The Road to Serfdom is Still the Best Indictment of Centralized Power
It isn’t often that a social science book sells hundreds of thousands copies and is read by millions around the world, even decades after it was first published. It’s even less common if the author is, according to mainstream accounts, an obscure Austrian economics professor. Yet Friedrich August von Hayek, against seemingly all odds, got it done with his most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, now considered a classic of the 20th century.
This month, Road to Serfdom celebrates its 75th anniversary. Dedicated “to the socialists of all parties,” over 350,000 copies were sold from its release in 1944 through 2007, and it reached Amazon’s bestseller rankings again at the height of the Tea Party movement in 2010. The shorter Reader’s Digest version was handed out by the millions and made Hayek an international phenom overnight.
While prohibited even in West Germany up until 1947 for its anti-Soviet leanings, the book has been most successful in the U.S. In an age when conservatism is in many ways in disarray, there is no better time than now to return to The Road to Serfdom and see how it still resonates.
To fully understand and appreciate the book, one needs to look at the historical context it was written in. Hayek grew up in a comparatively liberal, pluralistic, and peaceful Vienna. But step by step, he saw those features vanish and be replaced by what he considered collectivist thought. By 1944, he had moved to the UK. Yet both in Britain and the U.S., he saw these same centralizing forces gaining in popularity.
Hayek believed that the same ideas fomenting among socialists in the rest of the English-speaking world would ultimately lead to the tyranny of Nazism he’d seen back home. While socialists pretended that their system would produce a more just and equal world, it was, in fact, “a species of collectivism.” The utopians of his age might have promised the Road to Freedom, but in reality, it would be the Highroad to Servitude.
The fundamental error in the collectivist playbook—whether socialist or fascist—was their “enthusiasm for ‘organization’ of everything,” or central planning. The issue was not the desire to plan as such, or to pursue certain goals as a community. It was the means of top-down planning, namely through coercive government. Every problem in the world, everything that didn’t go according to someone’s plan, would activate government intervention. And through every new intrusion, the people would become less free.
With this “increasing veneration for the state” already in mind, social planners wouldn’t stop when faced with failure. Engineering by some wise elite would continue ad infinitum until a peaceful end-state, total equality or social justice or some other nebulous goal, was reached. But by giving government all these powers, they would ultimately “set up the most complete despotism imaginable.” Suddenly, Hayek warned, interventionism would lead to tyranny.
Many have falsely ascribed to this a type of determinism. But Hayek didn’t think this process, this road to serfdom, was inevitable. As Edward Feser wrote recently in his thought-provoking Hayek’s Tragic Capitalism, “the Hayek who thought that the smallest tax increase is but the first step toward the Gulag exists only in the imaginations of uncharitable critics and simpleminded admirers.”
Indeed, the road to serfdom could be halted, though it might prove difficult. In most Western countries, this process was indeed stopped—at least temporarily, as socialism’s popularity waned during the second half of the 20th century.
It’s easy to recognize how Hayek is relevant today. Socialism is en vogue again, especially among young people. As in Hayek’s day, it’s portrayed as a peaceful ideology: democratic socialism, which Hayek called “the great utopia of the last few generations” and “simply not achievable.”
Across the world, proponents of socialism, such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, are close to power. And of course, as with authoritarian regimes like those in China and Venezuela, socialist countries to this day show that the utopian promises of the system will never become reality, instead ending in abject failure.
The recent excesses of political internationalism and the centralizing tendencies of supranational organizations also fit into the picture. For instance, the following description in The Road to Serfdom could fit very well for today’s European Union: “Planning on an international scale…cannot be anything but a naked rule of force, an imposition by a small group on all the rest.”
And of course, the Right is not all that better these days. While Hayek focused on socialists, it is noteworthy that he dedicated The Road to Serfdom to the socialists of all parties. The current apologetics by some conservatives in countries like Hungary, Poland, Italy, and France are certainly worrisome. Attacks on the rule of law and the free press, a devotion to government interventionism, and isolation from the rest of the world show once more that good intentions are not enough.
We live in a time of endless demands for more centralization, more planning, more strongmen, and for the government simply to do “something”—and at this point, it’s coming from all across the political spectrum. The Road to Serfdom is a testament to the fact that this approach doesn’t work.
Nonetheless, the book does fall short on some accounts. Taken out of historical context, it can seem incomplete. It largely ignores the negative effects that the free market and globalization can have—effects that can make central planning more popular if left unaddressed—never offering a liberal alternative that responds to them. It doesn’t address societal problems, the fracturing of institutions and associations, loneliness and alienation, social divisions—the innate longing of people to be part of a healthy civil society.
In a sense, it doesn’t go into the moral structure that a free world needs. Its account rarely sees the need for tradition to complement progress, as Hayek would argue incessantly in later works like The Constitution of Liberty and The Fatal Conceit. Indeed, his idea that “to build a better world, we must have the courage to make a new start” makes him sound close to the Cartesian rationalism, which wants to get rid of everything that cannot be explained rationally and instead design something new. It was just such a new world that he would later come to abhor.
Despite this, we find in The Road to Serfdom viable solutions to today’s problems: power needs to be decentralized. Instead of pseudo-democracy by a handful of politicians for millions of people, a revitalization of “local self-government” is necessary. And finally, the virtues of “independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, non-interference with one’s neighbour and tolerance of the different, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority” are still sorely needed 75 years later.