Road to Serfdom de Friedrich Hayek

clip_image001.jpg Translated into more than twenty languages, The Road to Serfdom transformed Hayek from a retiring academic into an international celebrity. In succeeding years, his influence waxed and waned, but by the time he died, six weeks shy of his ninety-third birthday, in 1992, Hayek had at last become a darling of the academic establishment. He’d been a professor at LSE, the University of Chicago, and the University of Freiburg, and was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. In 1974, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics—the first free-market economist to be so honored—and his theories helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the economic revitalizations that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan undertook in the 1980s. In a deeper sense, however, Hayek remained a maverick, outside the intellectual or at least the academic mainstream. The message of The Road to Serfdom shows why. The book had two purposes. On the one hand, it was a paean to individual liberty. On the other, it was an impassioned attack on central economic planning and the diminution of individual liberty such planning requires. It might seem odd, in the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, to describe an attack on central planning or a defense of individual liberty as “maverick.” But in fact, although Hayek’s theories won some major skirmishes “on the ground,” in the world of elite intellectual opinion his views are as contentious now as they were in the 1940s. Even today, there is widespread resistance to Hayek’s guiding insight that socialism is a nursery for the growth of totalitarian policies. With the example of Nazi Germany before him, Hayek saw how naturally socialism, leaching more and more initiative away from the individual in order to invest it in the state, shaded into totalitarianism. A major theme of the book is that the rise of fascism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the 1920s, as is often contended, but on the contrary was a natural outcome of those trends. What began as a conviction that, if planning were to be “efficient,” it must be “taken out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts, ended with the failure of politics and the embrace of tyranny. “Hitler did not have to destroy democracy,” Hayek noted; “he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he yet seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.” Britain, Hayek warned, had already traveled far down the road of socialist abdication. “The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning,” he wrote, “create a state of affairs in which … totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” Hayek quotes numerous influential commentators who cheerfully advocate not only wholesale economic planning but the outright rejection of freedom. In 1932, for example, the influential political theorist Harold Laski argued that “defeat at the polls” must not be allowed to derail the glorious progress of socialism. Voting is all well and good—so long as people vote for the right, i.e., the left, things. In 1942, the historian E. H. Carr blithely argued that “The result which we desire can be won only by a deliberate reorganization of European life such as Hitler has undertaken.” The eminent biologist and commentator C. H. Waddington also proposed handing society over to the experts, noting that freedom “is a very troublesome concept for the scientist to discuss, partly because he is not convinced that, in the last analysis, there is such a thing.” Sir Richard Ackland, architect of the “Commonwealth movement,” wrote with bluff chumminess that the community says to the individual “don’t you bother about getting your own living.” The “community” as a whole will take care of that, determining how, where, and in what manner an individual will be employed. It will also, he added, run camps for shirkers, but don’t worry, “the community” will insist on “very tolerable conditions.” Like Carr, Ackland found a good deal to admire in Hitler, who, he said, had “stumbled across … a small part of, or perhaps one should say one particular aspect of, what will ultimately be required of humanity.” This, incidentally, was written in 1941, a moment when the world discovered that following Hitler required a very great deal of humanity indeed.

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