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Liberty for Whom?

James Kwak: Nietzsche would no doubt be horrified by most aspects of contemporary American society, but that might give him some comfort.

I feel like I should have something deep and original to say about Corey Robin’s fascinating article on nineteenth-century European culture, Nietzsche, and the economic philosophy of Friedrich Hayek. In addition to the things I’m better known for, I studied European intellectual history at Berkeley, with Martin Jay no less, and I’m pretty sure Nietzsche figured somewhat prominently in my orals. But Robin has far surpassed my understanding of Nietzsche, which is almost twenty years old, anyway.

The story, in very simplified form, goes like this. For Nietzsche, and for other cultural elitists of late-nineteenth-century Europe, both the rise of the bourgeoisie and the specter of the working class were bad things—the former for its mindless materialism, the latter for its egalitarian ideals, which threatened to drown the exceptional man among the masses. One set of Nietzsche’s descendants was the political theorists like Carl Schmitt, who “imagined political artists of great novelty and originality forcing their way through or past the filtering constraints of everyday life.” Another, which Robin focuses on in this article, is the “Austrian” school of economics led by Friedrich Hayek.

People often like to think of the Austrians as advocates of liberty, both for its Economics 101 properties (free choice in free markets, under certain assumptions, maximizes societal welfare) and its moral properties. Robin ties Hayek’s conception of liberty, however, back to Nietzche’s. Hayek cared about liberty for ultimately elitist reasons: liberty is not an end in itself, but a condition that enables the select few to make the world a better place. In his words, “The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.” And those select few are likely to be the rich, for only they have the requisite time and freedom from material concerns: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

This idea is obviously echoed in Ayn Rand’s novels, which celebrate the individual genius standing out against the backdrop of collectivist mediocrity. It has also trickled into the contemporary conservative worship of the ultra-rich. The phrase today is “job creators” (whatever that means), but it has the same moralistic overtones as in Nietzsche and Hayek—a class of people who are better than the rest of us, on whom we depend for our salvation and prosperity, and whom we should not presume to question or constrain through, say, safety regulation or higher taxes (“penalizing success,” in the jargon).

I used to say that most Americans voted against their class interests because they thought they would one day be in the upper class: there’s some poll statistic floating around according to which X percent of Americans think they will one day be in the top 1 percent by income, where X is some high number like 40 or 45. But today, five years after the financial crisis, with median income below where it was fifteen years ago and social mobility at developing-world levels, I can’t imagine many people really believe that vast riches are in their future. An alternative explanation is that many Americans just think the rich are better than they are and that it’s wrong to question your betters. (This is not inconsistent with George Lakoff’s model of the Strict Father and a hierarchical universe as the governing principle of modern conservative ideology.) Nietzsche would no doubt be horrified by most aspects of contemporary American society, but that might give him some comfort.

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