Review: The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom (Fiftieth Anniversary edition), F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 (originally published in 1944, link is to the 2007 Definitive Edition).

Summary: An argument that collectivist, planned economies lead to the erosion of individual liberties, the rule of law, and result in the rise of totalitarian governments.

It is probably not insignificant that F. A. Hayek, an economist who grew up and was educated in Austria, emigrated to England in 1938 and wrote this work during World War Two. He later moved to the United States. This book, less a work on economics than political philosophy, is an argument for the classic (not contemporary) liberal ideal that emphasized the rights and initiative of the individual, a limited role for government, a relatively unrestrained marketplace, and the rule of law. His basic argument is that the shift he was seeing from this liberal ideal to socialist, planned economies in England reflected the same course that he witnessed in the rise of National Socialism in Nazi Germany and Communism in the Stalinist Russia.

He argues that planned economies can never plan for all the variables of the marketplace, that those who buy and sell goods and services can more nimbly respond to. Planning undercuts the initiative of the individual and leads to increasingly authoritarian forms of government, required to enforce the efforts needed toward economic plans. Instead of seeking equality in liberty, the collectivist system achieves equality through restraint and servitude. These increasing coercive efforts result in the arbitrary use of authority rather than the rule of law. Paradoxically, even the poor are less free under such a system.

The question is who ultimately occupies the role of planners. Hayek offers a telling critique of the idea of the “common good,” which often remains undefined. And often, this happens to be the worst among us, those who are not constrained by moral restraints or concerns about truth. Perhaps the most chilling chapter in this work is the one titled, “The End of Truth,” reminding one of the “Post-truth era” in which we live. Authoritarian rulers develop their own myths to justify their rise to power and rule. Instead, all the channels used to spread knowledge are pressed into service to “strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the authority” (p. 175).

Hayek does allow a role for government in a capitalist economy, not in restricting trade but in regulating methods of legal production, sanitary and safe practices, the protection of environmental resources, and preventing fraud. He also allows a basic level of economic and health security as a concern of government.

It strikes me that Hayek’s fears of planned economies have not been realized in the socialist countries of Europe. My own sense is that what has occurred instead is an enlarged role of government to protect us from recessions, economic cycles, the consequences of shifts in the marketplace, and even personal misfortunes. This diminishment of the individual and dependency does leave us vulnerable to Hayek’s feared authoritarianism and the eclipse of the rule of law.

What troubles me in Hayek’s liberal ideal of individual liberty is that such systems are often blind to the inequities baked into the system, protecting individual liberty for only some who are citizens. Furthermore, these systemic inequities leave capitalist economies vulnerable to being supplanted by more planned economies that offer a vision of equality for the disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, Hayek’s critique of “planning,” of the rise of coercion, of the justification of means to achieve ends, the rise of authority and the suspension of rule of law, and the jettisoning of truth are all important to consider in our day. Hayek’s concern in looking at Nazi Germany was the recognition that it could happen in socialist England. While I suspect that there are more variant roads to totalitarian, Hayek’s recognition of the important elements of liberal democracy are worth attending to, as is the recognition that should we neglect these elements, it can happen here as well.

One thought on “Review: The Road to Serfdom

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2022 | Bob on Books

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