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The Road to Animal Farm

You could say I majored in political science because I wanted to understand how the people of Germany could allow the rise of Adolf Hitler. Lesser known figures such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung were even more horrific, in spite of their elocutions of equality and prosperity. In high school, I learned of how the ancient Roman Republic became mired in ruthless dictatorship, moral decay and grinding poverty. Precisely what forces led to such events fascinated me, but high school teachers and textbooks tended to skim through the story rather than explain the causes. The one book that most effectively captured what I was looking for came from an unexpected corner of my high school curriculum: English literature. Animal FarmBanned in all communist nations, “Animal Farm” has been required reading in most American high school curricula for decades. However, as it is separated from history or government classes, and often assigned before students have the intellectual context to understand it, the book is less effective than perhaps intended. This was certainly the case with myself; in the years since my ninth-grade reading of the story, all I could remember was that it had something to do with pigs, and that I despised it. Indeed, it was not until I returned to “Animal Farm” a few days ago that I appreciated its simple, yet powerful message. While it is written to illustrate the transition of the Soviet Union from a people’s rebellion to an authoritarian state, it is a timeless fable of human nature and political power. Democracy has been widely criticized as a form of majority tyranny. While one popular view argues that the rich always win, what we actually find is that, as the middle and lower classes outnumber the wealthy few, socialistic policies tend to place restrictions on the latter and provide entitlements for the rest, leading to economic slowdown and political instability. This creates a vacuum for powerful dictators to take an executive position and establish order. In the story of “Animal Farm,” however, there is no class war—the citizens are guilty of nothing more than naïve ignorance. Their intentions are honest, they remain willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and there are no demands for redistributive policies or interest group favors. George Orwell’s villain, a pig named Napoleon, is a product more of sheer opportunity than populist impulse. Many would read Napoleon as a warning against unethical leadership. That’s only part of the story. More importantly, Orwell is suggesting that corruption is an inevitable consequence of political power, and especially so when the people are uneducated and overly trusting of the state. In my latest reading of the tale, I was reminded of Friedrich Hayek’s, “The Road to Serfdom,” published just one year prior to Animal Farm. Unsurprisingly, given that they were written during WWII, both books explore the gradual evolution of free societies into tyrannical dictatorships. As a Nobel-Prize winning economist, Hayek spends much of his book explaining the economic influences at work in socialist/fascist systems. But one chapter seems to capture precisely the point that “Animal Farm” illustrates. In a chapter titled “Why the Worst Get on Top,” Hayek insightfully notes that “the old socialist parties were inhibited by their democratic ideals; they did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task.” It is one thing to place demands upon the state to pursue a course of moral action. It is another thing to execute a level of force necessary to achieve it. Those willing to use such force are often less wedded to the original moral standard. Thus, in Hayek’s telling, the same state powers that are established by innocent citizens are easily seized by corrupt politicians for other objectives. One is reminded of a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson that “a government powerful enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.” As I wrote in a recent article in Religion & Liberty, every society has a natural moral impulse, which it tends to channel through the state—the one social institution that seems capable of swift and certain change. But there is no limit to the immoralities and inconveniences that the state may be actuated against, and we should remember that authority always changes hands. Every generation should be reminded of this truth. Both Orwell and Hayek spent their lives warning us that a lack of principled education and political prudence are the paving stones toward an enslaved society. The tyranny of tomorrow begins with the freedoms we concede today, even with the purest intentions.