Chapter Ten: Why the Worst Get on Top

This chapter covers why the "worst elements" seem to rise to the top as collectivism is implemented in real-world situations. Hayek argues that this is not freakish coincidence but part of the system. He argues that it is a mix of both the personalities that are attracted to collectivism and the circumstances that will allow them to collect a massive following.

A personal anecdote

A personal anecdote about collectivist-supporting personalities:

I had a few brushes with "enthusiastic collectivists" at MIT in the 1970’s -- or, as they were known at the time the MIT Socialist Club. The most notable was when the Anti-War Riot happened in the spring of 1973, and a student strike followed. This was a time when these socialists had a moment in the sun -- the students were suddenly and deeply upset with the administration for bringing riot police on campus and for the violence they brought with them. The students were looking for answers, and willing to listen to radical answers. The socialists moment in the sun then was brief -- about twenty minutes. The students listened, decided they had nothing relevant to say, and moved on.

Part of the reason for the quick move-on was a personality trait that all members of the MIT Socialist Club seemed to share quite openly: They were all very openly mean-spirited -- they sneered at alternative viewpoints and talked as if they were deeply envious of other people’s accomplishments. They were quite open about this because I picked up on it within minutes of interacting with them, and I'm quite slow to make judgments about other people.

At the time I thought it was a fluke -- something local to this group of six, or so, people -- and I didn't deal with enthusiastic collectivists often, so I didn't think much more about it.

But this year, 2010, I got into an on-and-off on-line discussion with another enthusiastic collectivist. Yes, his ideas were as wacky as those of the 70's socialists -- no surprise there. What was surprising was he turned out to be just as mean-spirited and envious of other people's accomplishments. In his mind he was being anti-greed and pro-worker, but the more he talked the more I was seeing a person who was both enthusiastically anti-greed and enthusiastically pro-monotony -- he wanted everyone to have the same... no matter what those everyones themselves wanted.

This has been an eye-opener, and it reveals that enthusiastically supporting collectivism has some deep roots in a particular style of instinctive thinking. It seems to have roots in tribal us-them thinking and the importance of sharing good fortune -- very similar to the roots of cult thinking. ...most interesting.

And also most interesting that Hayek picked up on this personality trait, as well. It's kind of creepy reading about Hayek describing collectivists, and having a real live one confirm Hayek's descriptions real time!

The moral of this is that while collectivism as a viable social experiment may have died with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the thinking that powered it is still alive, well, kicking, and looking for new outlets. The feeling that another person's display of personal achievement is wrong is at the root of the emotion that powered collectivism. That emotion, which seems to be a variant of envy, is often expressed as saying that some other person is being greedy.

The other interesting thing that came out of the contemporary discussion was this enthusiastic collectivist's blithe dismissal of rule of law. Again, shades of Hayek. The evolution that followed from this was how important raw force was in this enthusiastic collectivist's calculus, and how important being secret and sneaky was. From watching his thinking as we discussed issues such as Cuba (his choice for the best contemporary workers' paradise) and its relations with the US, it was clear how both Hitler and Stalin could get away with being such ruthless leaders in their day. They had the full support of their respective enthusiastic collectivist supporters in being ruthless, secret, and sneaky. ...Oh My!

And again, the spooky part is the root thinking underneath this support of collectivism is not dead. It's there because in Neolithic Village times it contributed to community survival. This means that in contemporary times we must still be vigilant.

This kind of thinking may not be good for globalization, or individual freedoms and liberties, or material prosperity for many people, but it's still very much with us.


Back to the book

According to Hayek the phenomenon of hypocrites and thugs running a totalitarian government is not unfortunate historic accident, but inherent to the system. The root of the problem is the same one that makes it impossible to top a collectivist system with a democracy -- for collectivist/totalitarian system to work the top echelon has to make decisions quickly and they must be expedient choices. As Hayek puts it, "The totalitarian will soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure."

He points out that while those longing for a collectivist system may have high virtues, that doesn't mean those running the system will be infused with those same feelings.

Personal insight: The totalitarian gains appeal in the community when the community feels stressed -- when feels it is time for the leadership to take quick action to solve problems. In such a time a leader who says, "Let's talk some more and find out what people really want." is going to be displaced by a leader who says, "I know what we need to do." and convinces many people that he will successfully kick ass and take names to make his saving-the-day program happen. This person is likely to be fanatic, very likely to start out being hypocritical, but not likely to have high ideals.

Another element Hayek points out as being characteristic is that the up-and-coming totalitarian leader will gain more points with a vigorously negative program -- one based on hatred of an enemy or envy of those who are better off. Here he is pointing out the power of resonating with instinctive thinking. Sadly, this is one of those thinking patterns that worked much better in Stone Age village times than it does in a prosperous civilized community. But, fit well with a situation, or not, resonating with instinctive thinking is a powerful leadership tool.

He points out that collectivism always draws strong lines between us and them -- once again resonating with good Stone Age thinking. All that varies from one implementation to the next is who are the "us's" and who are the "them's". Once those are decided, it becomes perfectly OK within the instinctive thinking format to use the wealth of the them's to support the us's in their cause, and once again this supports thuggery at the top. Examples of this in real life are numerous. Here are some that come to mind from other writings I have done:

o The FLDS leadership at YFZ ranch feeling fine about "bleeding the beast" -- meaning having the extra wives in a plural marriage apply for and collect state welfare.

o The North Koreans routinely shaking down surrounding nations with saber-rattling.

o Cuba's leadership feeling just fine with what it can collect from cheap shots it can pull off against the US and other "capitalists".

These are all examples of collectivist us-them thinking supporting what would be in other contexts be considered pretty immoral acts.

In sum, while the aspirations of those supporting collectivism can be virtuous, selfless and filled with the best intentions, the successful collectivist leaders, facing the need for success in real world conditions, will not be high minded. They will, instead, be expedient and ultimately base their power and appeal on stoking us-them thinking, and then using them-wealth to sustain the aspiring us-utopia.