75 Years Down "The Road to Serfdom"

It is a world of entrenched ideological enmity and escalating social tension. The sincerest aspirations to preserve cultural values have degenerated into various forms of social division, from nationality to ethnicity, gender to religion. Populist sentiments have culminated in waring political caricatures more proficient in spouting emotionally charged propaganda than formulating rational and effective policies. And bubbling beneath the fragmented landscape of social discourse is the rising call for a new utopian state built upon the ideals of equality and prosperity for all. This is the world as it was in 1944, as F. A. Hayek’s’ The Road to Serfdom went to print at Routledge & Sons publishing house in London.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The impact of the Austrian political economist’s work was as immediate as it was widespread, sparking intense readership and fierce debate in academic, political, and social circles across Europe. The book quickly made its way across the Atlantic to the United States where it sold tens of thousands of copies within the first six months, was summarized in Reader’s Digest, and led to a book tour with large crowds and radio broadcasts.[i] The demand coupled with wartime paper rationing even prompted Hayek to jokingly nickname his work “that unobtainable book.”[ii] Contrary to the nickname though, readers obtained over two million copies and academics cited it over ten thousand times in the 75 years since its publication. Advocates and critics alike agree that The Road to Serfdom stands as a controversial yet timeless pillar of classical liberal thought.[iii]

Advocates and critics alike agree that The Road to Serfdomstands as a controversial yet timeless pillar of classical liberal thought.

The world has undeniably seen significant change since 1944. Advancements in healthcare have eradicated diseases, progress in the natural sciences have generated sustainable energy sources, and innovations in technology have increased productivity, introduced new forms of social connection and even allowed for city-dwellers to get dinner and groceries delivered to their door. Our world is both larger and more connected than ever before.

But for all the ways the world has changed over the last 75 years, the underlying sociopolitical conversation has remained very much the same. The same theoretical and ideological justifications for the establishment of central economic planning and utopian socialism can still be found alive and well in the ongoing sociopolitical conversation. In this sense, The Road to Serfdom is not a dust-covered relic but, instead, a dire warning to idealist political activists of the consequences of real-life socialism.

Cast against the desensitizing ebb and flow of daily life, it might seem irrelevant or even alarmist to draw such a direct parallel between the socialist ideology that gave rise to the human atrocities of the twentieth century and the current American sociopolitical landscape of 2019. But Hayek himself addresses the necessity of such ideological vigilance in The Road to Serfdom, warning that,

…our chances of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger. There are few signs yet that we have the intellectual courage to admit to ourselves that we may have been wrong (p. 59).

One need do little more than glance at the headlines of a daily newspaper, listen to a thirty-second sound bite of political commentary, or make a five-minute plunge into the deluge of 280-character tirades on Twitter to find evidence enough to conclude that 75 years later we still lack the intellectual courage to admit that we may be wrong.

The intellectual courage we seek is not to be found in casting further blame across political lines or in idealizing our own good intentions and values. There is no well-measured prescription with which to medicate our ideological malaise, but what F. A. Hayek offers in The Road to Serfdom is an analytical instrument with which to begin diagnosing and countering the source of our symptoms.

Contrary to popular criticism, Hayek’s analysis is far more nuanced than just being a “slippery slope” argument.[iv] Instead of attempting to pit the idealized free market society against the socialist utopian vision, he takes the proposition of central planning to the point of implementation, measuring the inevitable outcomes of the necessary means against the desired ends. It is this simple yet powerful method of self-examination that we must now have the courage to apply to “our most cherished hopes and ambitions.”

Individualism v. Collectivism

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Often overused, this declaration has lost much of its former radical significance. But when Thomas Jefferson first penned these words he was making the bold proposition that the sole purpose of a just and prosperous society is to protect the inalienable rights of being that are inherently and equally possessed by every individual. The fact that such a radical proposition has faded into a patriotic adage is perhaps a testament to the degree to which Jefferson’s vision for society has become a widely accepted goal. The problem we now face is not in determining the end of a just and prosperous society, but rather in determining the, far less evident, means by which a society can achieve it.

The possible means are as numerous as the nation-states spanning human history and as diverse as the cultures that fostered them. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek divides sociopolitical structures into the two broad ideological categories of Individualism and Collectivism, distinguishing them according to their proposed means of achieving the self-evident ends of society. According to Hayek, in the Individualist state “the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of the individual is given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully” (p. 85). In contrast, the Collectivist state is a social structure in which “rational utilization of our resources requires central direction and organization of all of our activities according to some conscious constructed ‘blueprint’” (p. 85).

The topic of individual rights is traded at a premium in the public sphere of debate. In order to secure civil rights to oppressed, reduce discrimination, and protect the equal provision of individual rights, citizens often form voluntary groups to bring attention to social problems and demand action. Such groups (like the women’s suffrage movement or civil rights movement of the past) are often comprised of individuals who can participate in trying to achieve their shared end goal while maintaining their right to autonomy in determining and expressing the fullest scope of their other beliefs and convictions. Many of the triumphs of the 20th century were due to the efforts of these sorts of voluntary group action.

However, these movements may also be accompanied with calls for collective definitions and conformity. Today, the #TimesUp, #TheFutureIsFemale, #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #BuildTheWall and other movements have led to recognition and calls for social change but have also demonstrated the growing acceptance of Collectivist social identities as the necessary and even inevitable means of securing individual rights. In order to remain in good standing, individuals who may have nuanced or complex positions are pressured to conform to a particular set of beliefs, attitudes, and expressions. Regardless of the just or unjust cause around which such collectivist identities form, they risk becoming tyrannical and abusive when the individual is left with the choice of either conforming to the current social attitude or being condemnedostracized, and silenced.

The mandated ideological conformity that Hayek warned against in 1944remains active in the social planning of group identities today. “The knowledge and initiative of the individual” has become constrained by the “consciously constructed blueprints” of competing identity groups. Ultimately, the question is not one of the legitimacy or extent of individual rights, it is a question of whether individual rights are better upheld by protecting the fullest expression of individual beliefs and convictions or by the social power derived from adherence to a group identity. Due to the rise of identity politics in the digital age, we now seem to find ourselves walking down the #RoadToCollectivistSerfdom.

The Great Technological Utopia and the Inevitability of Planning

Imagine the year is now 2094, the 150th anniversary of The Road to Serfdom. What does the world look like? Perhaps seamlessly automated self-driving vehicles, emission free hydroelectric power generators, and holographic artificial intelligence assistants? The future we envision is nearly inseparable from our natural expectation that technological advancements will be the key to our social progress. There will inevitably be groundbreaking technological developments that will transform the daily life of every individual. The potential mistake lies in the assumption that the technology filled utopian future will be the product of our solution to a technological problem. Even the clearest vision of the future could not tell us how we will arrive there. The infinitely nuanced network of human motivation and entrepreneurial inspiration that we call a free society is, and will continue to be, beyond the scope of any single intelligence, artificial or human. This unlimited potential for improvement and advancement is, somewhat counterintuitively, often at odds with the hope for a brighter idealized future.

As Hayek writes,

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. 71).

Technological advancement has undeniably granted us the ability to coordinate our activities to a degree that is unprecedented in human history, but such progress should not blind us to the fact that it was the human ingenuity of and competition between entrepreneurs that catalyzed the creation of such technological advancement in the first place. Inspired and frustrated entrepreneurs look at the current state of the world, with all its flaws and limits, and find ways to fix errors, improve processes, and create new goods, services, industries, and possibilities.

The great paradox of the utopian vision is that the greater the degree to which its creation is mandated and resources centrally directed toward building it, the less and less suitable the realized society will become for those within it. If 2094 is to be the technological utopia we envision it to be, then it will not be due to a strictly coordinated effort, but rather the undirected outcome of actions taken within the fullest scope of individual liberty. Hayek writes, “While it is true, of course, that inventions have given us tremendous power, it is absurd to suggest that we must use this power to destroy our most precious inheritance: liberty” (p. 97). The utopian future of tomorrow is only as secure as the liberty of the individual today.

The End of Truth

Few would argue that there is a more broadly accepted social ideal in western society than the pursuit of truth. How does a society determine what the facts are, what is reasonable action, and what is truth? In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek describes the inextricable link between the mandated planning of social action and the collectively mandated adherence to collective reason. He writes,

The word “truth” itself ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief; it becomes something to be laid down by authority, something which has to be believed in the interest of the unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require (p. 178).

In this way the predetermined collectivist criteria of truth will inevitably take precedence over the individual right to ideological dissent. Any dissenting thought or idea is the natural origin of any dissenting action against the collectively mandated plan for a structured society. Thus, collective planning of society is accompanied by a social and political suppression of dissent.

Some may argue that such a suppression of individual thought could only occur in a completely authoritarian state (such as the former Soviet Union or modern-day North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela) and that so long as the first amendment is upheld in the United States we have no reason to fear the materialization of such a reality (even when, say, there is a push for ‘alternative’ or relative facts and truths). Hayek has a different stance, noting that,

…contempt for individual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith and who are acclaimed as intellectual leaders even in countries still under a liberal regime (p. 178).

The rise of ideological interest in relying on central authorities to guide our social life is connected to the acceptance of authoritarian power. Hayek warned that the necessary remedy toward authoritarianism is a renewed commitment to the tenacious defense of individual thought and active dissent.

The Hayekian Critique

75 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom still stands as an important work that calls for an embrace of the principles of classical liberalism, and Hayek remains a timeless voice in the conversation of social and political thought.[v] But beyond this, The Road to Serfdom models of methodology of intellectual criticism that is at times overlooked or underappreciated. Hayek’s critique offers far more than the hashtag-riddled political commentary that noxiously permeates our public discourse. It offers intellectual humility and contestation as the well-crafted tools of social criticism.

Hayek argued that criticism of an ideology should be rooted in the most serious analysis of the practical means necessary to its social implementation. We should dispense with ad hominem attacks of an opponent’s personal character and, instead, rely on a concentrated effort to understand an opponent’s perspective to assess the feasibility of their propositions.

If we are to truly embrace Hayek’s methodology of criticism found in The Road to Serfdom, we must first apply it to our own most cherished beliefs and revered ideals. We must be willing to question whether our desire for individual expression has led us to seek collective power, if our hope for a utopian future has made us forgetful of the principles that granted us the prosperity to imagine that such a future might even exist, and if our most reasonable social ideals might betray our right to individual thought. This is Hayek’s challenge to us, perhaps even more relevant today than when he first scribed The Road to Serfdom.

For more discussion on the lasting impact of F. A. Hayek, see Peter J. Boettke’s F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, Great Thinkers in Economics series, 2018).

Peter Boettke also discusses the impact of F. A. Hayek and his ideas with Rosolino Candela on the Hayek Program Podcast:

To learn more about the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, visit hayek.mercatus.org.

About the Authors