on April 10, 2010
Although I believe this book is best enjoyed with an educated empathy for the historical, academic and emotional context of its writing (by an Austrian-born, Austrian-educated, London-residing freedom-lover who - because of his heritage - isn't allowed to join the Allies' war effort during WWII), it's easy to apply its lessons and grand ideals to a myriad of "I-told-you-so" economic and political events in the interval since its publication. Its humble association of uncoordinated free markets with efficiency, its aggressive association of central planning with unambiguous loss of personal freedoms and its statistical association of commerce with liberal freedoms provided the idealogical backdrop for the prominent Chicago School of Economics.
Its author admits that "The Road to Serfdom" is a work of Political Science, not Economics. Its subsequent influence and its ideas that are seemingly on par with its infused respect for the "Rule of Law", to me, elevate it to a work of political philosophy.
Writing in the middle of WWII, F.A. Hayek was concerned with what he was seeing: far from learning lessons from the destructive forces of fascism and communism, many politicians and intellectuals in the west were getting ready to wholeheartedly embrace some of the policies and practices that led to the rise of some of the most vile and destructive regimes in history. The title of the book evokes the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Hayek readily acknowledges that most proponents of state control of economy would be vehemently opposed to the methods that are necessary to implement those policies. Unlike many in his time and unfortunately many more today, Hayek did not see fascism and communism as polar opposites of each other, but rather two aspects of the same socialist ideology. Sometimes those that are most alike are most opposed to each other, and the communist portrayal of fascists and Nazis as right wing movement was a label that stuck to this day. Hayek perceived this to be very dangerous, not least because it would create an environment in which self-proclaimed leftist ideologues would face far less scrutiny than those on the self-proclaimed right. This is the reason why Hayek dedicated this book to "socialists of all parties."
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it has aged so well. The style of writing, the ideas presented, and the importance of what it had to say are as fresh and relevant today as they were when the book was first written. This, to me at least, is quite unsettling. It is rather sad that after all these years we still have to debate the same premises that were spelled out so clearly during one of history's worst moments.
This definitive edition has been edited and provided with a Foreword and Introduction by Bruce Caldwell who retained the prefaces and forewords of earlier editions. The text has been enhanced by explanatory notes and new appendices that are listed at the end of this review.
Even after six decades, The Road To Serfdom remains essential for understanding economics, politics and history. Hayek's main point, that whatever the problem, human nature demands that government provide the solution and that this is the road to hell, remains more valid than ever. He demonstrated the similarities between Soviet communism and fascism in Germany and Italy.
The consensus in post-war Europe was for the welfare state which seemed humane and sensible for a long time. Now it is clear that this has led to declining birth-rates amongst native Europeans, mass immigration from North Africa and the Middle East, and a tendency to exchange their ancient cultural values for multiculturalism and moral relativism which is just another form of nihilism as the French philosopher Chantal Delsol observes.
In this timeless classic, Hayek examines issues like planning and power, the fallacy of the utopian idea, state planning versus the rule of law, economic control, totalitarianism, security and economic freedom. He brilliantly explains how we are faced with two irreconcilable forms of social organization. Choice and risk either reside with the individual or s/he is relieved of both. Societies that opt for security instead of economic freedom will in the long run have neither.
Complete economic security is inseparable from restrictions on liberty - it becomes the security of the barracks. When the striving for security becomes stronger than the love of freedom, a society gets into deep, deep trouble. The way to prosperity for all is to remove the obstacles of bureaucracy in order to release the creative energy of individuals.
The government's job is not to plan for progress but to create the conditions favorable to progress. This has been proved by the impressive economic expansion under Reagan and Thatcher and by the amazing growth of the Asian Tiger economies, and most recently India since it started implementing sensible economic policies. Everywhere entrepreneurial energy is unshackled, massive improvements follow.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the contrast between phenomenal growth in formerly communist countries like Estonia or Poland or even the economic health of the UK as measured against the stagnant economies of Germany and France during the first years of the millennium. Old Europe would have benefited by a Thatcher and the French would have welcomed Polish plumbers instead of being resentful.
Hayek warns against utopian yearnings that are exploited by politicians, the stealthy way in which welfarism diminishes individual freedom, the totalitarian impulse and different types of propaganda. As pointed out by Chantal Delsol in Icarus Fallen, lack of personal responsibility leads to perpetual adolescence where citizens conflate desires with rights. Defining this process as the "sacralization" of rights, she shows that freedoms are then transformed into entitlements.
What a pity people don't learn; what a blessing we have in The Road to Serfdom as a reminder and a warning. The new Appendix of Related Documents include: Nazi-Socialism (1933), Reader's Report by Frank Knight (1943), Reader's Report by Jacob Marschak (1943), Foreword to the 1944 American Edition by John Chamberlain, Letter from John Scoon to C. Hartley Grattan (1945) and Introduction to the 1994 Edition by Milton Friedman. The book concludes with an index.
The Road To Serfdom is a classic economic text and the best known work of the Austrian School of economists. It is a very rich, rewarding and enjoyable book, and - unlike the formula riddled economics books of today - reminds readers of the strong connection between economics, politics, and philosophy. Writing at an important juncture in world history (the latter stages of WWII), Hayek straddles two eras, deftly drawing in the Victorian ideals of the previous generation while analyzing the politics and capitalism of his time. Not only does The Road To Serfdom comment on the new era, it is likely the only major economics text featuring Nazi-ism, Communism, and big government as antagonists.
A favorite of right wing politicians, Hayek eloquently explains why central planning won't work (long before communism actually failed) and why individual choice is preferable to government edict. The American political right who espouse his views seem somewhat selective in their adherence, however, as Hayek does see a role for government in delivering public goods, including health care, and a basic level of support/income for all.
Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan in his recent memoir worried about two things: a return of high inflation (surprise!); and suboptimal political choices made by an economically disenfranchised electorate. Hayek, writing during WWII, states "it should never be forgotten that the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in England and America, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class." Insightful when originally written, and hopefully not prescient for our own age of turbulence, it is these types of observations that make the text so relevant for today.
The book's footnotes are invaluable, as Hayek was a polymath, and casually referenced authors, poets, philosophers, economists and politicians, either citing their works without mentioning the authors or referring to the authors assuming the reader knows well their works and viewpoints. For example, in the penultimate chapter, Hayek quotes a poem by Wordsworth, which in turn references both Shakespeare and Milton, and all this to obliquely criticize Ezra Pound and other of Hayek's contemporaries who criticized democracy during WWII. While this sounds very academic and even pretentious, it is anything but; the text reads well, but the footnotes add to the richness, depth and context.
The editor's introduction too adds great context for those of us new to Hayek, and also included are Hayek's own prefaces and forwards to his different editions (original, 1956, and 1976). For those interested in an excellent edition of a major work that is fortunately enjoying some resurgence today, buy or borrow this edition. For those interested in a lighter take on both Hayek and his contemporary John Maynard Keynes, please see the professionally directed and acted videos on Youtube - they may whet your appetite (search 'Keynes versus Hayek').
This book should be required reading for every economics 101 class. Hayek breaks down all the reasons, that compel governments into believing they can micromanage a society. Instead of creating the conditions that generate wealth, governments attempt to manage the process itself. Hayek compares societies with the rule of law and laissez-fair economics, to societies with large government interventions. He then lists all the reasons why the government planners, fail to achieve their intended results.
I feel this book will have much more of an modern impact, then when it was written. The growth of government planning in the last two generations has exploded. The results have given us a huge welfare underclass, the nanny state, large unelected bureaucracies, declining birth rates, and host of other modern day problems. Hayek`s explanations and analysis, will help the reader understand, what is happening within our current western democracies.
The one complaint regarding this publication, is the overdose of introductions. Chapter one starts on page sixty-five. I still have a few pages left to read, which I am looking forward to finishing. I highly recommend reading Hayek`s material.