This 1944 classic was the post-war clarion call against collectivism and its glide path to totalitarianism. Controversially for the time, it declared that socialism, communism, and fascism all float in the same collectivist (or Leftist) swamp, which brought howls of protest. As the saying goes, it is deja-vu all over again.
Indeed, as early as in his unpublished 1933 essay titled “Nazi-Socialism,” Hayek pointed out “that National Socialism is a genuine socialist movement.” (As the full name for Nazi makes explicit.) Communists are simply international, as opposed to national, socialists. Within the war context, Hayek laments that “Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” [p.59] Uh-oh.
In his 1956 forward for the U.S. paperback edition, Hayek explains:
“If twelve years ago it seemed to many sacrilege to suggest that fascism and communism are merely variants of the same totalitarianism which central control of all economic activity tends to produce, this has become almost a commonplace.” [p.43]
Imagine that! If such a realization was “almost a commonplace” in 1956, then why would so many today (and nearly all academia) be shocked by such a linkage? Could it be that communist propaganda, placing communism and fascism on opposite ends of the political spectrum, has triumphed? To be more topical still, could the violent Antifa movement actually be self-defeating, fascism raging against itself? It wouldn’t be the first time the serpent consumed itself tail first.
This farsighted book, along with George Orwell’s 1984, is sorely missed within today’s radicalized academy on collectivist steroids.
Written in war-torn England by the Austrian-British economist, F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom was intended as a correction to British trends but in fact had a greater impact in the United States. As Bruce Caldwell’s learned introduction points out, “during war the market system is more or less abandoned.” [p.11] (Take today’s War on the Pandemic as an example.) The book’s warnings were sadly ignored in Great Britain, which dumped Churchill, brought in socialism via the collectivist Labour Party, and precipitated the country’s economic collapse – until belatedly and partially reversed by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s.
The book’s thesis is that centralized planning almost inevitably leads to tyranny. As Caldwell, with prescience, points out in his introduction from 2007:
“Hayek lamented how western democracies were increasingly circumventing the spirit of liberal constitutionalism by passing coercive legislation, typically under the guise of social justice, but in reality serving well-organized coalitions of special interests.” [p.24]
Worse, such coercive laws per Hayek tend to be implemented by unaccountable “experts”:
“Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective ‘talking shops,’ unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.” [p.104]
Nearly 80 years ago, Hayek foresaw today’s (some would say death) struggle with the leviathan named the Administrative State, a.k.a. the Swamp.
The road to serfdom, interestingly, starts out as a meandering, slow byway before becoming an auto-bahn. Hayek’s contention “is not that dictatorship must inevitably extirpate freedom but rather that planning leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals and, as such, essential if central planning on a large scale is to be possible.” [p.110]
Furthermore, in Hayek’s last introduction (in 1976), he emphasizes the (until now) gradualism of our glide path:
“…socialism has come to mean chiefly the extensive re-distribution of incomes through taxation and the institutions of the welfare state. In the latter kind of socialism the effects I discuss in this book are brought about more slowly, indirectly, and imperfectly. I believe that the ultimate outcome tends to be very much the same…” [p.54]
In other words, the existential risk of even a slow slide into totalitarianism is much greater from within democratic societies than from without. Hayek is categorical: “When is becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself.” [p.110]
Why is this? For one thing, real – not the fictitious race-based – privilege is granted by the state. In contrast,
“The essence of the [classical] liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.” [p.46, bracketed addition mine]
Why are our Founding Fathers under relentless attack by the Left? Could it be to overthrow the Constitution? Hayek appears to answer from the grave:
“What our generation has forgotten is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.” [p.136]
Furthermore, he demonstrates how “group rights” (being shouted from the rooftops and during nightly riots throughout the U.S. today) lead to collectivist goals:
“If the ‘community’ or the state are prior to the individual…[i]t is a necessary consequence of this view that a person is respected only as a member of the group, that is, only if and in so far as he works for the recognized common ends, and that he derives his whole dignity only from this membership and not merely from being a man.” [p.162]
One is reminded of Candidate Biden’s “joke” that any black person who didn’t vote for him could not be black. Countless voters are thereby not only stripped of their individual worth (and ability to make decisions for themselves), but are expelled from group membership (even race!) for Wrong-Speak or Thinking.
To help explain the roots of today’s mob violence – always and everywhere a phenomenon of the Left, including the fascistic Antifa – the author points out: “To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behavior as individuals within the group.” [p.163] One thinks of how the collectivist, totalitarian bent flourishes among the Twitter and other social media mobs.
Hayek even anticipates the utter immorality of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971) – Hillary Clinton’s thesis subject and taught by Professor Obama – which clearly states ends do justify the means.
“The principle that the end justifies the means is in individual ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it become necessarily the supreme rule; 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…. 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 by necessity.” [pp.166,168]
No wonder most collectivists despise Christians and are atheists at heart, for individual ethics or responsibility are roadblocks to enslaving any nation.
Lastly, Hayek anticipates the Orwellian concern for the abuse of language as a means of enslaving minds (think of ever-repeated lie of “peaceful protests”):
“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 things as its opposite…” [p.175]
The book convincingly argues that individualism (in the Judeo-Christian sense, not the post-modern materialist one) is the bulwark against tyranny and ends with these ringing words:
“The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century.” [p.238]
In a benighted world where even “moderate” Joe Biden intends to “transform” (not reform, improve, etc.) the United States, Hayek provides a cautionary tale in the book’s opening chapter:
“It became more and more widely accepted that further advance could be expected not along the old lines within the general framework which had made past progress but only by a complete remodeling of society.” [p.72]
Woe be to us, if we ignore Hayek’s ominous warning from his 1976 introduction:
“And both the influence of socialist ideas and the naive trust in the good intentions of the holders [and seekers] of totalitarian power have markedly increased since I wrote this book.” [p.55, bracketed addition mine]
The road of good intentions to destruction is indeed a wide and quickening one.
F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.1944, The U. of Chicago Press ‘Definitive Edition,’ 2007