Monday, May 09, 2005

The Good War

Continuing on the same theme from my last post, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes about the myths that arose in the aftermath of World War II, both for good and ill.
Was it ‘‘a noble crusade’’? For the liberation of western Europe, maybe so. Was it a just war? That tricky theological concept has to be weighed against very many injustices. Was it a good war? The phrase itself is dubious. No, there are no good wars, but there are necessary wars, and this was surely one.
Meanwhile, Theodore Dalrymple reminds that Frederick Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom in 1944 in response to the growing belief among intellectual Britons, such as George Orwell, that social collectivism was a necessary good and believed that the wartime experience justified and confirmed their beliefs.
Hayek believed that while intellectuals in modern liberal democracies—those to whom he somewhat contemptuously referred as the professional secondhand dealers in ideas—did not usually have direct access to power, the theories that they diffused among the population ultimately had a profound, even determining, influence upon their society. Intellectuals are of far greater importance than appears at first sight.

Hayek was therefore alarmed at the general acceptance of collectivist arguments—or worse still, assumptions—by British intellectuals of all classes. He had seen the process—or thought he had seen it—before, in the German-speaking world from which he came, and he feared that Britain would likewise slide down the totalitarian path. Moreover, at the time he wrote, the “success” of the two major totalitarian powers in Europe, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, seemed to have justified the belief that a plan was necessary to coordinate human activity toward a consciously chosen goal. For George Orwell, the difference between the two tyrannies was one of ends, not of means: he held up Nazi Germany as an exemplar of economic efficiency resulting from central planning, but he deplored the ends that efficiency accomplished.
Hayek believed that the British intellectuals were being influenced by the experience of World War II in which British society was atypically united because of war.
Collectivist thinking arose, according to Hayek, from impatience, a lack of historical perspective, and an arrogant belief that, because we have made so much technological progress, everything must be susceptible to human control. While we take material advance for granted as soon as it occurs, we consider remaining social problems as unprecedented and anomalous, and we propose solutions that actually make more difficult further progress of the very kind that we have forgotten ever happened. While everyone saw the misery the Great Depression caused, for example, few realized that, even so, living standards actually continued to rise for the majority. If we live entirely in the moment, as if the world were created exactly as we now find it, we are almost bound to propose solutions that bring even worse problems in their wake.

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