempts to escape the troubles of socialism by taking refuge in democracy.
Reflecting upon F.A. Hayek’s call for unfettered capitalist competition in The Road to Serfdom, Orwell writes:
“The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led... the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment...”
Orwell’s plausible assessment of majority opinion aside, could it not also be said that the trouble with democratic elections is that somebody wins them? Which is worse for the losers: the free competition of the market or the outcomes of democratic elections? Which of the two is truly more dog-eat-dog? Which of the two leads to more centralized, monopoly power — democracy or economic liberty?
Let us be honest: George Orwell is not read today for his economic insights. No, he is read for his keen moral instincts and his intellectual integrity — what Christopher Hitchens highlights as Orwell’s “power of facing unpleasant facts” — and in his review of The Road to Serfdom, Orwell stays true to form.
Taking Hayek seriously, Orwell is faced with the unpleasant fact that socialism is so often married to and marred by collectivism and elite control, saying:
“In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.”
Though Orwell’s honesty and instincts should be applauded here, I believe there is still some trouble afoot. Once again, in trying to save socialism, he takes refuge in the shade of his beloved democratic ideal. Orwell seems to be making this wager: maybe, if socialism is infused with democracy, we can avoid the tyranny of collectivism!
But is democracy truly up to the task? Haven't democracies always evolved into that very same “tyrannical minority” — an unelected ruling elite — carrying out their own conceits at the expense of the very people they claim to represent?
Ironically enough, Orwell helps provide us with an answer in the very same review. Continuing the quote from above about “free capitalism” leading to monopoly (emphasis mine):
“...since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.”
Over 75 years have passed since Orwell made this prediction, and he has been proven right. “Popular opinion” has indeed had its say and demanded more “State regimentation.” Accordingly, we have drifted more and more towards socialism and government rule by an unelected managerial elite — all under the banner of democracy and the will of people.
No one should be surprised by this. If there was ever an iron rule of politics, it is that all forms of government tend towards oligarchy, the rule of the few. Not even democracy is immune from this tendency.
In fact, democracy has never lived up to its ideal of protecting individual liberty and the common man from the power elite. As H.L. Mencken said of democracy and its relation to liberty in 1925:
“Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and everyone knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter. A democratic state may profess to venerate the name, and even pass laws making it officially sacred, but it simply cannot tolerate the thing. In order to keep any coherence in the governmental process, to prevent the wildest anarchy in thought and act, the government must put limits upon the free play of opinion. In part, it can reach that end by mere propaganda, by the bald force of its authority – that is, by making certain doctrines officially infamous. But in part it must resort to force, i.e., to law... At least ninety-five Americans out of every 100 believe that this process is honest and even laudable; it is practically impossible to convince them that there is anything evil in it. In other words, they cannot grasp the concept of liberty.”
Even the most ardent believer in that old democratic line, "we are the government", cannot seriously suggest we are literally the government. Even those who see the government as a "social club," a "social contract," or some mystical representation of "the people’s will," must admit the club needs an executive committee, the contract needs drafters and enforcers, and the will of people needs the will of strong leaders.
Yet, such democratic doublespeak remains a crucial propaganda tool used by the modern ruling elite to apologize for their predations, allowing them to act as tyrants while calling themselves ‘servants’ of the people. Even if not literally true, the people still fall for these language games because the people want them to be true. It is a trick of language used by wolves and sheep alike, giving the wolves an excuse for their predation and the sheep a reason for their fleecing — a way for the people to render their own chains while claiming to give themselves the reins.
George Orwell’s wager on democracy appears to have left him unlucky. He should have taken Hayek’s claim more seriously, that:
“By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it.”
Democracy, it appears, isn’t the refuge Orwell thought it would be. Maybe, he should have fallen in love with individual liberty instead.
Joey Clark is a native Alabamian and currently, the host of the radio program News and Views on News Talk 93.1 FM WACV out of Montgomery, AL M-F 9 am-12 noon. His column appears every Tuesday in 1819 News. To contact Joey for media or speaking appearances as well as any feedback please email email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819news.com.