Review: The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

(Originally posted on Amazon 3/28/2010)

road to serfdom

F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was written as a warning. As a young man from a prominent Austro-Hungarian academic family (among others, his second cousin was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), he was well aware of the social and economic debates going on in Austria and Germany in the years prior to and immediately after World War I. Indeed, from his perch at the University of Vienna, he was in a unique position to watch the rise of Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and Communism in Russia. Twenty years later in war-torn London, he realized with alarm and disgust that the same collectivist arguments that had spawned totalitarians such as Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, were now being seriously considered in Britain and America — not in the guise of Fascism, but under the more “pleasant” masks of government planning and Socialism. Hayek had already gone through these arguments before, and had sadly seen where they had led. This time he was prepared, and The Road to Serfdom was written as his attempt to refute and turn back the brewing tidal wave of Socialism, and to remind readers just what the consequences of state control of society — both seen and unforeseen — were.

Hayek’s thesis is thus: Any collectivist form of government, whether they be Socialist/Communist or Fascist (for all practical purposes, both are viewed as different aspects of the same thing, because both require strong centralized government power), will always require an ever increasing amount of authority over society in order to survive. Such authority will inevitably erode and destroy individual rights, resulting in increasing oppression and tyranny. It does not matter how “good” or “moral” the people who are doing the centralized planning are, because inevitably those who are in control will either be corrupted by the power they wield, or be supplanted by those who crave power. America and Britain, he feared, were heading down the same road that Germany and Russia had already traveled, and in that direction lay the death of individual liberty.

Hayek backs his theory up with history and logic, and lays out a compelling case for why those who value individualism should look with deep mistrust at any attempt to organize, nationalize, or otherwise collect into government controlled units that which had heretofore been the province of private enterprise and private citizens. Further, he shows how the suppression of individual rights has long been the aim of Socialism and Fascism, extensively quoting both the academics of his day and those of the generations before. The rights that we take for granted — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to travel or own property or even to pursue the career we choose — have always been in the crosshairs of collectivists and central planners. Seen by many social thinkers as a direct threat to their stated aims, individual rights were often categorized as something that must be controlled or suppressed in order to reorganize society along what the planners considered to be more rational, scientific, and equitable lines (with naturally, only the planners themselves allowed to decide what was rational, scientific, and equitable). If you had always wondered how societies can so easily succumb to totalitarian ideals, Hayek offers a very lucid (and frightening, when one considers the world around us today) explanation for how that might occur. As a warning against the dangers of centralized government control, The Road to Serfdom succeeds well beyond even the writers expectations.

But for those who think Hayek is thoroughly on the side of Laissez-Faire capitalism, think again: Hayek also attacks monopolistic corporations, as a sort of “socialism by proxy”, for much the same reason he distrusts centralized governments. He was also an early — and enthusiastic — proponent of European Union, as the later chapters of his book show (and something which even his detractors seem to find surprising). And while his criticisms of collectivism are thorough, it should also be noted that Hayek states unequivocally that he was not against government regulation or intervention per se, only that such intervention should only be used in circumstances where private society was not adequate to compensate. Thus, Hayek’s work should not be viewed as right-wing or left-wing; it is thoroughly Libertarian, and a Libertarianism that recognizes the totalitarian tendencies on both sides of the political divide.

Hayek’s prose is generally readable, but has the misfortune to be at times somewhat academic; those not used to that style of writing may find themselves periodically going back a few paragraphs and rereading, just to make sure they understood his line of thought. Hayek’s work also has an annoying tendency to presuppose some knowledge of political and social debates going on in Britain during World War II, details which are now mostly forgotten; thankfully, this edition does have substantive footnotes. But the largest problem with the book is still the same one that many critics have previously complained about, namely that while Hayek extensively criticizes Socialism/Communism and Fascism, he offers very few proposals as to how to remedy the problem, or even as to where the lines should be drawn. That was left for another day.

Many Keynsians would have you believe that this book is irrelevant, that the Austrian School that Hayek was a member of has long since been “thoroughly discredited”, and that Hayek himself should be dismissed merely because he was a favorite of such conservatives as William F. Buckley, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagen. Ignore these fools. I do not think they understand Hayek, and are only interested in discrediting someone they view as a polar opposite of Keynes (despite the fact that Keynes himself spoke glowingly of The Road to Serfdom). Just because the totalitarianism that Hayek was writing about — primarily Nazi Germany, but also Fascist Italy and Communist Russia — have long since disappeared does not mean that his criticism and analysis are without merit, nor that it remains no less invalid today than it was sixty years ago. One only has to logon to the latest news and read the opinion pieces, where the questions of whether or not to nationalize certain industries or to what extent ordinary citizens must expect to “sacrifice” for the good of the whole, to realize that the threats that Hayek was warning about are still very much present, and will continue to do so for as long as government is permitted to assume more and more responsibility over our everyday lives.

The Road to Serfdom is an important book, and one that should be read by students of politics and economics of all persuasions.

5 Stars out of 5 Stars