The Road to Serfdom at 75: Part I

An appreciation of a life-changing book

In the last 10 days, I gave two talks ― one to the Runnymede Society chapter at the University of Victoria and one at the Université de Sherbrooke ― on Friedrich Hakey’s The Road to Serfdom. In this post and one to follow tomorrow, I reproduce my notes for these talks. The page numbers refer to the 50th Anniversary Edition, which is the one I have in my possession.

Why is F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom still relevant—and not merely relevant, but compelling—75 years after its publication? It is not obvious that this should be so. It is a book written in a historical particular context, and in response to the intellectual climate of its day. It is a polemic; one is almost tempted to say, a pamphlet―and indeed Hayek himself, in a 1976 preface, refers to The Road to Serfdom in exactly this way, “a pamphlet for the time”. In this, it is unlike Hayek’s more general later works, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty.

And yet, while I wouldn’t say the two later books, especially Constitution, are obscure, it is still The Road to Serfdom that is the iconic one. It has changed the trajectory of my own intellectual life when I read it, probably in third year of law school. (It is one of those things that I find it difficult to remember not knowing, so I don’t recall the exact time or the reasons that made me read it.) And it has had a similar effect on any number of people since its publication. Clearly, it is rather more than a pamphlet, or even just a polemic. It might have began as a pamphlet for the time, but it is, as Milton Friedman described it in a different preface, timeless.

I will venture an explanation for The Road to Serfdom ongoing appeal. I will argue that it targets an evil that is enduring, and that we must confront today, with (almost) as much urgency as Hayek had to when he was writing. The defeat of the particular shapes that this evil took then—a defeat that looks much more provisional and uncertain than it did when I first read the book a dozen years ago—was important in its time. But the evil itself was not put to rest, and perhaps cannot be. It revives, shifts shapes, and must be resisted and repelled again and again, in the time that is given us.

(The reader may have noticed me echoing, and in the last sentence directly quoting from The Lord of the Rings. This is not an accident. I think there are echoes of the Lord of the Rings in The Road to Serfdom, or perhaps I should say it the other way around, since the Road to Serfdom was published much before The Lord of the Rings finally was. I believe that this is not at all surprising, since they were being written at the same time, and their authors saw—and in their very different ways responded—to much the same events, not just those of the then-ongoing war but also those of the previous one, of which both were veterans.)

So let me begin, very briefly, with the immediate context in which Hayek was writing, before moving on to the more timeless elements in The Road to Serfdom. The book was published in 1944, while World War II was ongoing, although it looks forward to the aftermath of an Allied victory. It was written, therefore, while Nazism was at or just past the peak of its power, while Soviet communism was already immensely powerful, and growing more so by the day. But the Western response to the two totalitarian ideologies was strikingly different. Even before war broke out, socialism and communism were prestigious in the way Nazism never quite was in the West; after 1941, communism was the ideology of an ally in that war. And, of course, the Soviet regime had long presented itself as the most steadfast opponent of Nazism, while the Nazis themselves employed much anti-Communist rhetoric (recall that the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan was officially called the “Anti-Comintern Pact”). The fashionable view was that fascism was the ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, development of unbridled capitalism, and that embracing socialism or communism was the only way to forestall the advent of fascism.

Hayek saw things differently. For him, Nazism and Socialism were denominations in the same church totalitarian church, whose adherents had a great deal in common even if they professed unfailing enmity. (The enmity was, in any case, less constant than advertised: recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939, leading to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, and much of Eastern Europe.) What Nazism and Socialism had in common was collectivism. Both held that society had to be organized around the supposed interests of particular groups of people, and devoted single-mindedly to the pursuit of some alleged common purpose. Both rejected liberalism and individualism. Nazism simply defined the group that was supposed to define the purposes of political action differently, along racial rather than class lines. Despite this, it had, as the title of one of the chapters of The Road to Serfdom had it, “socialist roots”. Hence Hayek’s dedication of the book “to socialists of all parties”, on the right as well as on the left.

This brings me back to the timeless evil which The Road to Serfdom responds to. On the surface, significant parts of the book rebut arguments that were prevalent in the years preceding its publication about the desirability and feasibility of Soviet-style central economic planning and government ownership of the means of production. And of course advocacy of such policies is now unusual, although I wonder whether the ground is shifting even on this, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and, even more so, Elizabeth Warren, whose plans for telling companies exactly how to behave, what to sell, and for whose benefit, go nearer the central planning of yore than anything a serious candidate for office has proposed in decades.

But these are issues primarily of form. Look below the surface, and the impulse toward collectivism is no weaker now. What has changed is not its origin or orientation, but its direction. 21st-century collectivists are not only preoccupied with economic inequality, on which they forebears mostly (but not exclusively) focused in Hayek’s time, but (also) with the environment and, especially, with identity―whether it is the identity of groups purportedly defined by gender, race, sexuality, etc., or that of nations.   

What does Hayek mean by collectivism, and why is it, after all, such a bad thing? Collectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own. The attraction of collectivism is that it seems to make possible the realization of purposes on which we might all agree―say, racial or gender equality, or putting an end to global warming, or perhaps something more diffuse, such as simply “the public welfare”―by directing all, or at least some very significant part, of society’s efforts to them.

What’s the problem with this? Collectivists tend to forget that purposes that all appear desirable in the abstract can be in conflict, and that sometimes “any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others”. (59) If the efforts of society are to be centrally directed by government, a hierarchy of aims will need to be established to determine which will yield to others. Yet where is this hierarchy to come from? Comprehensive agreement on a scale of values does not exist in a free society, where individuals have their own moral scales. The hierarchy of aims must, and can only be, generated by the government; and not by a democratic process, which is bound to reflect the disagreements that exist in society. Indeed, it is precisely the failure of democracy to generate all-encompassing agreement that “makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough ‘to get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal”, (150) and is set up in a position of unaccountable technocrat or dictator, which amounts to more or less the same thing.

As for individuals, if they cannot be expected to agree on a common hierarchy of aims, they must still be made to agree to it. An official dogma, extending not only to values but even to “views about the facts and possibilities on which the particular measures are based” (170), must be spread, by means of relentless propaganda, by twisting the meaning of words, especially of words describing moral and political values, and by resorting to censorship and ultimately force, since dissent compromises the mobilization of society toward the chosen aims. Instead of truth, “[t]he probable effect on the people’s loyalty to the system becomes the only criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of information is to be published or suppressed”. (175-76) And people, like ideas, “more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’”. (106) Moreover,

[i]f the ‘community’ or the state are prior to the individual, if they have ends of their own independent of and superior to those of the individuals, only those individuals who work for the same ends can be regarded as members of the community. It is a necessary consequence of this view that a person is respected only as a member of the group, that is, only if and in so far as he works for the recognized common ends, and that he derives his whole dignity only from this membership and not merely from being man. (156)

Note, too, that aims do not exist in the abstract; they are those of individuals, sometimes of groups (that is, of individuals who agree). A hierarchy of aims imposed―ultimately at gunpoint―by the government is also a hierarchy of people. A collectivist government will choose whose interests to favour, and whose to subordinate. It might say it aims at fairness, but it will apply a particular standard of fairness: its own, not one of society at large, since the latter does not actually exist. Indeed, “it is easier for people to agree on a negative program―on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off―than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.” (153) Collectivism, whatever its initial aims, tends toward factionalism and nationalism, and this tendency is only exacerbated by “that glorification of power … which profoundly affects the ethical views of all collectivists”. (158)

Ultimately, collectivism is destructive not only of freedom―both political and personal―but of morality itself. A collectivist system “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (161) because the needs of the collective―as interpreted, of course, by the political leaders or technocrats purporting to speak on its behalf―are always regarded as more important than individual scruples. Collectivists

lack … the individualist virtues of tolerance and respect for other individuals and their opinions, of independence of mind and … uprightness of character and readiness to defend one’s own convictions against a superior … , of consideration for the weak and infirm, and of that healthy contempt and dislike of power which only an old tradition of personal liberty creates. Deficient they seem also in most of those little yet so important qualities which facilitate the intercourse between men in a free society: kindliness and a sense of humor, personal modesty, and respect for the privacy and belief in the good intentions of one’s neighbor. (163)

In The Road to Serfdom, this is a description of Germans, whom Hayek regards as epitomizing collectivism. But it applies, in our day, just as well to “social justice warriors” as to the supporters of Donald Trump. And it applies with double force to those in positions of political power in either movement, who more than all the others are required to  demonstrate “readiness [to] conform[] to an ever changing set of doctrines” laid down by the leader in the pursuit of his chosen goals (or, in a development Hayek did not anticipate, emerged more or less spontaneously in activist circles), whatever these doctrines may be, and to enforce such conformity on those over whom they rule.

Part II follows.