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Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Introduction

In America, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, Economics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 9, 2013 at 7:45 am

Slade Mendenhall

Slade Mendenhall is an M.Sc. candidate in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, with specializations in conflict and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds degrees in Economics and Mass Media Arts from the University of Georgia and writes for The Objective Standard and, where he is also editor.

This piece commences a series of analyses on Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For those unfamiliar with the work, first published in 1943, it details the famed Austrian economist’s observations, drawn from having lived in Austria in the years after World War I, witnessing firsthand the culture of political ideas that preceded and led to the rise of Nazism there, and then, some decades later, living in England, teaching at the London School of Economics, and observing the rise of similar ideas at work in English political culture at the onset of her own period of experimentation with socialism.

Britain was, at the time, feeling the onset of what would become a set of devastating postwar economic ailments: the loss of many colonies—sold off one by one to finance the war, severe physical destruction (though not as bad as on the Continent), a trade imbalance skyrocketing the prices of much-needed American goods, and an economy of permits and privation in basic commodities. The end of the war would bring the sweeping 1945 victory of Labour and greater troubles with the onset of the Brain Drain, a period of bitter class resentment, and nationalizations of industry. Shortly after the second edition of The Road to Serfdom was printed in 1946, England was facing strikes, falling exports, and almost £200m lost every week as dollar convertibility was introduced in 1947.

In the midst of it all was a growing culture of socialism in both major parties. As Hayek wrote, “the socialism of which we speak is not a party matter, and the questions which we are discussing have little to do with the questions at dispute between political parties” (3). Though Labour would be its more avowed exponents, the fundamentals of socialist ideology were well enough embedded so as not to be challenged at any basic moral or systematic level by either side. What’s more, many Britons would see this as a proud new political and economic identity for a Britain without an empire. Historian Norman Stone writes,

“the British were pleased with themselves, supposing also that their example was one to be widely followed as some sort of ‘third way’ between American capitalism and Soviet Communism… combining the ‘economic democracy’ of Communism and the ‘political democracy’ of the West: socialism without labour camps…. People who argued to the contrary [such as Hayek—ed.] were in a small minority… but even in the later 1940s these supposedly half-demented figures were starting to have reality on their side. It struck with a ferocious blow, in the second post-war winter. The money began to run out, and the government became quite badly divided as to priorities.”

It is easy to imagine how remorsefully vindicated Hayek must have felt in those first few years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom—affirmed and disappointed in the way that all those who warn of impending danger are wont to feel.

Though the book would be praised by proponents of liberalism from the time of its publishing to the present and cause a stir among his peers in academia, policymakers would be, as they ever are, roughly a generation late in feeling the aftershocks of this groundbreaking statement. By the time began its creep into the political lexicon, Hayek had moved on from the LSE, going on to teach at the University of Chicago (in its Committee on Social Thought, as the School of Economics vehemently opposed his hiring under their banner), the University of Freiburg, the University of California, and the University of Salzburg, where in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Since the onset of the 2007 recession, sales of The Road to Serfdom, along with other works that challenge the fabric and assumptions of modern Western philosophy, political culture, and economics such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, have skyrocketed. In 2010, 66 years after its publication, The Road to Serfdom became a #1 bestseller on Amazon.

As this and other such works grow in popularity, it is important to take a second look at them, assessing both their virtues and faults, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. The analysis that follows sets out to do just that. It is an overall favorable assessment, as this author agrees with many of Hayek’s basic political premises. However, for that reason, it will also more scrupulously critique and highlight perceived flaws, ambiguous wording, platitudes, and those floating abstractions common in political treatises that, though they seem plausible at first glance, prove deeply flawed when translated into concrete practice. Though these analyses will strive to give an adequate overall summary of what Hayek himself writes, the reader is encouraged to read Hayek’s words along with these critiques and to judge for himself their validity.

It is broadly understood that those concerned with the cause of liberty must be vigilant in our criticisms of its destroyers, but it is no less essential—if not more so—that we be judicious toward those authors and works on which we base our own beliefs, as every philosophy is a structure and every flaw in that structure a weakness. The closer our faults are to our foundations, the greater our vulnerability. As more and more libertarians and capitalists turn to works such as Hayek’s to form understandings and shape their beliefs, let us look carefully to what ideas we are resting upon. We have nothing to lose but our contradictions.

Note on citations: all page references, unless otherwise stated, are based on the February 1946 edition published by George Routledge & Sons LTD.


Hayek’s introduction effectively sets the tone for the rest of the work by illustrating his own unique perspective, having come “as near as possible to twice living through the same period—or at least twice watching a very similar evolution of ideas,” (1) then giving us a brief summary of what wisdom that twice-lived experience has offered him: an understanding of the linkages between the spread of socialist ideas, the various debates it engenders in countries operating on similar philosophical premises, and the eventual rise of dictatorship.

The summary of events transpiring in the half-century leading up to World War II that Hayek describes is perhaps most powerful and most distinctive for its recognition of the role of ideas in man’s life. Hayek superbly recognizes the consequential nature of ideas in human life, writing “If in the long run we are the makers of our own fate, in the short run we are the captives of the ideas we have created. Only if we recognise the danger in time can we hope to avoid it” (2).

In this short passage, just a few paragraphs in, Hayek has already distinguished himself from the long and destructive philosophical and political tradition of determinism and, more subtly and implicitly, by viewing the connection between man’s ideas and actions, rejected the mind-body dichotomy, which has long divided philosophers and intellectuals between those who concerned themselves with the workings of man’s mind, dismissing his physical actions as inconsequential marginalia, and those concerned with man’s physical nature but who view the content of his mind as meaningless.

These abstract philosophical notes are crucial, allowing us to establish several inferences as to what misguided political camps and ideologies Hayek will successfully avoid being mired in. By denying the metaphysical premise of determinism (whether in its environmental or genetic forms), Hayek embraces the concept of free will and the essential premise that ideas matter, inviting us to commence his work with the presumption that what wisdom we glean from it individually might be actionable and applicable in our own lives and experiences. This quickly separates him from the philosophical premises of the Left (or, to indulge a common but unbearably ironic label, “progressivism”), whose policies largely rest upon some variant of determinist metaphysics, leading them perpetually to the conclusion that man, left to his own free will, is doomed to irrationality, but that the ideal society is achievable through the right amount of systematic tweaking and statist controls. It already begins to become clear what premises lead Hayek to become the symbol of liberalism he is today.

In embracing the importance of the mind and the function of ideas, however, he does not assume a mysticist rejection of reality. To the contrary, he presents to us the implicit proposition that the “ideas we have created” will have very real consequences, and that to change our fates we must scrutinize and perhaps alter our ideas and those of our culture. It rests on the recognition that man is not immune from his own illogic and that, to paraphrase Rand, while the practice of reason may be evaded, the consequences of evading reason cannot be. This acknowledgment separates him from the premises that underlie much of conservative political thought, also concerned with the perfection of man, but oriented toward controlling his thoughts and beliefs, viewing the force of government as a means of instilling values in the minds of its people to produce a more moral citizenry.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a warning, and all warnings are fundamentally rejections of the determinist premise.  What’s more: it is an intellectual warning connecting certain ideas and beliefs to their metaphysical consequences. While common logic, particularly among those who recognize the practical benefits of liberty, would suggest that that which one values should be left free to flourish, to the contrary, both progressives and conservatives seek to control those aspects of man which they most value—progressives, man’s body; conservatives, man’s mind—relegating its opposite to a status of expendability.

If all philosophy can be thought of as the great duel between two men—Plato and Aristotle—both sides of the political spectrum in Hayek’s time, as in our own, are operating on a fundamentally Platonic premise that divides man’s physical and spiritual nature. True liberalism is fundamentally a diversion from this view in favor of the Aristotelian view of man as a unified entity, to be treated and thought of as such, his life and fate as his own, and his right to dispose of them as he sees fit unchallenged. Thus, Hayek, as an exponent of such liberalism, whether he recognizes and describes it as such himself, begins with this philosophical framework. Whether he maintains it in the chapters to come is a separate question, but his grounding is thus far solid.

Wasting no time, Hayek soon enters the fundamental comparison of his book: that of the ideological roots of Nazism and the rise of socialist thought in Britain precisely at a time when the two nations are at war.

Much equivocating in classrooms, editorial pages, and student coffee shops has transpired in the last seventy-plus years as to the differences between Nazism and true socialism, with socialist apologists quibbling about how Nazis abused what was a noble ideal in socialism. Most engage in such momentous evasions and distortions as to treat socialism and fascism as in any way opposites, portraying what is in fact a genus-type distinction as fundamentally inimical, when they are, in fact, merely differences in application of the same basic premises.

Hayek tolerates none of this, observing,

“Few are ready to recognize that the rise of Fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period, but a necessary outcome of those tendencies… As a result, many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism and sincerely hate all its manifestations, work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny” (3).

Indeed, one cannot help but feel that little has yet changed in Western intellectualism when Hayek describes the parallels between Germany after World War I and England during World War II: “There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious ‘realism’, and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of ‘inevitable trends’… It does not affect our problem that some groups may want less socialism than others, that some want socialism mainly in the interest of one group and others in that of another. The important point is that, if we take the people whose views influence developments, they are now in this country in some measure all socialists” (2-3).

More familiarity ensues when Hayek notes how Germany was once held in England and other Western countries as an ideal to be pursued and how that idealized conception has since been transferred elsewhere: “Although one does not like to be reminded, it is not so many years since the socialist policy of [Germany] was generally held up by progressives as an example to be imitated, just as in more recent years Sweden has been the model country to which progressive eyes were directed” (2). One so often sees the case of Swedish socialism invoked as a statist ideal in today’s world, since the recession of 2008, but it is often forgotten how old this example is—mentioned here by Hayek in the 1940s, discredited for its proclaimed cultural superiority by Ayn Rand in the 1960s, but still going strong as part of statist mythology today.

In support of his parallel, Hayek rightly rejects the concrete superficial details of German National Socialism to which the broader abstraction of ‘fascism’ is so unproductively and irrationally married in the minds of most who refer to and write of it. More than any other ideology, the word ‘fascism’ has attained a pejorative quality that has overcome its literal meaning and distorted the popular understanding of it to such an extent that most today will readily proclaim that they reject it, but remain utterly incapable of defining it. Modern dictionaries and encyclopedias are similarly unhelpful, as much victims of the disintegrated epistemology of their times as those who reference them.

(This is not the place to go into a fuller explanation of the meaning of fascism, but those interested would do well to refer to my previous essay on the subject, “Understanding Fascism”.)

Thus, in Hayek’s understanding of National Socialism will be found no deterministic German racial explanations, recognizing both the influences of German fascist thought on the English and the early role played by Thomas Carlyle and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Scot and an Englishman, on the formation of fascist ideas.

A cautious approach is wise here, as while no racial explanation to the effect that some innate German-ness led to National Socialism can be held as rational, the role of culture and philosophy in German society is indispensable to understanding its rise. Hayek goes on to write, “It would be a mistake to believe that the specific German rather than the socialist element produced totalitarianism. It was the prevalence of socialist views and not Prussianism that Germany had in common with Italy and Russia—and it was from the masses and not from the classes steeped in the Prussian tradition, and favored by it, that National-Socialism arose” (7).

True as much of that is, to say “the socialist element produced totalitarianism” is perhaps only to scratch the surface by acknowledging that one political idea was connected to another It does not explain why the socialist element was accepted in the first place. For that, one must look to German culture. To that end, Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels offers an incomparable philosophical genealogy of Nazism that would serve as a necessary complement to Hayek’s work, assuming Hayek continues down the path he is setting out here.

Perhaps the most detrimental statement in Hayek’s introduction is said rather in passing. After having written that “by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes watch similar phases of intellectual development… They suggest, if not the necessity, at least the probability, that developments will take a similar course” (1), “some of the forces which have destroyed freedom in Germany are also at work here” (2), and “our chance of averting a similar fate depends on our facing the danger and on our being prepared to revise even our most cherished hopes and ambitions if they should prove to be the source of the danger” (2-3), Hayek betrays the premise upon which he has built up his whole work by conceding, “All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my argument mainly on such parallels” (3).

Certainly it must be admitted that parallels between such developments are not deterministic or without mitigating factors, not immune to changes in trajectory. But to suggest that they “are, of course, deceptive” is perilously asserting a skepticist rejection of the principle of causality and the recognition in earlier statements of the role of ideas. Hayek would do well to apply the same social scientific rigor to the subject of politics that he does in economics, recognizing that just as effects of supply and demand on prices are assessed by holding constant certain variables, so the effect of ideas presumes a measure of ceteris paribus, but this does not negate the principle demonstrated by such models or demand of the author some token measure of self-doubt.

In all, Hayek’s introduction is strong and offers much to think about, hope for, and consider proceeding onward into his analyses. His overall support for the importance of ideas, propensity (if somewhat unconfidently) toward conceptual integration and a comparative approach to political ideologies, and positive views of individual man and political freedom make for a promising start. Hayek even provides sound reasoning for why England should be interested in engaging in such self-critical analysis, arguing,

“[T]his will enable us to understand our enemy and the issue at stake between us. It cannot be denied that there is yet little recognition of the positive ideals for which we are fighting. We know that we are fighting for freedom to shape our life according to our own ideas. That is a great deal, but not enough. It is not enough to give us the firm beliefs which we need to resist an enemy who uses propaganda as one of his main weapons not only in the most blatant but also in the most subtle forms. It is still more insufficient when we have to counter this propaganda among the people under his control and elsewhere, where the effect of this propaganda will not disappear with the defeat of the Axis powers… It is a lamentable fact that the English in their dealings with the dictators before the war, not less than in their attempts at propaganda and in the discussion of their war aims, have shown an inner insecurity and uncertainty of aim which can be explained only by confusion about their own ideals and the nature of the differences which separated them from the enemy. We have been misled as much because we have refused to believe that the enemy was sincere in the profession of some beliefs we shared as because we believed in the sincerity of some of his other claims” (4).

Likewise, we begin to see his potential faults: a propensity to begin at the level of politics without looking more deeply toward philosophical and cultural ideas, and a creeping skepticism that may lead him to an unconfident defense of his comparative approach and, thus, the warning he seeks to achieve with it. Whether these virtues and potential faults continue, only time and further reading will reveal, but as for the introduction, Hayek hits all of his marks: providing context, provoking questions and challenges, establishing a conceptual framework, and enticing our curiosity. A solid start to a modern defense of classical liberalism.


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