Book Review: F.A. Hayek's "The Road To Serfdom"
For a topical work published some 70 years ago, Friedrich Hayek's The Road To Serfdom still manages to inform American political discourse. This could be either due to the book's ability to articulate and defend it's central thesis, or it may be due to noteworthy/notorious figures like former Fox News darling Glenn Beck who eagerly latched onto it and promoted said book and said thesis, usually butchering Hayek's analysis of socialism, totalitarianism, and central planning into something more closely resembling National Review Online writer Jonah Goldberg's essentially ad hominem characterization of modern day progressives, budding college Democrats, and organic food-eating hipsters as advocates of something he dubs "liberal fascism". Ironically, that phrase would likely have made Hayek clasp his forehead in exasperation, considering the lengths to which he tries to not only make known the original meaning and tenets of liberalism, but to make the case for them as well. This meaning and these tenets, it cannot be stressed enough, are not what either Beck and Goldberg or the aforementioned young Democrats and Whole Foods hipsters probably imagine them to be.
Liberalism, as envisioned by Hayek, is a system in which the government interferes in both the social and economic spheres of life only when absolutely necessary (such as enforcing minimum living standards and in times of war). This definition, however, has practically been inverted, as he notes in the foreword to the 1956 paperback edition. "In current American usage, it [liberalism] often means very nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camouflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by the muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that 'liberal' has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control," (pg. 45), he laments, as he would continue to do so if he were here to see the lasting perception of liberalism as pro-government intervention. Strangely, this particular insight of Hayek's has not been the recipient of exposure, much less praise, by his supposed ideological bedfellows (i.e. Beck, Goldberg, et al.), even though on the face of it this statement would help make their point. This is because they either, like the muddleheaded liberty lovers Hayek woefully mentions, do not understand liberalism, or do not understand it's enemies, whom are the architects of the titular Road To Serfdom and thus the main subject of the book's analysis.
That subject is socialism, another widely-thrown around yet largely-misunderstood word. Today, when it is par for the course to hear right-wing shock jocks rail against “liberal socialists” when they aren’t ranting about “liberal fascism”, this might come as a blinding revelation to readers on both sides of the political spectrum. But for Hayek, it was a given. As the Allies made common cause with Soviet communism against German and Italian fascism, he couldn’t help but noticing the elements common to both the West’s totalitarian enemies and it’s temporary totalitarian ally. The rhetoric and justifications were different, as misguided liberals (used in the current, incorrect sense of the word) and outright apologists for either system are eager to point out, but in Hayek’s opinion (as well as this writer’s), the similarities between the leader-driven nationalism of Hitler’s Germany and the left-wing paternalism of Stalin’s Russia, to say nothing of those between the gulag and concentration camps, the NKVD and the Gestapo, or any number of illiberal aspects of the two, far outweighed any differences in ideology or political theory between the two regimes. It is for this reason that Hayek dedicates this book “To the socialists of all parties,” a statement that might make modern readers scratch their heads until they realize that socialism can arguably be a phenomenon of the right just as much as the left.
This is not, of course, to imply that every socialist is a bloodthirsty megalomaniac bent on subduing humanity. On the contrary, Hayek observes that many of his contemporaries sympathetic to socialism earnestly believed that there would be room for liberty and individuality in the centrally-planned, economically-egalitarian society they hoped to build. What these self-proclaimed “liberal socialists” failed to take into account, he contends, is that enforced equality and unencumbered liberty are directly at odds with each other, writing “The economic freedom which is the perquisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialists promise us and which be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of the choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right,” (pg. 133). In short, a free-market economy is conducive to individual liberty and freedom, while a command economy, with it’s directives and goals, inevitably comes into conflict with those who do not agree with, say, a particular allocation of resources. Perhaps if this was the full extent of the inconveniences of socialism, it wouldn’t be as unfavorably viewed as it is by many, and Hayek wouldn’t have felt the need to write this book in the first place. The thing is though, this isn’t the full extent of it’s inconveniences. In fact, it is the first stop on the long, winding road to serfdom, and it gets worse from here on out.
As the demands of the state grow, so do the chances of it’s citizens expressing opposition to them. At first, only the wealthy or other marginal (whether in the numerical or social sense) groups are going to be the only ones directly affected by it’s edicts, but when these edicts fail to create the utopia spoken of by supporters of central planning, the average citizen is liable to find their liberties curtailed as the sacrifices required of them by the government increase. This might take the form of banning of speech that opposes or otherwise criticizes government initiatives like an inefficient public works program or government initiative, incorrectly blaming low enthusiasm on the part of citizens for it’s failures instead of structural defects within the program or initiative in question. As time goes on, this might metastasize into banning speech critical of the leader or ruling party’s policies in general. It may even rise to the curtailing of speech critical of the leader or ruling party period and woe betide anyone who ignores these restrictions. Scenarios similar to this one unfolded in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia, and it is this gradual, often-unintended sequence of events that Hayek seeks to warn readers of. The high-minded intentions of the system’s original proponents fade into irrelevance as some, upon seeing the costs of their revolutionary project, abandon and disavow it while the ones who still believe in their vision double down and pursue it all the more zealously, without regard to the amount of blood shed and treasure wasted. To these remaining few, no cost is too high, and anyone who stands in their way and is subsequently killed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed is collateral damage. This is because, as Hayek asserts, “From the collectivist standpoint intolerance and brutal suppression of dissent, the complete disregard of the life and happiness of the individual, are essential and unavoidable consequence of this basic premise, and the collectivist can admit this and at the same time claim that his system is superior to one in which the ‘selfish’ interests of the individual are allowed to obstruct the full realization of the ends the community pursues,” (pg. 168). The inhuman horror of Auschwitz, the mindless terror of the Great Purge, this is where one finds themselves after reaching the end of the road to serfdom.
Unfortunately, as was the case when the book first came out, many will dismiss Hayek’s warnings as overstated, expressing the unfathomably naive and equally ahistorical sentiment that “It can’t happen here”. They may very well attribute the killing and destruction of the 20th Century totalitarian regimes to alleged innate traits of the peoples who were subject to them. The Germans, for example, were commonly said during and after the war and in some quarters still are said to be a militaristic people almost biologically inclined to genocidal anti-Semitism. Such absurd explanations for the excesses of National Socialism ignore that anti-Semitism existed in countries like Britain and France long before the Germans even organized themselves into a nation-state. Indeed, Hayek reminds readers that, “There are many features which were then regarded as ‘typically German’ and which are now equally familiar in England, for instance, and many symptoms that point to a further development in the same direction. We have already mentioned the most significant - the increasing similarity between the economic views of the Right and Left and their common opposition to the liberalism that used to be the common basis of most English politics,” (pg. 193). Hayek’s point is that the primary factor in it being Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust rather than Englishmen was not the blood and genes they possessed, but the ideas and values they held. Ideas and values that, Hayek warily observes, had their basis in seemingly-unrelated ideologies gaining currency among well-meaning people at the time in Britain and by extension, the United States. Some might even make the case that it has happened here, as anyone who has seen black and white pictures of helpless Lakota Indians gunned down by the U.S. Calvary at Wounded Knee and innocent Japanese-Americans driven away in trucks and confined behind barbed wire fences, colored photos of American soldiers rounding up Vietnamese women at My Lai before massacring them and National Guardsmen firing upon student protestors at Kent State, or live footage of the FBI ramming a tank into the doomed Branch Davidian compound at Waco and a South Carolina policeman shooting an unarmed Walter Scott as he fled in terror, in the back and in cold blood, might tell you. Incidents like these and the larger forces they represent should serve as a reminder that we too are susceptible to the authoritarian, even murderous impulses that Hayek described, and all the more reason for us to remain vigilant and resist them.
The Road To Serfdom, it must be said, falls short in some areas, although none that irreparably harm the work. An Austrian academic (an economist no less), Hayek’s manner of writing can be dry at times, possibly requiring readers to reread certain passages after having attempted to read them once only to zone out after being overwhelmed by the staleness of the often-theoretical text. Readers may also find themselves confused by references to figures and organizations active at the time of Hayek’s writing but now lost to mainstream historical memory. Regarding the views Hayek espouses in the book, he at least on one occasion finds himself guilty of doing what he accuses his ideological adversaries of. While mockingly claiming that advocates of central planning don’t know exactly what it is they are planning, just that they are planning and thus feel they are accomplishing something, Hayek, when defending his views from charges of being simply “laissez-faire” (pg. 118), says that he supports government action in certain areas, such as “security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all; and, second, the security of a given standard of life, or of the relative position which one person enjoys compared with others; or, as we may put it briefly, the security of a minimum income and the security of the particular income a person is thought to deserve,” (pg. 148). He does not explain what he considers to be an acceptable “minimum of sustenance”, nor does he identify a suitable minimum income, committing the same fallacy he accuses socialists of. However, these shortcomings do not damage the book as a whole. The prose may be clinical, but the ideas and sentiments it conveys are intellectually stimulating and at times outright exciting, and the definitive edition of the book put out by The University of Chicago Press and edited by Bruce Caldwell helpfully adds footnotes that identify now-obscure references. Hayek’s defense of his own ideas may need some fine-tuning (as he surely did over the course of his long career), but as the book is primarily a blistering polemic against the ideas of others, it does not undermine his main point.
If you are interested in politics or history, you will more than likely enjoy Hayek’s landmark work. Those who it is aimed against (that is, progressives and authoritarian right-wingers) may find themselves frustrated or even enraged by Hayek’s contentions. There is also the chance that they might find themselves exposed to an interesting perspective they weren’t privy to before. Some might even come away from reading it as die-hard libertarians, as many who identify as such will attest to. However you receive it, The Road To Serfdom will be the source of much food for thought or at the very least an engaging, new topic to argue about at the dinner table.