Introduction The Road to Serfdom by F. A.Hayak

Maybe the reason I found The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek so mind-blowing is because I was affected at such a primal level by reading George Orwells’ 1984 when I was young. The Road to Serfdom could be the academic foundation for that fine novel, and perhaps holds the key to why it was so scary. This book was a bestseller in its time and it has become spectacularly popular in our own time, ranking at number one on in 2010, and still selling at a healthy clip. Hayek was one of the most prominent and respected economists of the 20th century and his theories and ideas have proven sound into the 21st. I am no expert in economics, just an average American trying to live in the economy we got. So this is not so much review of the book as a discussion of the ideas and premises Hayek sets up in Chapter One.

In a nutshell, Hayek’s thesis is that well-intentioned socialism leads down a path to totalitarianism, losing even the good intentions along the way. Hayek’s voice is clear, patient, and kind. Reading this book makes me feel as if I am on a train moving rapidly down a track. Next to me is a kind man with a mustache gently and quietly explaining to me why the train is heading for disaster.

Hayek’s patient tone is even more amazing when you realize that he began this book in 1941 and first published it in England in 1944, while England was in the heat of battle with Nazi Germany. He explains in his introduction that he wrote the book because he felt his fellow intellectuals did not understand what it was they were fighting or how National Socialism happened. Rather than seeing it as the inevitable outcome of the philosophy and policies of the previous 70 years, the leaders at the time tended to blame it on an inherent flaw in the German character. It is a huge and brave undertaking to trace the trends of human thought and capture the resulting direction of historical events as they are happening.

Summing up Chapter One

In the first chapter Hayek outlines how certain anti-individualist philosophies took root among German philosophers beginning in the 19th century and spread like wildfire across Europe. Older English thinkers who championed the value of individual liberty (Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, etc.) seemed stodgy and old-fashioned while German philosophers such as Hegel and Karl Marx were considered advanced and sophisticated. This general opinion was supported by the seeming efficiency and success of German civilization and science. Warnings by earlier thinkers about where socialism would lead were ignored or forgotten, as was the way life was in the days of feudalism before the Renaissance.

Hayek explains how philosophical ideas become general policies that affect human experience so that in minds of the people living the experience, the circumstances of their times become taken for granted as “the way things are.” It was not always the common belief that an individual could control his own destiny, make his own economic choices, imagine new ideas and make them happen in the physical and economic world. Hayek says that these ideas about individualism and creative freedom come to fruition in the West during the Renaissance. Since then policies supporting individual economic freedom have resulted in unimagined material improvements in the lives of a large portion of the population in the countries where these policies were practiced.

But as time passed, people no longer recognized that the good things in life—technology, adequate food and shelter, respect for themselves as valuable individuals—were the result of specific values, philosophies, and policies. They assumed that this was just “the way it was,” and began to notice all the things that were not so good. They began to demand that things get better faster and that misfortunes, unfairness, and inequities be eliminated. From what I can understand, the spirit of liberalism evolved from these sorts of impulses. With the best of intentions, people wanted to find ways to control economic circumstances to make things better, fairer, less painful for more people. Liberalism in the 19th century sense of the word meant that individuals should be free to change things for the better rather than being bound by conventional or traditional systems.

When these sorts of ideas led to the idea that government should make collective decisions for the good of the community, liberalism evolved into socialism, which seemed like a good way to achieve improvements through central planning. Hayek explains, “It might even be said that the very success of liberalism became the cause of its decline. Because of the success already achieved, man became increasingly unwilling to tolerate the evils still with him, which now appeared both unbearable and unnecessary.”

Hayek’s theory is that because no central decision can satisfy all sectors of any population, the actions required to implement a system of socialism must necessarily become coercive. Although idealistic socialists may not have the stomach or desire to employ force to get the people to comply with policies they don’t like, once the concentrated power structures are set up, it is easier for a party that does have the stomach to take control. Chapter one sets up his premise that socialism leads down a path, sometimes slow and gentle, sometimes steep and fast, to totalitarianism, or a complete loss of freedom for most of the people. In Germany, as was obvious by the war going on as he wrote the book, socialism had already led there. Says Hayek, “That this movement on which we have entered with such high hopes and ambitions should have brought us face to face with the totalitarian horror has come as a profound shock to this generation, which still refuses to connect the two facts.”

What, despite the risks, the warnings, the demonstrations of where it can lead, can possibly be the lure of socialism? Well, Chapter Two is called “The Great Utopia”. I’ll take a look at that in the next post.

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek. Narrated by William Hughes, The University of Chicago (P), 1944; Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2010.

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