The Road to Serfdom

Originally published by me elsewhere on 11/07/2010

In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek compares the outlook and actions of individualists (people who value freedom from coercion, private property, free markets, and equality of opportunity) with those of collectivists (people who value redistribution of wealth, equality of result, social engineering, and government control or ownership of parts of the economy). As an Austrian who watched Germany’s socialist movement morph into fascism in the years leading up to WWII, he was distressed that many of the processes that brought about this transformation were being replicated in Britain. He wrote this book as a warning to the British people, and later authorized its distribution in America as Reader’s Digest book. Some of the issues that the book addresses are listed below. I use the words “collectivist” and “leftist” interchangeably.

Leftist incrementalism
Collectivists want to “fundamentally transform” society, but in Western societies they have adopted a piecemeal process to effect this change. Having watched German society fundamentally transform itself, Hayek wanted the West, particularly Britain and America, to be aware of this incrementalist approach, so we’d recognize that it’s happening within our borders and move to oppose it. Or as Hayek said:

Just because in the years ahead of us political ideology is not likely to aim at a clearly defined goal but toward piecemeal change, a full understanding of the process through which certain kinds of measures can destroy the bases of an economy based on the market and gradually smother the creative powers of a free civilization seems now of the greatest importance.

Leftist intolerance of dissent
An individualist accepts that people have different aspirations, priorities, and values, so the best society is one where the individual is allowed to chart his or her own course in life. This acceptance of individual differences is by definition tolerance. In contrast collectivists want to consciously shape society’s development, so there must be a vanguard articulating the course society will take. To roll forward, everyone has to buy into this vision. Any prominent individual who questions the collective vision or makes his own counterproposals shatters the illusion of consensus and encourages others to raise their own objections. There is a danger that dissent will begin to snowball and undermine the vanguard’s efforts to move society in the direction it deems best. So dissent is a threat, and it’s greeted with hostility. The vanguard will do everything they can to discourage it, or if they already control the coercive powers of government, to brutally suppress it.By the way, Hayek frequently points out the arrogance of collectivists who believe that they should be allowed to shape society from above. In comparison consider the relativity humility of individualists who want to allow society to develop organically through the free exercise of choice on the part of its members.
Leftist contempt for profit and profit-makers
According to Hayek, collectivists do whatever they can to advance the viewpoint that

  • commercial enterprise is disreputable
  • profit-making is immoral
  • seeking individual financial gain is selfish

It would appear that Obama shares this collectivist disdain for profit-making and individual financial gain. He describes his brief stint in the private sector as working “behind enemy lines.” He wonders why people don’t realize that at some point they’ve made “enough money.” And when speaking to America’s youth, he urges them to dedicate their lives to public service instead of embracing careers in the private sector. Consider his 2008 commencement address to Wesleyan University where he said:

…no one’s forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t… because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.

Leftists indoctrination of youth
Because individualists acknowledge that people have different values, they are comfortable with allowing each family to inculcate their own values in their children. But because collectivists need everyone to buy into a shared vision for society, it is important to shape everyone’s viewpoints beginning in childhood. As an Austrian who watched German socialism morph into fascism, Hayek remarks:

It was not the Fascists but the socialists who began to collect children from the tenderest age into political organizations to make sure that they grew up as good proletarians.

So what do you think a collectivist would think about homeschooling?

Leftist disdain for the Rule of Law
Hayek makes clear that the Rule of Law is not just a matter of passing and enforcing legislation. Under Rule of Law, the laws must be applied uniformly and predictably. The law is applied uniformly when individuals or groups of individuals do not receive preferential treatment. When this is true, we say that “Justice is blind.” The law must also be predictable because it is the means through which the government exercises its coercive authority domestically. Its predictability allows individuals to arrange their affairs without concern that they will inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the law. However if the judiciary makes ad hoc rulings, people no longer know what consequences they will suffer if the engage in a specific course of action.In my opinion, the biggest contemporary affront to the Rule of Law occurred when the Obama administration violated contract law in the auto bailout. The administration arranged matters so that unsecured creditors (the unions) came out better financially than secured creditors, the opposite of what contract law dictates. Another violation of the Rule of Law occurred when the IRS didn’t penalize Tim Geithner for not paying all the income taxes that he owed. Regular citizens who make the same “mistake” don’t get off so easy.
Leftist co-opting of traditional values
As Hayek describes it:

The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they, or at least the best among them, have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before…. And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed.

Currently we see environmentalists attempting to advance their cause in Christian communities by referring to “stewardship.” Obama tries to advance “redistributive change” in the Christian community by urging us to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

As to turning words on their heads, in Hayek’s time the favorite word was “freedom” which formerly meant “freedom from coercion” but which leftists used to mean “freedom from economic necessity” which was brought about through coercive measures. In our time I think a favorite leftist word is “justice”, so we hear about “economic justice” which leftists see as resulting in a more “fair” distribution of wealth, but which to my mind is achieved by unfairly taking other’s wealth.

The transformation of leftists from idealists to despots in two generations
I think this was the quality of “fundamental transformation” that most pained Hayek. The socialists in democratic countries have acquired some appreciation for liberty and democratic institutions which they hope to wed with “economic justice”. However if they succeed their offspring grow up in a completely different world. As Hayek explains:

… the most important change which extensive government control produces is … an alternation in the character of the people. This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations. The important point is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives. This means… that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit. The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time and people not only throw out the party which has led them further and further in the dangerous direction but also recognize the nature of the danger and resolutely change their course.

On the whole I found The Road to Serfdom to be a very readable book which seemed relevant to our contemporary situations. However during WWII when Hayek was writing this book, the leftists in Western democracies were advocating for government ownership of industry, in other words classic socialism. But Hayek assures us that classic socialism is only one way in which collectivism expresses itself, and that what he wrote in his book was true more generally of collectivism. In particular Hayek claimed that those Western welfare states who were attempting to achieve “economic justice” via taxation had become the new face of socialism. And he warned:

[Earlier] socialism meant unambiguously the nationalization of the means of production and the central economic planning which this made possible and necessary…[now] socialism has come to mean chiefly the extensive redistribution of incomes through taxation and the institutions of the welfare state. [In a welfare state] the effects I discuss in this book are brought about more slowly, indirectly, and imperfectly. I believe that the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same, although the process by which it is brought about is not quite the same…

I note in passing that since Obama took office less than two years ago, government has gone from controlling 35% of the economy to controlling 44.7%. Our government currently controls a greater portion of the economy than does the British or German governments. And China is warning us that we have become too socialist, and they believe that we are putting our faith in creating a planned economy, an economic system which has been totally discredited. Our relationship with China has been uneasy at times, but it is clear that they want to protect their financial investment in the U.S.

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