A passionately felt and forcefully argued—and prescient—defence of liberalism, the doctrine of individual freedom that is opposed by all collectivists, whether of the left or right.
Lacking a liberal education, I was slow to come to an appreciation of political science and economics. To me, “political science” seemed like a contradiction in terms, like “military intelligence”; and economics seemed like a field that used jargon and equations to study the least interesting aspects of life: employment and finance. I never dreamed that economics could be exciting until I read Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs in 1986, when I was 27, on the recommendation of a coworker. And I didn’t really come to be excited by political theory until I got myself a set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and discovered that a number of the Great Ideas that the editors had identified were political ideas: Aristocracy, Citizen, Constitution, Democracy, Government, Law, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Revolution, State, Tyranny, and, possibly, War & Peace. Now in my 50s, I started digging in.
Friedrich Hayek, born in Austria-Hungary in 1899, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, but his two doctoral degrees were in law and political science, and he states in his preface to The Road to Serfdom that his book is a work of politics. It was written and published in Britain, where he was now a subject, while World War II raged. Hayek had witnessed the rise of Nazism first hand, and so was in a stronger position than most of his fellow Britons, even apart from his educational background, to perceive the parallels in thought between the UK and other Allied countries of that time and in Germany in the years leading up to and following World War I.
For, strange and shocking though it may sound, Hayek saw strong and troubling similarities between the most popular currents of political and economic thought in wartime Britain and in the Germany of 25 years earlier. Starting in the late 19th century, Germany was the first country to fall under the spell of socialism. And by socialism Hayek means the application of large-scale planning to economic life. In the 19th century, the tremendous success of the factory system of production led people to consider the idea of applying factory methods to larger segments of the economy: whole sectors, or even the entire economy itself. Why not? Why not make the economy as a whole as productive as a factory? There would be huge gains in efficiency and wealth. There would be maximum production, full employment, and the end of poverty. What’s not to like?
The experience of war and the wartime economy seemed to give a taste of what is possible. Under the pressure of World War I, a vast and highly mechanized conflict, the state took on ever more powers of directing economic activity in order to win. It set quotas and prices, rationed goods, and deployed capital where it was needed. The result was a great sense of common purpose and tremendous productivity. Germany went on to lose that war, but for many the takeaway was that victory could perhaps have been gained if they had had more unity, more fixity of purpose, and more central control. Such thinking was already well along the way to forming the seedbed of Nazism.
Hayek is at pains to show that the issue is not one of the politics of left and right. Nazis and fascists are on the right, and socialists and communists are on the left, but what they all share is the ideology of collectivism: the idea that the “common good” trumps the preferences or rights of the individual. So, while Nazis, fascists, socialists, and communists might all hate each other, in fact they draw upon the same pool of potential members, who not infrequently switch from one of these parties to another. And they all share a common enemy: liberals. For the belief in individual liberty cannot be reconciled with collectivism. Liberalism had come to be perceived by most intellectuals as an obsolete, bourgeois, elitist leftover of the 19th century, something that any right-thinking person must strenuously oppose, a monster that was not quite dead yet but whose death was long overdue.
Hayek observes how it is no accident that the states in which central planning had taken the greatest hold—Germany, the USSR—were the most monstrous tramplers of individual rights. He shows how a consistent pursuit of collectivist aims necessarily leads to nationalism, the destruction of truth, and the rise of thugs to the most powerful positions in the state. It was not the innate barbarity of Germans or their special proneness to hero worship that propelled Hitler to power; it was the inescapable internal logic of collectivism itself, which necessarily destroys individual morality as it seeks to utilize the human resources that are now directed at the will of the state.
I think of these words by Loren Eiseley:
The group ethic is whatever its leaders choose it to mean; it destroys the innocent and justifies the act in terms of the future.
Hayek treasures freedom, but he does not glorify liberalism; he acknowledges that there were many abuses and injustices perpetrated in the name of 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism. He puts this down to the fact that the idea of radical freedom, both political and economic, for every individual is something new in history, and that the difficulties with it have still to be worked out. There are aspects of liberalism that many people find hard to accept, such as the great inequalities of wealth that occur under a capitalist economic system. Apart from the fact that rulers of collectivist societies simply seize large fortunes for themselves, creating large inequalities of their own, Hayek does not believe that an economic or political system should be built around envy. In a liberal economic system, rewards—sometimes very large ones—can be gained by those who take risks; more often, they take losses. There is nothing fundamentally unfair about this. Those who wish relative predictability and safety have the option of working for wages. Those who wish to stake their fortune on a chance of big success are free to do so.
Wealth is a measurable good, but how do you put a price tag on personal freedom? It’s a priceless thing that we tend to take for granted until it is gone. The poorest citizen of a liberal society might look with bitter envy at his rich neighbors, but Hayek notes that he lives in a society that places no political obstacles to his advancement. His position in society is not decreed by the state, as it is under a collectivist regime. The American Dream consists exactly of the idea that a man can improve his material circumstances through his own efforts, that there is nothing fundamentally to stop him except the limits of his own initiative, creativity, talent, and industry.
But does that mean we should just watch our fellow citizens starve if they fall on, or have been born into, hard times? Hayek sees no need for this. The great abundance produced by a liberal economy should be well able to look after the basic needs of the poorest people. There are difficult questions about how to do that, but there is no fundamental obstacle. It’s a practical matter to be worked out. It’s no reason to ditch freedom in favor of slavery.
Collectivism, whether of the right or left, seduces us with a siren song of justice, equality, and plenty. But the implementation of central planning necessarily means the concentration of power at the center, and that power must decide what the priorities will be—what the “social good” is. The central power will decided how many teachers there shall be, and whether they shall be paid more or less than doctors or plumbers or field hands. This need for total control in order to execute a comprehensive plan means that a collectivist society must necessarily move toward totalitarianism. Anything less will frustrate its efforts at some point. And as for plenty, well, Cuba, North Korea, and now Venezuela are countries whose citizens are starving.
One of the most chilling sentences in the book concludes that
the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in this country, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class.
I think about the observation that there is growing inequality in our Western countries, that the middle class is shrinking or imploding. This would appear to be a serious danger sign. It brings to mind another forceful book, this one about mass movements, written by the American thinker Eric Hoffer and published in 1951: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer shows how mass movements gain an unstoppable momentum of their own, how large sections of society can revert to what amounts to mob psychology in their zeal to overthrow the existing order. I think Hoffer’s book would make an excellent, if chilling, companion volume to The Road to Serfdom.
Hayek is no firebrand. Although he writes with strong conviction, he comes across as reasonable, respectful, and mature. Liberalism, the greatest form of social organization yet discovered by man, deserves advocates, and Hayek has stood up to be one. He is an excellent champion of it. Now it’s down to us: what kind of a society do we want to live in? If you are a socialist or a fascist, or are tempted to become one, I urge you to read this book, and honestly answer for yourself the points that Hayek raises. Can you rebut him? To me, there’s no choice to be made. I’m sad to think that it may be made for me by people who do not realize what they’re getting us all into.