High Road to Serfdom

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

The startling thing about the books academics typically dismiss as relics of the past is the uncanny manner in which they anticipate the present. “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1848. “Democracy attaches all possible value to each man while socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number.”

“Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”  The de Tocqueville quote was resurrected nearly a century later by Friedrich A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom.

The Austrian economist and philosopher himself proved to be quite prescient in his own analyses. “Indeed, it could almost be said that wherever liberty as we know it has been destroyed, this has been done in the name of some new freedom promised to the people,” Hayek wrote. “Even among us we have planners who promise us a ‘collective freedom,’ which is as misleading as anything said by totalitarian politicians.”

“‘Collective freedom’ is not the freedom of the members of society, but the unlimited freedom of the planner to do with society that which he pleases.” Think of some of the exotic freedoms we have been promised lately.

Here are some other Hayekian insights which arguably still resonate 70 years after they first appeared in print:

  • “Almost all the traditions and institutions which have moulded the national character and the whole moral climate of England and America are those which the progress of collectivism and its centralistic tendencies are progressively destroying.” [In case you wondered where the progressivism comes in.]
  • “Great danger lies in the policies of two powerful groups, organized capital and organized labor, which support the monopolistic organization of industry.” [Crony capitalism, anyone? Perhaps someone should build a statue of Hayek that overlooks Detroit.]

The distinguished émigré also offered a poignant coda for those of us with grandparents who left their homelands because they didn’t want to be born into the job they would die in: “Nothing makes conditions more unbearable that the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them. It may be bad to be just a cog in a machine but it is infinitely worse if we can no longer leave it, if we are tied to our place and to the superiors who have been chosen for us.”

Finally, read this little passage of Hayek’s, written before World War II drew to a close, and realize how long we have been bereft of accuracy in either the media or academia: “The younger generation of today has grown up in a world in which, in school and press, the spirit of commercial enterprise has been represented as disreputable and the making of profit as immoral, where to employ 100 people is represented as exploitation but to command the same number as honorable.”