Book Review of “The Road to Serfdom”

The core of Hayekian philosophy is not conservatism; at least not the way American conservatives claim. Did they read Hayek or are they just pretending?

Humanism is a progressive philosophy. The goal is to improve yourself and the society in which you live and upon which you are dependent. For society to thrive, you need a sense of community that is engaged and supportive. It is not enough to improve yourself; as a member of the community, you must also be concerned with social responsibility.

Humanists do not accept the status quo if the status quo means that people are suffering. For that reason, you’ll find a humanist agitating for change and ways to end suffering. Invariably, even among humanists – there is disagreement on the details. Both Freidrich Hayek and Karl Marx were Humanist economists. One advocated for controlled capitalism, the other for communism. What they wanted to achieve was similar, how they thought we could accomplish it was very different.

Which brings me to a kind of conundrum when I meet conservatives who use The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek as a Christian uses a bible – high velocity, with intent to do bodily damage. This book is said to have spurred the Tea Party and the Ultra Conservative movement.  In 2006, the book appeared on Martin Seymour-Smith‘s list of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written and made HumanEvents.com’s list of Top Ten Books Every Republican Congressman Should Read.

If only they would read it. If only they truly understood what Hayek was trying to accomplish, perhaps they would realize what an utter fraud the leaders of the Republican Party (and the Tea Party) have committed. And the fraud? To say that they have blended Hayekian philosophy into the late not so great brand of American conservatism is nothing more than mere bullshit.

For backstory, Hayek is considered one of the intellectual leaders of the libertarian brain trust. Among the things contemplated were the limit of government’s role versus the range of freedom for the governed. Frankly, I have no problem with that notion. Government ought to stay out of personal lives and focus on governance. While Hayek message is also cautionary (at a time when caution was needed), it is the degree and the way that he makes his case that is troublesome.

The bullets had barely stopped flying in Berlin when many intellectuals and pundits declared that socialism was a fait accompli – an accomplished fact; a thing already done. The enemy, often characterized as rampant capitalistic oligarchies propped up by royalty or riches (take your pick), were on the run. Surrender was inevitable. History tells us another story. Not only did the oligarchs survive, they reformed during reconstruction. Which was good, for a while. But then even stronger cabals were formed, but that’s a story for another time. 

Hayek was among an opposing group – people like Jose Ortega and John Dos Passos – who feared the rise of socialism, but for different reasons. Ortega believed that given any opportunity, “mass man” would swell up and destroy the intellectual world in a fit of rage. Dos Passos was originally enthralled by socialism, but he became disillusioned by what he saw in Stalin’s Russia.

The trouble with an all-powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there’s no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that’s what’s happening in Russia. – Dos Passos

Hayek took another turn. He believed that all forms of collectivism were doomed to failure — including collective bargaining. He pinned socialism as the greatest threat to individual liberty. It was on that point that he harps the most. In his world, all forms of socialism should be rejected by freedom loving people. So broad was that brush that he included simple things like government giving money to the old and infirm so that they could buy food and shelter. 

If it wasn’t pure democracy and absolute capitalism, Hayek had nothing kind to say. One chapter is nothing more than a long run-on rant about communism, socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, and despotism. On the first read, it seemed like one lumpy and wholly inaccurate mess. On redirect (by a friend who has read other works by Hayek), I find that he rails against ideology for the sake of ideology. It’s not that he has a problem with socialism, per se, but that he worries about the dogma that historically follows it. Given historical examples – the Soviet, Mao’s China, North Korea – he makes a point. The brush, therefore, is even wider than I originally thought.

What confounds me is that Hayek points out weaknesses in collectivism without serving back weaknesses in capitalism (for example). Let’s agree that there are many examples where central planning, or collectivism, has failed; 1960s American experimentation with urban planning comes to mind. But post-war Japan is a great example where short-term collective/central planning was extremely effective for raising up battered economies. 

It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now — independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors — are essentially those on which the of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good. – Hayek

As an interesting footnote to my study, there was a chapter – nine, I believe – where Hayek seems to support the idea of government sponsored social insurance, including health care.

As history shows, socialism did not sweep Western Europe, but it did roost. Through free elections, the people of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and France reformed as mixed economies which allowed extensive private enterprise alongside substantial state enterprise and government intervention. This outcome was probably deeply disappointing to Hayek.

Who imagines that there exist any common ideals of distributive justice such as will make the Norwegian fisherman consent to forego the prospect of economic improvement in order to help his Portuguese fellow, or the Dutch worker to pay more for his bicycle to help the Coventry mechanic, or the French peasant to pay more taxes to assist the industrialization of Italy? – Hayek

And yet what the fisherman, the mechanic, and the peasant decided to do has worked out very well them, hasn’t it? Which then causes me to wonder, what the hell is he worried about?

I’m not an economist, so maybe I missed something, but “The Road to Serfdom” seemed to be more about Hayek’s philosophical views rather than an articulate analysis of competing systems. But I don’t think that this is the result of false advertising on his part. I believe Hayek sought to balance the rush to collectivism and wanted to fill what he perceived as a lack of complete discussion.

Consider how he contrives conflict. In one breath, he says, “…money is one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man,” but by another, he spouts that “it is money which in existing society opens an astounding range of choice to the poor man.” How does this work, that a poor serf may be caused to admire the “astounding” array of choices at his feet? Call me stupid, but I’ve always thought that the lack of money restricts choices and constricts possibilities. Isn’t that the center argument of the spiral into poverty? Isn’t that the very spiral that has caused gross imbalance of wealth? Isn’t this imbalance at the core of discontent among the masses especially as the lack of choices become acute?

If Hayek doesn’t understand the plight of the serf, then how can he advise us on how to avoid serfdom? Maybe it is because he never intends to deal offer advise; perhaps this book is as it appears – a collection of belly aches that ascribes to no ideology whatsoever.

Speaking of gastronomical distress, I believe mine is caused by reflection and realization that the current brand of conservatism believes that they have accurately portrayed his work. Seeking gravitas, they have exposed their ignorance. Therefore, the fraud is not Hayek’s but everyone who says that they have read his book and can give a good account why it must be held as the grail of the new American neo-conservative movement. I hope they do better on other subjects.