The Road to Serfdom


Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom was written by Friedrich von Hayek in 1944. The image on the left is a first edition copy.  Friedrich von Hayek was a prominent Austrian economist during the twentieth century, and this book was one of his most important works. He sarcastically dedicated the book “to socialists of all parties." The Road to Serfdom was written as World War II was approaching its end. Hayek saw growing socialistic trends in the free western countries. Socialism had ingrained itself in the mainstream thought of western society, and the politics of the day were about “more freedom” and “greater fairness.” However, the “freedom” that people wanted was not freedom according to the old definitions. This idea was a new type of freedom: freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from exploitation, and freedom to work. Traditional civil liberties like free speech and the free press were no longer sufficient, and people wanted something more. Over the course of the 1900s, western countries had universally been moving away from capitalism.

Today in our world, “liberal” can mean socialistic or any range of leftward leaning ideologies, yet in Hayek’s day “liberalism” was defined as what is now the libertarian ideology. In his book, Hayek references “liberalism” as the eighteenth-century ideal of individual freedom and capitalism.

Hayek credits liberalism with the progress of mankind since the Renaissance. The framework set in a free society allowed people to work to the fullest of their potential and pursue their own happiness. This emphasis on individual freedom unleashed the creative energies of mankind and set in motion the progress of humanity. The results of freedom and capitalism “surpassed all expectations. Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire. And while the rising standard soon led to the discovery of very dark spots in society, spots which men were no longer willing to tolerate, there was probably no class that did not substantially benefit from the general advance” (Hayek, pg. 20).  By the twentieth century Western society had achieved a level of material wealth thought impossible by people of the eighteenth century. However, there were still “dark spots,” and the general public had no patience for things to sort themselves out (pg. 20).

One of the countries that was moving away from liberalism was England. England had planned its economy during World War II, and now they wanted to continue that planning when peace arrived. “Scarcely anybody doubts that we must continue to move toward socialism,” and to many people it seemed inevitable (pg. 7). Society viewed socialism as the eventual goal of mankind. More and more people turned to the government to fix the day’s problems.

This sort of thinking is exactly what terrified Hayek. He believed that socialism would eventually lead to totalitarianism and tyranny. Society “has been progressively moving away from the basic ideas which Western civilization has been built. That this movement which we have entered with such high hopes and ambitions should have brought us face to face with the totalitarian horror has come as a profound shock to this generation, which still refuses to connect the two facts” (pg. 16).

In Hayek’s time, socialism was the leading ideology of the day, and liberalism was seen as outdated and obsolete. Planning was the way forward, and it seemed to be the obvious course of action. People blamed capitalism for the injustices of the world and thought that only government intervention could fix these problems. In other words, people wanted the government to provide for them and care for them. On the other hand, people did not want to lose freedom in the traditional sense. They still wanted their civil liberties and individual rights. “The majority of people still believe that socialism and freedom can be combined. There can be no doubt that most socialists here still believe profoundly in the liberal idea of freedom” (pg. 35).

Most politicians of 1944 worked to push the progressive agenda. The intellectual community saw planning as the only solution, and liberalism per se was no solution. To Hayek, liberalism meant the organization of society to utilize competition in the most effective way possible. To the intelligentsia, liberalism was no plan at all. This point is the main source of disagreement between the libertarians and the planners.

Academia blamed capitalism for monopoly, and they saw monopoly as an eventual stage of capitalism. Germany of the 1920s was a commonly used example of the progression of capitalism. First, there are many companies in competition with each other. Then, the companies get bought up by bigger and bigger corporations. Eventually, the whole market is reduced to a few giant companies, and the people are subject to the tyranny of the monopoly. Indeed, monopoly is a very bad thing, and it should be avoided. Mainstream intellectual ideas said that government is needed to stop and control monopolies.

Hayek disagreed with his contemporaries about the cause of monopoly. Hayek said that government was the cause of monopoly, not the solution. Monopoly “is attained through collusive agreement and promoted by public policies. When these agreements are invalidated and when these policies are reversed, competition can be restored,” (Wilcox, pg. 314). In other words, government intervention in the market causes monopolies. For example, the government gives a phone company the only permission to operate in a country. This deal might have been created in the hopes of ensuring quality phone services to all, but this agreement instead causes high priced, inferior services.

People thought that the government needed to get rid of monopolies through direct intervention or heavy regulation. Monopolies became highly integrated with the government, and many countries nationalized crucial industries. Nations took ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. People thought that the government could do a better and fairer job than the private sector had.

People wanted to be taken care of by the government.  They felt abused by the capitalist system, and they wanted a more just world. “Although the professed aim of planning would be that man should cease to be a mere means, in fact – since it would be impossible to take account in the plan of individual likes and dislikes – the individual would more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare or the ‘good of the community’” (Hayek, pg. 106). Socialism necessitates totalitarian control over society.

I think that the most important point of The Road to Serfdom is that socialism is impossible without an authoritarian government. In order to centrally direct the economy, a powerful authority must be created. Democratic processes alone cannot plan the economy because there would be too much disagreement. No one plan could be agreed upon because people have different ideas about what is fair. Freedom is only possible when a free market exists. A free economy is a prerequisite but not a guarantee of freedom. In order to remain free, we must diligently question our government and keep a close watch on our liberty.


Works Cited

Hayek, Friedrich A. Von. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, 1994. Print.

C. Wilcox, Competition and Monopoly in American Industry (Temporary National Economic Committee Monograph, No. 21 [1940])