TGIF: Where Socialists Go Wrong

by | Jan 13, 2023

TGIF: Where Socialists Go Wrong

by | Jan 13, 2023

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Since socialism is “in” today — even though many people who say they favor it have no idea what it is — F. A. Hayek’s last book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), is worth checking out. Hayek, the late great Nobel-laureate economist of the Austrian school, begins this way:

This book argues that our civilisation depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation, an order more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism. To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be ‘fruitful, and multiply…’ This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

Socialists take a different view of these matters.

Well, that last sentence is quite an understatement. By socialism Hayek didn’t mean the welfare state or continuing government efforts to manipulate market outcomes according to some notion of equity. That would be interventionism or the mixed economy. No, socialism is the abolition of the market order and its necessary condition, private property: the replacement of free private enterprise with centralized bureaucracy. Let’s cut to the chase:

The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised. As a question of fact, this conflict must be settled by scientific study. Such study shows that, by following the spontaneously generated moral traditions underlying the competitive market order (traditions which do not satisfy the canons or norms of rationality embraced by most socialists), we generate and garner greater knowledge and wealth than could ever be obtained or utilised in a centrally-directed economy whose adherents claim to proceed strictly in accordance with ‘reason’. Thus socialist aims and programmes are factually impossible to achieve or execute; and they also happen, into the bargain as it were, to be logically impossible.

Hayek is saying that once we understand how information about resources is produced and transmitted, we realize that central planners can’t deliver the goods. Socialism can’t keep its (earlier) promises of plenty. (Nor of justice, but that’s for another time.)

Here Hayek extended Ludwig von Mises’s fatal critique of socialism; namely, that

  1. without tradeable private property in the means of production, markets for resources and producers’ goods don’t exist;
  2. without such markets, true prices can’t exist; and
  3. without prices, rational economic calculation is impossible;
  4. therefore, socialism is impossible; it’s “planned chaos.”

By impossible Mises meant that without genuine money prices resulting from free exchanges, the millions of disparate resources and goods could not be accorded a common unit of account, and therefore rational decision-making about what ought to be produced, how much should be produced, and the best methods of production is foreclosed. In a world of scarcity with a growing population, that is bad news indeed.

When the socialists responded to Mises that planners could simulate market prices with computers and bureaucratic trial and error, Hayek said, No, they can’t because what makes true and informative prices happen — producer and consumer free choice in an environment with widely dispersed and ever-changing local and often tacit knowledge about resources and preferences — is beyond any central planner’s reach. In what Hayek called “the great society” — which is marked by extended cooperation with countless strangers rather than the earlier, primitive face-to-face tribal relations — spontaneous coordination via the price system is the name of the game, literally a matter of life and death.

Thus Mises identified the “calculation problem,” and Hayek the complementary “knowledge problem.” The Mises-Hayek tag team was triumphant. When the Soviet Union dismantled itself, the American socialist economist Robert Heilbroner declared, “Mises was right.”

As a result, newer generations of socialists gave up their goal of outproducing the market in favor of the “era of limits.” In effect they said: “It’s good that socialism can’t outproduce the market. Affluence is bad for the planet, so the last thing we should want is for the people of the developing world to achieve our sinfully high living standards. Better that we should produce far less according to the instructions of trusted, saintly, and omniscient bureaucrats, who will distribute the output more caringly than profit-driven impersonal and spontaneous market forces could ever do.”

And would you like to buy a bridge cheap? Back to Hayek.

The demands of socialism are not moral conclusions derived from the traditions that formed the extended order that made civilisation possible. Rather, they endeavour to overthrow these traditions by a rationally designed moral system whose appeal depends on the instinctual appeal of its promised consequences. They assume that, since people had been able to generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts, they must also be able to design an even better and more gratifying system. But if humankind owes its very existence to one particular rule-guided form of conduct of proven effectiveness, it simply does not have the option of choosing another merely for the sake of the apparent pleasantness of its immediately visible effects. The dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival. To follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest.

Many people with whom I share a deep loathing of war and surveillance apparently get a warm cozy feeling from the word socialism. I suspect it’s because they’ve never encountered Hayek’s point, much less examined it. That’s a shame. They have nothing to lose but their self-forged chains.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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