In his final book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Freidrich von Hayek wrote that: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”.
Few people are more in need of one of Hayek’s lessons than western politicians.
Nearly two and half years ago civil unrest broke out in a number of Middle Eastern countries. An excitable western media, this generation of journalists eager for its own Fall of the Berlin Wall, soon christened it the ‘Arab Spring’.
How misguided this characterisation was quickly became apparent. Whereas the Prague Spring of 1968 had actually been about freedom the ‘Arab Spring’ saw unpleasant secular regimes elbowed aside only to be replaced with at least as unpleasant Islamist regimes.
Every use of the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ became an insult to those Czechs and Slovaks who had risked their lives for freedom. Eventually even the credulous journalists who had coined the phrase stopped using it.
While the regimes in Libya and Egypt quickly collapsed, the one in Syria put up a fight. A civil war broke out and settled into a bloody stalemate. On one side are the relatively secular, bloodthirsty Ba’athists led by Bashar Assad, on the other are the equally bloodthirsty Islamist; Al Qaeda inspired rebels.
There are deeper currents swirling in Syria. Assad and his Shia followers (as well as the non-Muslims who back him fearing the fate of their co-religionists in places like Morsi’s Islamised Egypt) are on opposite sides from the Sunni rebels of a schism that divides the Muslim world as the Thirty Years War did the Christian world.
Behind them, on either side, stand the Muslim world’s great Sunni power, Saudi Arabia; and its leading Shia power, Iran.
Of these two contending sides in the civil war in Islam, it is not immediately clear that we should be celebrating the victory of militant Sunnis. It is even less clear that we ought to be intervening to ensure it. Nevertheless, that is what we now appear to be drifting towards in Syria.
It is happening with a notable lack of enthusiasm in the west. When Britain went to war with Russia in 1854 a song became popular in music halls which went:
We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships,
We’ve got the men,
We’ve got the money too
There is no such excitement now. Jaundiced western electorates seem to have a clearer appreciation than their leaders of the fact that in 2013 we have neither the ships, men, nor money for this adventure.
But politicians in the west have incredible faith in their own power. They are constructivist rationalists in the tradition of Descartes, possessed of the belief that with the judicious application of their power they can construct an optimal social order.
Armed with this belief David Cameron and Barack Obama appear to believe they can topple Assad, replace him with Syria’s version of Herman van Rompuy, and watch the country turn into West Germany.
This was the central fallacy of neo-conservatism. Contrary to Hayek, who believed that successful social orders emerge, neo-cons believed that order could be imposed or consciously constructed.
Despite the evidence of the last few years, our leaders’ Cartesian faith appears unshaken. There is a very real danger that in striving for an unattainable optimal solution they end up landing us with a situation which is worse than we have now.
This article originally appeared at The Commentator