Truth in a Totalitarian State

An Essay on The End of Truth from F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.”

“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” ― Adolf Hitler

The author is a self-declared right-wing anarchist and enthusiast of the Austrian School of economics. You can follow him on Twitter @chillywillers. That’s all we’ve got on him; The rest is a mystery.

Totalitarian states are necessarily anti-truth. The argument’s strength pertains to the operations leading towards the institution of the totalitarian state as such, as opposed to particular leaders at particular times and places. At first glance, it may appear that the success of the social plan requires nothing more than broad agreement on goals. However, due to the nature of central planning, a broad agreement must also exist regarding the evidence used to justify the measures employed. Such consensus can only be maintained by the control of information, suppression of dissent, invasion of non-political areas of life, and ultimately the destruction of truth and reason. 

Maintaining the social plan’s acceptance is achieved by coercing or convincing the people to believe in its goals. The latter is essential to the long-run success of a planned economy and relies on effective propaganda. Propaganda exists in every society, but it is categorically different in a totalitarian state because of the absence of competing ideas. In a free society, propagandists have no assurance their assertions will take hold, but the propaganda monopolist does not share this difficulty. In a free society, it may be the case that from time to time, leaders of industry dominate the attention of the people, academia, or religious institutions; however, differences between and within these competing outlets ensure that their influence captures a majority for only a short time. Conversely, under totalitarianism, these institutions are increasingly beholden to the state. 

A second distinction is that totalitarian propaganda destroys morality and truth. This distinction becomes apparent when we consider that totalitarian propaganda must extend beyond questions of value to questions of fact. Justifying the importance of the social plan is achieved by demonstrating the connections between means and ends. The social program requires imposing a universal moral code that does not exist in a free society. The planner may not be aware of this necessity, or may be unable to plan the universal moral code because his decisions aim to resolve conflicts as they arise spontaneously. The planner is tasked with making decisions without the assistance of a definite moral code and finding some way to justify them to the people. The planner must announce some theories which are likely to appeal to the greater part of the people. 

The necessity of suppressing dissent derives from the nature of the social plan. Since most of the social project details are never explicitly stated, acceptance of the social plan increasingly becomes equivalent to the approval of every act of the planner. It follows that the schools, media, etc., must abandon truth and be directed to support the “facts” that justify the planner’s social plan. In a totalitarian state, control must necessarily extend into non-political areas of life. This is an outgrowth of how the social project gains acceptance in the economic sphere. We have seen the merit of an activity is to be judged by the extent to which it accords with prevailing theories. And at the root of all these theories is the idea that collective effort toward goals is superior to individualism’s chaos.

At this point, truth is no longer something to be discovered. Instead, it is imposed from above and subject to change to accommodate the inevitable evolution of the social plan. Arguably, in any case, what the masses regard as truth is at all times informed by several destructive ideologies such as commercialism, so there is no harm in guiding them in a more high-minded direction. While it is true that larger segments of people are prone to accept prevailing ideologies uncritically, it is quite different from saying we should reduce the number of doctrines to one. This misunderstands reason’s growth, which occurs through the interaction of individuals with diverse knowledge and values. A contradiction arises because while planning begins with rationality as its highest ideal, it can only succeed by erecting boundaries around thought and thus set in motion the decline of reason.


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