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4.0 out of 5 stars An insightful timeless classics that gives many "aha" moments!, 12 Aug 2013
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This review is from: The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents: Text and Documents - the Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek) (Paperback)
During the 2010 general election campaign in the UK, there was a lot of talk about "fairness", which no one quite knew what it meant. "Fairness" sounded good and was an indisputable virtue - who would challenge the notion of "fairness"? That made "fairness" a supreme soundbite for the campaign. It was also a time when anticapitalist sentiments were strong in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008-9, the banking sector was under ferocious attack which turned hysterical, developed countries were trapped in the longest and deepest recession known since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and government debt spiraled out of control to crisis point in many rich countries on the back of a weak economy. The public was angry; there were immediate economic and financial hardships that individuals did not want to face or take responsibility for. Blames were disproportionately levied on the banks, and the political rhetoric fuelled that sentiment; what could have drawn more public support and sympathy than sharing a identified common enemy and promising to put it in rein? The pubic hatred towards the bankers was frightening because it was beyond rationality. The public wanted solutions to their personal problems and they turned to the state rather than themselves. I was sitting on the edge of my seat each day listening to the media coverage. I was scared, scared of what institutional heritage we would leave for our children. Virtues, that the British have spread around the world more than anyone else, were treated with contempt. There was an unspeakable sadness in me, when I saw how little people treasured what they had, how little appreciation people had of the beauty of the society they were in, and in turn how readily they were in trading their long-term liberty, a battle hard won over the centuries, for an immediate, easy short-term relief. I saw a vision of society breaking down right before my eyes, and yet I felt I was all alone in being gravely alarmed.

In The Road to Serfdom, I met a kindred spirit in Hayek. I felt vindicated that my concern was not unfounded, and my instinct was expounded so professionally and eloquently that I felt I had been released from my responsibility to speak my mind. Hayek not only speaks my mind in this classics, he illuminates the conflict to me and gives me insights into human nature and collective behaviour that I did not see before. But while we rightly admire his intellectual prowess, let's not overlook his human side - the passion and urgency with which he speaks his message. He was engaged in a fierce battle of the minds and ideologies that shaped the modern world and he endeavoured to turn the tide. No one could have stood in that position without some personal conviction.

The timeless central message of the book - that socialism / collectivism will inevitably lead to a totalitarian rule and in turn is in direct conflict with the virtue of personal liberty (in the 19th century definition) - is well-known, well-covered and well-analysied. You may say, history is not science; how one can predict history with such categorical certainty? This is where Hayek shows his intellectual prowess. From his economics background, he defines the tasks that collectivism MUST entail. Then he sets the tasks against the setting of democracy and proves that democracy cannot churn out arbitrary decisions as demanded by collectivism. In the end only a totalitarian rule can "plan" an economy. He also argues that it is naive to believe that one can ringfence the sphere of "planning" to economic field, and preserve individual liberty outside this field. By his analysis, it is inevitable that economic planning will infiltrate all aspects of personal life, and no boundary can be realistic, due to the intertwined relationship between economic life and personal life. Suppose you are convinced by Hayek's arguments up to this point and ask, "so what if collectivism produces totalitarianism, if it delivers social good?" To that, Hayek answers by a chapter entitled, "Why the worst got on top". The gist of the argument is that those bureaucrats in charge of making economic decisions for the society as a while would soon see how it contravenes individual freedom, and anyone with a conscience would call it a quit. This means that only the ruthless and reckless are able to succeed in such a system and fulfil the roles as demanded for collectivism. Not only that, Hayek repeatedly says that collectivism concentrates power and wealth in the state to an unprecedented level, and hence "the worst got on top". History is full of examples to support his hypothesis, and this is how Hayek opens his book, "One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers. An accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see."(p.57)

But to me, what makes this book stands out is not the overarching message. Rather it is Hayek's astounding insights into human nature, the development of history and our collective tendencies. These understandings normally bypass average people but are crystal clear to Hayek. Here are a handful of my moments of enlightenment:

1) If socialism is so dangerous, why is it so popular? Why are people so readily forsake the principles (i.e. free markets) which have brought them unprecedented growth and much blessing? Hayek's answer:

"The result of this growth surpassed all expectations. Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able to satisfy ever widening ranges of desire. And while the rising standard soon led to the discovery of very dark spots in society, spots which men were no longer willing to tolerate, there was probably no class that did not substantially benefit from the general advance. We cannot do justice to this astonishing growth if we measure it by our present standards, which themselves result from this growth and now make many defects obvious. To appreciate what it meant to those who took part in it, we must measure it by the hopes and wishes men held when it began: and there can be no doubt that its success surpassed man's wildest dreams, that by the beginning of the twentieth century the working-man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible.

"What in the future will probably appear the most significant and far-reaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own lot, which the success already achieved created among men. With the success grew ambition - and man had every right to be ambitious. What had been an inspiring promise seemed no longer enough, the rate of progress far too slow; and the principles which had made this progress possible in the past came to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away, than as the conditions for the preservation and development of what had already been achieved." (p. 70-71)

2) on political rhetoric and persuasion, here are the hidden agenda:

"It seems to be almost a law of human nature that 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." (p. 160-161) Does it ring the bell?

"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 recognised before....the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.... If one has not one's self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion which it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates... And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of the words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them." (p. 174-175) So beware of empty political soundbites, which are designed to borrow our allegiance to some old concepts and to confuse us!

3) Some of the worst atrocities we have witnessed were committed by totalitarianism bred from collectivism. Sometimes, I wonder how human beings are capable of doing such evils. An explanation lies in the group identity.

"Apart from the basic fact that the community of collectivism can extend only as far as the unity of purpose of the individuals exists or can be created, several contributory factors strengthen the tendency of collectivism to become particularist and exclusive. Of these, one of the most important is that the desire of the individual to identify himself with a group is very frequently the result of a feeling of inferiority and that therefore his want will be satisfied only if membership of the group confers some superiority over outsiders. Sometimes, it seems, the very fact that these violent instincts which the individual knows he must curb within the group can be given a free range in the collective action toward the outsider, becomes a further inducement for merging personality in that of the group...There is a profound truth expressed in the title of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society ... "an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups," To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behaviour as individuals within the group. " (p. 162-163)

4) Instead of being compassionate, collectivism is amoral and cultivates an incompassionate and selfish society.

"Where there is one common all-overriding end, there is no room for any general morals or rules." (p. 168)"We are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else's expense nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice." (p.216) "There can be no limit to what its citizen must be prepared to do, no act which his conscience must prevent him from committing, if it is necessary for an end which the community has set itself or which his superiors order him to achieve." (p. 167)"...there is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves "the good of the whole," because the "good of the whole" is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done. "(p. 166)"Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarian regimes which horrify us follow of necessity." (p. 168)

More eerily familiar is this description of a collective society, which we can find some resonance in today's welfare state!
"There is much to suggest that we have in fact become more tolerant towards particular abuses and much more indifferent to inequities in individual cases, since we have fixed our eyes on an entirely different system in which the state will set everything right. It may even be, as now without compunction collectively indulge in that selfishness which as individuals we had learned to a little to restrain.
"It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now - independent, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one's own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one's neighbours - are essentially those on which the working of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed them it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good." (p. 217-8)

As I close the book, I seem to get the message that there is no middle ground between capitalism and collectivism, and yet searching for this "third way" is precisely the current endeavour. Granted that socialism in Hayek's book and socialism in today's terminology refers to quite different things. Nonetheless the appeal and pressure to move away from free enterprises with minimal state intervention and a small government to some hybrid is never relented. I wonder the focus of our effort in addressing the shortcomings of a market economy has been misguided. While Hayek is very clear which path we are not to take, it leaves us no wiser on which path we should take. The direction of state intervention is briefly addressed but it is not discussed. Meanwhile, China is attempting another model, making free enterprise to serve its totalitarian regime. Does Hayek's message imply that this model is internal incoherent and will break at some point and somewhere? Perhaps another book similar to Hayek's is due to draw insights for us to comprehend the world we are living in!

But as I close the book, I share Hayek's lamentation: "A foreign background is sometimes helpful in seeing more clearly to what circumstances the peculiar excellencies of the moral atmosphere of a nation are due. And if one who, whatever the law may say, must forever remain a foreigner, may be allowed to say so, it is one of the most disheartening spectacles of our time to see to what extent some of the most precious things which England, for example, has given to the world are now held in contempt in England itself." (p. 219) And what are the precious things referred to here? The English ideals of liberalism. Let's not give them up without a fight and due care, and be mindful of what Hayek describes as "the supreme tragedy" that "in Germany it was largely people of good will ... who prepared the way for, if they did not actually create, the forces which now stand for everything they detest." (p. 58-9)
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