The Road to Serfdom

At the end of the last century, the publishers at Random House constructed a list of the 100 best novels and 100 best non-fiction works of the twentieth century. The non-fiction list was particularly instructive. Actually, there were two lists. One list represented the consensus of a blue ribbon panel with many notables including Daniel J. Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, and. Gore Vidal. The other list was the result of a poll of 194,829 readers. Admittedly any such public poll is self-selected and likely to reflect strength of opinion rather than breath of consensus. Nonetheless, it is instructive that Ayn Rand, the laissez-faire economist and novelist, had three books of the top six books in the reader list and, yet, did not even make the top 100 selections of the blue-ribbon panel. A little further down the reader list at number 16 was Friedrich A. Hayek’s, The Road to Serfdom. The Austrian economist also did not make it in the top 100 of the blue-ribbon list. This is quite a shame since Hayek’s book ought to be required reading for any educated person.

The modern Conservative reader may miss Hayek’s originality and innovation because much of what he presented in the relatively short The Road to Serfdom is now part of the conventional wisdom of Conservatives, especially free-market Conservatives. The fact that the ideas do not seem surprising or remarkable is a measure of how thoroughly the ideas in his book have been felt. Indeed, much of his warnings against the effects of central planning were borne out by the Communist experience in the last half of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, when the book was written in 1943, memories of the Great Depression, what was then considered a massive failure of free markets, still dominated economic thought and an unplanned economy seemed dangerous. Centrally directed economies appeared to be an inevitable next step in the evolution of industrial societies.

Hayek’s argument focused less on the economic efficiency of markets, and more on the nature of freedom. Hayek is the champion of individualism over collectivism. Central planning must necessarily limit the scope of freedom. A key Hayek observation is that central planning reverses the centuries old trend toward the rule of law against arbitrary authority. Moreover, in collectivist societies the worst elements inevitably rise to the top. As political power rather than market competition decides success and failure, political power rather than economic superiority becomes the goal.

Hayek is no Ayn Rand absolutist. He freely acknowledges the need for society to act collectively to provide a minimum level of subsistence for those incapable of providing for themselves. Hayek believes in competitive markets so much that he sees the need for government to limit monopoly market power when necessary. He, however, does not want the government to become that monopoly.

Perhaps Hayek’s most enlightening contribution is his analysis of the rise of the Nazi political movement in Germany. To many, Socialism and Fascism represent opposite poles in the political spectrum. Since Socialism has typically had an internationalist sympathy and Fascism emphasizes nationalism, they were thought to be radically different.

However, the National Socialists of Germany did not self-identify themselves as Socialists merely to borrow the cachet of an intellectually popular political movement. Hayek, who personally experienced the rise of National Socialism between the wars, traces the intellectual history of Fascism in Germany from Marxists Werner Sombart and Johann Plenge. They saw the necessity for economic organization and planning rather than markets as necessary for German resurgence after the humiliation of World War I. Indeed, the “patron saint of National Socialism,” Moeller van den Bruck, considered National Socialism as the vanguard in the “fight against capitalism.” According to Hayek, “van den Bruck’s Third Reich was intended to give Germans a socialism adapted to their nature and undefiled by Western liberal [read libertarian – FMM] ideals.”

Read by a modern reader, the most important contribution of The Road to Serfdom is its identification of Fascism as Super-Socialism. At their core, Socialism and Fascism are the two Rottweilers from the same litter, regardless of their superficial differences. To the extent that it is necessary to recognize the threats to individual liberty to defend against them, The Road to Serfdom is required reading. Perhaps if some on the Left were to recognize the intellectual affinity between Socialism and Fascism they might be a little more sympathetic to Conservative concerns about collectivism. When individual rights are subordinated to collective goals, tyranny is the danger.

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