Monday, April 19, 2010

The Return of Serfdom in America?

Do we ever learn anything from history?

F. A. Hayek (1899 – 1992) and “The Road to Serfdom”

During the height of the armed conflict between the Allied and Axis powers in World War II, few would have anticipated that a book-length essay on political philosophy from an Austrian economist would become an explosive bestseller among young people. And yet that is precisely what happened after anti-socialist message that directly challenged the dominant left-wing climate of public opinion that then prevailed in Britain and the United States. “Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies,” he wrote. “[M]any who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of nazism, and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.”2

The quality and impact of Hayek’s thought can be gauged by the fact that despite the wartime paper shortage, The Road to Serfdom went through five editions in the U.K. in only 15 months, was sold out in the United States, and was then brought to a mass audience, in condensed form, by Reader’s Digest. Subsequently, over a million reprints of the condensed version were distributed by the American Book-of-the-Month Club. In addition, it provoked several replies in book form and was favorably reviewed by such contemporary luminaries as Keynes and George Orwell; and it has been translated into some sixteen different languages, most recently Polish and Russian.

Why did The Road to Serfdom make such an impact? Its key insight, so upsetting to left-wing opinion, was that neither good intentions nor democratic institutions could prevent socialism degenerating into totalitarianism.3 This, said Hayek, was because the replacement of competitive private enterprise by state ownership and central planning would have two inevitable and harmful consequences. First, it would concentrate power in the hands of a small elite of politicians and officials. Second, with the state controlling all schools, hospitals, printing presses, radio stations, and film studios, not to mention the production and distribution of food, clothing, transport, and housing, the people would be in no position to criticize their rulers or hold them to any sort of democratic account. Since central planning by the state would necessitate the compulsory imposition by government of one single set of goals and priorities on the whole population, the pursuit of full-blooded socialism would amount to a modern form of slavery. Moreover, by creating a society in which all values and objectives would be subordinated to the unconstrained will of the ruling elite, socialism would inevitably breed moral corruption by blunting the conscience of the individual and arousing the naked appetite for power. And since a totalitarian system must always favor the most ruthless and unscrupulous individuals, this in turn would mean that the worst people would eventually rise to the top.

The truthfulness of Hayek’s analysis remains relevant today, because, despite the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and National Socialism (Nazism), the West seems quickly to be forgetting this gruesome legacy.4 While nearly all formerly socialist parties have in theory abandoned the now discredited notions of nationalization and central planning, the state still typically consumes and controls around half their national product; and new social problems constantly generate new pressures for extending state regulation. This specter of uncontrolled state power likewise currently threatens the Third World. Above all, Christians should welcome Hayek’s reminder that no one can be trusted with absolute power, since good intentions cannot overcome the moral corruptibility inherent in fallen human nature.


1. Milton Friedman, “Introduction,” in F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944; reprint, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), ix-x.

2. F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1944), 3.

3. See Kairos Journal article, “A Prophet Visits Harvard.”

4. Witness the recent election of socialists in South America—Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil.

No comments: