The Road to Serfdom’s status as a classic of economic and political philosophy is well-deserved. Hayek makes political theory compelling as he describes the dire consequences of the schemes of central planners. An Austrian, he wrote from a unique vantage point, having spent his early life in eastern European nations that were far down the socialist rabbit hole and his later life in England when it was still committed to individual liberty and political freedom. He experienced the consequences of socialism and fascism as they matured in his country of birth, and realized while in England that the West was in the early stages of accepting the same premises and committing the same mistakes that so devastated eastern Europe.
While the writing is mostly theoretical and occasionally dry, the benefit is that it does not come across as polemical or ideological in any negative sense. If anything, Hayek is ideological in that he is driven by ideas–ideas that have had direct and disastrous consequences in front of his very eyes, and vice versa. Central planning is the height of political, intellectual and moral arrogance: The very idea that so-called experts can adequately plan an economy at a national level is patently absurd, not to mention immoral, and Hayek patiently and deliberately walks the reader through all the implications, assumptions and consequences involved. Anyone interested in true equality under the law, in freedom to organize one’s life according to one’s own principles, in genuine justice, cannot but oppose the vision of the central planners. Individual liberty, Hayek shows, must be the foundation of a free and just society.
I highly recommend this book to anyone following the modern American experiments in central planning that the left is engaged in, experiments that continue to wreak havoc on our economy and our political freedoms.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
The subtle change in the meaning to which the word “freedom” was subjected in order that this [socialist] argument should sound plausible is important. To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choices of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the “despotism of physical want” had to be broken, the “restraints of the economic system” relaxed. Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth. (29-30)
Far from being appropriate only to comparatively simple conditions, it is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about. There would be no difficulty about efficient control or planning were conditions so simple that a single person or board could effectively survey all the relevant facts. It is only as the factors which have to be taken into account become so numerous that it is impossible to gain a synoptic view of them that decentralization becomes imperative. (55)
Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom. As such as it is by no means infallible or certain. Nor must we forget that there has often been much more cultural and spiritual freedom under an autocratic rule than under some democracies—and it is at least conceivable that under the government of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority democratic government might be as oppressive as the worse dictatorship. Our point, however, 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. The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires. But in so far as democracy ceases to be a guaranty of individual freedom, it may well persist in some other form under a totalitarian regime. (78)
We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may also prevent its use for desirable purposes. (258)
It is more important…to release the creative energy of individuals than to devise further machinery for ‘guiding’ and ‘directing’ them–to create conditions favorable to progress rather than to ‘plan progress.’ (261)