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The Road to Serfdom
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This book, however, was not at all as I expected. Yes, it is a polemic against collectivists, socialists and planners; yes, it is fiercely argued, but often in a most generous way to his opponents individually. Hayek is rarely dismissive or contemptuous of the objects of his criticism. His life experience in pre-war Austria helps him to notice when the left-wing intellectuals of his time (he writes in 1943/44) unknowingly repeat the rhetoric of Nazism, but this, for Hayek, is tragic and foolish and rarely malicious. He is of course critical of Marx, but he has clearly read him closely and sympathetically; most unusually but with refreshing fair-mindedness Hayek acknowledges Marx's moral and principled intentions. Hayek's discussion throughout anticipates the arguments of his objectors in a way that suggests the capacity to be empathic with those he disagrees with – his points are deeply considered; his targets are not of the usual 'straw man' type. If, George Orwell-style, the writing style is a book is a prefiguration of the polity the author wishes to bring into existence, I repeatedly had the feeling that a truly Hayekian state would be a more generous one than has, in our days – and we are surely living in a post-Hayek age – come to pass.
The emotional intensity of his analysis comes from his personal knowledge of the gradual agglomeration of collectivist or völkisch ideologies and state planning in Germany that led – inexorably, in Hayekian retrospect – to the barbarity of Nazism. Written in exile in Cambridge at the turning of the tide in the Allies' struggle for victory, but with the outcome still not beyond doubt, Hayek debates with urgency the nature of the peace to come, and the founding principles for a just and lasting settlement. This is NEVER facile quasi-deterministic economism, but a passionate plea for freedom and morality. Most strikingly it is a lyrical, loving appreciation, by someone from a very different culture, of the virtues of a *British* market system, not (solely) for the sake of economic efficiency but as a way of increasing individual freedom *and* responsibility.
In our post-Brexit age, we may all benefit from a reminder of some of the principles underlying a broader and deeper conception of Britishness. Readers may be also surprised and fascinated to read his arguments for a European federal system.
The book is very well written in clear English. It's not a polemic, but a polite and reasoned examination of the realities of human nature and the consequences which follow attempts at social planning. Hayek shows government attempts at planning and control of the economy - even parts of it - leads to the erosion of freedom for individuals who eventually become 'serfs' of the state, having the option of no other employer. `Social security' according to Hayek, is incompatible with the maintenance of personal freedom. Even if some privileged group like the workers in a particular industry gain advantage for themselves by the creation of a government monopoly (like coal mining for example, if the state becomes the only employer), this advantage is always at the expense of everybody else and any gain is temporary and illusory. With only one employer freedom of action is removed, and with socialism the eventual result is the emergence of two `classes': the planners and the serfs.
Hayek examines the contrast between liberal economic ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries (the word `liberal' is not used by Hayek in the same way as that currently employed in American political discourse, where it tends to mean `socialist') based on freedom under the rule of law, versus the arbitrary laws characteristic of the patronising `we-know-what's-best-for-you' tyranny inherent in socialist thinking, usually rationalised as a necessary expedient for the success of social planning. The author also demonstrates ideas of re-distributive `social justice' through a planned economy to be misguided: only the millions of unpredictable and complex human interactions between people with different levels of skill and motivations, where people can move around and work wherever and for whoever they choose - can determine naturally where individuals end up in a complex social hierarchy. No one individual or small group can possibly understand or decide which occupations should be rewarded by how much: the market ultimately will decide this, on its own. In Chapter 15 `The Prospects of International Order' the author shows that liberal-economic ideas tend to be internationalist and lead to the erosion of national boundaries and increasing international co-operation, whereas socialist-collectivist ideologies inevitably end up being nationalistic and militarist (look at examples like Nazi Germany, the USSR and, more currently, North Korea for proof of this). There is an excellent, cogently argued chapter about the Marxist origins of Nazism which traces the road to power of Hitler's party back to the corporatist-socialist ideas governing Germany in the 19th century.
The ideas Hayek laid out in TRtS have been generally vindicated by subsequent history. Things turned out as he predicted everywhere from the Soviet Union and its East European vassal states, to China, Vietnam, North Korea, Albania and Cuba, to places in Africa where collectivist-socialist ideas were tried like Ethiopia, Mozambique and more recently Zimbabwe. The stature and reputation of this book has grown over the decades to the point where all serious political and economic thinkers (even the current government in China which in the 1980s finally abandoned collectivism and brought in their `open-door policy') accept its thesis as fundamentally true, though they might quibble with details at the edges.
It is rumoured that TRtS had a profound influence on the political philosophy of Margaret Thatcher and that she carried a copy in her famous handbag, which might be one reason so many of the declining endangered species of socialist-collectivist ideologues rail against it - though it's doubtful if many of them have read it, let alone understood the author's detailed, patient and insightful deconstruction of socialist thinking. Also the famous British socialist George Orwell heaped praised Hayek's book, once he'd read and understood its detailed arguments, and his writing `1984' in 1948 was in no small part influenced by it.
The book is not perfect. Hayek repeatedly cites Germany as a living example of the ultimate consequence of socialist thinking and plays down the equally relevant (in 1944) example of the USSR probably because of political expediency, Stalin being an important British/US ally against the Nazis at the time. He doesn't dwell on the potentially damaging consequences of an unregulated free market, though he does not wholly neglect the issue and makes a strong case for a regulatory framework of agreed laws to restrain the potential excesses of unrestricted private enterprise. The writing style, though clear and readable, is a little formal by the standards of the 21st century and might turn some readers off. However, TRtS is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the political ideas which have shaped human societies in the past two centuries and its importance cannot be overstated: it might even be said with justification that if you've never read it, then you're not really politically educated.
Sadly, the lessons from Hayek's work have not been learned by everyone. Here we are in the 21st century and STILL we have attempts at social engineering with `political correctness,' `multiculturalism' and `affirmative action' programs caused by a `government-should-fix-it' mentality.
NB avoid the `abridged' and `Readers' Digest' versions of this book and make sure you read the complete original, which is only about 240 pages; that way, you'll understand the full force of Hayek's thesis in detail.
In summary: important, thoughtful, enlightening, readable, brilliant.
As an exposition of why socialism cannot work as an economic system, the book deserves to be read ... very, very carefully. And what reflection on a careful reading will show you is that many of the reasons why socialism won't work are also reasons why the mythical perfectly competitive markets are rare. In slagging off socialism, Hayek states many of the grounds on which capitalism rightly deserves criticism.
My recommendation is to read it together with Galbraith's "The Affluent Society", which presents the other side of the argument (and in much more elegant prose). Better still, then also read Stiglitz on the economics of information to see how badly dated Hayek now is.
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