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A solvent of Socialism; a liberal classic.,
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This review is from: The Road to Serfdom (Routledge Classics) (Paperback)
In this seminal text Hayek set out to warn the British people in 1944 of the dangers that Socialism could bring upon them if they did not take stock and mend their ways. In the age where all three of the main political parties (even a self-described "Liberal" one) espouse the apparent benefits of "social justice"; where multinational companies are portrayed as demons; and "Make Trade Fair" (i.e. unfree) is fashionable, The Road to Serfdom provides a valuable ideological solvent of these present-day Socialist theories.
Hayek buries the Marxist myth that National-Socialism and Fascism were a "stage" of capitalism, and instead demonstrates that National-Socialism and Fascism were but different strands of collectivist thinking, just as Socialism is. In Germany, National-Socialism had its roots in the alliance between nationalistic conservatives of the Right and Socialists of the Left; a union of illiberal and anti-capitalist forces in the decades before Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s. For example, in 1892 the Social Democrat politician August Bebel proclaimed to Bismarck that German Social Democracy "is a sort of preparatory school for militarism".
Those intellectuals who laid the groundwork for National-Socialism (Fichte, Rodbertus and Lassall) are at the same time prominent Socialist thinkers. Professor Werner Sombart, an influential German Marxist theorist who Engels claimed was the only German professor who truly understood Marx's Das Kapital, at the same time portrayed the First World War as a war between two conflicting ideologies: England was the liberal, capitalist, individualist protagonist and Germany was the representative of an heroic culture which viewed war as sacred: to view war as senseless slaughter is, Sombart claimed, the outcome of English commercialism. Another German Marxist who helped lay the foundation for Hitler was Professor Johann Plenge, who also claimed that WWI was a struggle between two ideas; the "ideas of 1789" (freedom) and the "ideas of 1914" (organisation). The organised German war economy, Plenge contended, "is the first realisation of a socialist society". The Road to Serfdom demonstrates how Marxist thinkers did much of fascism's propaganda for it and made Hitler's rise all-but-inevitable by driving out liberalism from Germany.
Perhaps more importantly, Hayek demolishes the concept of "social justice" or "distributive justice". "Social justice" generally means the wealth in a society should be redistributed according to ideas of fairness and what socialists consider "just" and equitable through a state planned economy. Hayek convincingly argues that only human actions can be "just" or "unjust" and that a free-market economy cannot be "just" or "unjust" because it has not and could not be consciously brought into being by one person or one organisation precisely because it is unplanned and made up of many people. In a free competitive economy only a mixture of individuals' skill and luck determines where individuals will be placed on the ladder of income and wealth. Individuals' relative position to each other is not the outcome of any one person's deliberate action but the result of a process over which no one person or organisation has any control. Consequently it is illogical to judge this situation in terms of justice or to suggest a different outcome would have been more "just" because nobody has acted unjustly.
Hayek also proves that private property is one of the strongest bulwarks of liberty in existence: it is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many individuals acting independently that nobody has complete power over all of us and that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. If all the means of production were vested in a single authority, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us. Hayek asserts that the power which a millionaire, who may be my neighbour and conceivably my employer, has over me is very much less than that which a minor official who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends how I am to be allowed to live or to work in the name of "social justice". To abolish private property would be to abolish freedom itself.
When originally published, The Road to Serfdom was criticised for being a largely negative work; that is, it demonstrated what should not be done. Hayek responded in 1960 by publishing a positive work advocating liberal principles: The Constitution of Liberty. I would recommend reading that book after finishing this one.