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 anticip
ated th ata book-length essay on political philosophy from an Austrian economist would become an explosive bestseller among young people. And yet th atis precisely wh athappened after anti-socialist message th atdirectly challenged the dominant left-wing clim ate of public opinion th atthen prevailed in Britainand the . “Few are ready to recognize th United St ates atthe 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 aberr ations of nazism, and sincerely h ate all its manifest ations, work atthe same time for ideals whose realiz ation would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.”2
The quality and impact of Hayek’s thought can be gauged by the fact th
atdespite 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 St ates, 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 transl ated 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 th
atneither good intentions nor democr atic institutions could prevent socialism degener ating into totalitarianism.3 This, said Hayek, was because the replacement of competitive priv ate enterprise by st ate ownership and central planning would have two inevitable and harmful consequences. First, it would concentr ate power in the hands of a small elite of politicians and officials. Second, with the st ate controlling all schools, hospitals, printing presses, radio st ations, 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 democr atic account. Since central planning by the st ate would necessit ate the compulsory imposition by government of one single set of goals and priorities on the whole popul ation, the pursuit of full-blooded socialism would amount to a modern form of slavery. Moreover, by cre ating a society in which all values and objectives would be subordin ated 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 th atthe 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 N
ational 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 n ationaliz ation and central planning, the st ate still typically consumes and controls around half their n ational product; and new social problems constantly gener ate new pressures for extending st ate regul ation. This specter of uncontrolled st ate power likewise currently thre atens the Third World. Above all, Christians should welcome Hayek’s reminder th atno one can be trusted with absolute power, since good intentions cannot overcome the moral corruptibility inherent in fallen human n ature.
1. Milton Friedman, “Introduction,” in F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944; reprint,
: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), ix-x. Chicago
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