Review #15: The Road to Serfdom

A road much too traveled

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The Road to Serfdom

The road to socialism is paved with good intentions, but it always leads to totalitarianism, or even fascism. So says Friedrich A. Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom. Hayek wrote this study of collectivism in 1944, in the midst of a battle against German fascist tendencies and the rise of a collectivist mentality in Russia. While these two nations serve as examples for Hayek’s ideas, he writes England and America, warning them of what is to come if they seek similar paths.

Hayek understands the desire for economic security and equality. He even favors some limited welfare for those unfortunates who cannot care for themselves. But he warns against taking such feelings too far. The problem is not the intentions or goals, but the implementation and the inevitable results.

In order to bring equality of outcomes to all members of a society, it is necessary to define the moral state of every aspect of that society. How much should nurses be paid? How much free time should a person have each day? What is the right amount of milk for a family of four? What is fair compensation for those who find themselves out of work? The problem isn’t in asking these questions; the problems are (1) in expecting a one-size-fits-all answer to such questions, and (2) thinking you can enforce the answers without devolving into dictatorial rule.

Hayek leads the reader through various aspects of socialist thought, driving home two main conclusions: (1) collectivism never works because it is impossible for a central body to adequately manage the millions of decisions required for a society to function; and (2) attempts at collectivism always lead to totalitarianism, because deviations from the core plan represent unknowns that increase complexity for central planners. It’s not just economic and political elements that must be controlled. Collectivists and socialists must manage even ordinary parts of life, including travel, entertainment, and communication.

Unlike books such as Orwell’s 1984 that attempt to evoke a visceral response to totalitarian systems, Hayek’s content is very sedate and ordered. There’s no fear-mongering here, just professorial outlines of the actual results of a system that seeks to wrest control away from the natural work of markets and prices. But he does include strong warnings to his British (and later, American) audience. Although a strong middle class acts as a brake against socialist ideals, he cautions that some in England had (during his time) already accepted the false truths of a collectivist utopia. And such utopias are always lead to serfdom.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.

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