The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom (1945) by Friedrich Hayek

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Few will question that this book deserves to be regarded as one of the most influential socio-political books of the last two hundred years. When its author received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences in 1974, the citation declared that it had ‘transformed the landscape of political thought in the twentieth century.’  According to the judging panel, it was ‘among the most influential and popular expositions of classical liberalism and libertarianism.’  Politicians, whether on the right or left of the political spectrum, agree that this book has changed the way the world views the distribution of political power. Milton Friedman, of the Hoover Institute, has gone on record as saying: ‘There is no figure who had more of an influence on the intellectuals behind the iron curtain than Friedrich Hayek. His books were translated and published by the underground, and ….undoubtedly influenced the climate of opinion that ultimately brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.’

Right wing leaders in the West were equally swayed by its powerful rhetoric. Ronald Reagan listed Hayek as one of the two or three people who had most influenced his philosophy, and there is little doubt that his famous promise to the American people, that he would ‘get the government of your back’ was inspired by Hayek. In 1991 George Bush gave Hayek the Presidential Medal of Freedom for what he described as ‘a lifetime of looking beyond the horizon’; and Margaret Thatcher, equally drawn to his teaching, promised the British people that if elected to No 10 she would ‘roll back the state’.  During her eleven years in power she made only one visit to the Tory party’s Research Department. For a while she listened to a young boffin wittering on about the desirability of ‘the middle way’. When she could stand it no longer she reached into her briefcase and brought out one of Hayek’s works. Holding it up for all to see, she banged it down on the table and declared: ‘This is what we believe.’

Who was this man who could exert such authority in the corridors of power? Hayek had a favoured start, being born into an aristocratic Austrian family where both his grandparents were prominent academics. At school, he was inspired by the ethical teaching of Aristotle. As a teenager, his father encouraged him to read the philosophical works of Ludwig Feuerbach. When he was twenty-two he was given the task of evaluating an early copy of Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the major works of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, who was his mother’s second cousin. From then onwards he resolved to spend his life in academia. His specialist subject was determined by the outbreak of the First World War, which he said was ‘bound to draw your attention to the problems of political organization’. This catastrophe made him resolved to work thereafter for a better world. He got a doctorate in law and another in political science. On the basis of these qualifications, he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the London School of Economics, where he quickly made his mark, and rapidly established himself as one of the world’s leading economic theorists.

The Road to Freedom was written towards the end of WW2 as a rallying call to the Western world.  Hayek had followed the progress of the Third Reich at close hand, and wanted to protect the free world from the stranglehold of autocratic state control.

He felt duty bound to write the book, even though he knew: ‘It is certain to offend many people with whom I wish to live on friendly terms’. The timing of the publication was unfortunate, because paper in Britain was rationed which limited the size of the print run. But no such restrictions applied in America where it rolled off the presses in vast quantities. Since then the book has been translated in twenty languages and sold over two million copies.  In 2006 the National Review ranked it forth in its list of the hundred best non-fiction books of the twentieth century, and it continues to sell tens of thousands of copies every year. Its core message still needs to be heard:  The state has a function to perform, but that role must be kept to the minimum necessary to maintain law and order. Bureaucrats working in centrally planned economies can never have the detailed knowledge necessary to carry out the efficient, day-to-day allocation of resources within a multitude of local economic communities. That can only be achieved when markets are free to respond to movements in supply and demand. The less the interference of the state, the greater the freedom of the individual, and less the restrictions placed on economic growth. State control and central planning are therefore incompatible with a truly democratic society.

Towards the end of his life Hayek resented the fact that this book was so much better known than his more strictly scientific works.  Most authors are reluctant to read their early works, and it’s comforting to discover that Hayek was in no way displeased when he reread the text of The Road to Serfdom after a lapse of twenty years. After doing so, during the preparation of the 1976 edition, he was able write to write a new preface in which he says: ‘I feel no longer apologetic, and for the first time

am rather proud of it – and not least the insight which made me dedicate it ‘To the Socialists of All Parties.’

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