Writing in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Hoover fellow Fouad Ajami has just brought us one of the wisest articles yet on the tumult in the Middle East: “The Road to Serfdom and the Arab Revolt.” As the headline suggests, Ajami starts by citing one of the great economists of the 20th century, F.A. Hayek, author of “The Road to Serfdom.” Hayek’s mighty contribution was to explain in brilliant and persuasive detail how economic and political liberty are inextricably intertwined. When the state controls economic choices, when government diktats, programs and subsidies curtail individual options and warp the information and latitude entailed in free pricing in free markets, the most profound cost — and it is vast — is a loss of the freedom necessary both to satisfy the soul and allow economies to thrive.
Ajami does an exquisite job of applying Hayek’s insights to explain the autocratic devil’s deals, wrecked economies and massive discontent in the Middle East. He writes: “The sad truth of Arab social and economic development is that the free-market reforms and economic liberalization that remade East Asia and Latin America bypassed the Arab world… True wisdom, and an end to their road to serfdom will only come when the Arab people make the connection between economic and political liberty.”
How right he is. And reading his article, I was struck – not for the first time– by how far from that wisdom the politics of America has strayed. In Washington, as the haggling goes on over debts and deficits of titanic dimensions, the focus is over and over on the financial cost. That cost is horrific, to be sure. But the real cost here involves the individual freedom that has been eaten away, traded away, politicked away, in exchange for government programs promising endless relief from the risks, costs, effort and responsibilities of adult life. What ails the American economy right now is no great mystery. The past decade brought an accelerating process of smothering the markets; of government proposing to fix government-generated problems, such as the housing market debacle, or the medical cost mess, with yet more government fixes — further curtailing the freedom of Americans to adapt, create and come up with their own wealth-generating decisions about trade-offs in the use of resources.
There are plenty of Americans who know this, or who sense where the real problem lies. Thus the Tea Party, the 2010 congressional turnover, the anger at government which I saw a few weeks ago when I dropped by a small-town Town Hall meeting. There are universal principles at work here. Fouad Ajami applies these principles beautifully in his diagnosis of the Arab Revolt. But his wisdom serves also as a reminder that Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” was a warning to the West. It bears remembering and re-reading and reapplying, now more than ever.