Monday, June 16, 2008

Review: The Road to Serfdom

Elsewhere I've talked about some of the impact that F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom has had on me, but this little book has a long history of influencing thought throughout the West. Originally published in England in early 1944 as the Allies began to have success against Germany, the book was published in the US later that year. A Reader's Digest version was published in 1945, exposing hundreds of thousands of readers to Hayek's ideas.

But even though the book got people talking on both sides of the Atlantic, Milton Friedman in 1971 wrote that "its message is no less needed today than it was when it first appeared" and that "the same collectivist fallacies are abroad and on the rise today." All that changed, he said, was that "the immediate issues are different and so is much of the jargon." "Central planning" was no longer popular, but replacing it were attempts to eliminate "urban poverty" and make businessmen "socially responsible." Friedman continued:

Unfortunately, the check to collectivism did not check the growth of government; rather, it diverted its growth to a different channel. The emphasis shifted from governmentally administered production activities to indirect regulation of supposedly private enterprises and even more to governmental transfer programs, involving extracting taxes from some in order to make grants to others—all in the name of equality and the eradication of poverty but in practice producing an erratic and contradictory melange of subsidies to special interest groups. As a result, the fraction of the national income being spent by governments has continued to mount.

In 1994, Friedman similarly wrote:

Today, there is wide agreement that socialism is a failure, capitalism a success. Yet this apparent conversion of the intellectual community to what might be called a Hayekian view is deceptive. While the talk is about free markets and private property [...] the bulk of the intellectual community almost automatically favors any expansion of government power so long as it is advertised as a way to protect individuals from big bad corporations, relieve poverty, protect the environment, or promote "equality." [...] The intellectuals may have learned the words but they do not yet have the tune.

So Hayek's critique of collectivism seems to have had some impact, in that few serious collectivists now talk about central planning and state-run industries. But as Friedman says, all that has changed is the vocabulary—government continues to become more powerful and freedom more scarce.

In his book, Hayek addressed a similar consistency of ideas disguised by distinct vocabulary, but then, the dividing words were "central planning" and "naziism." Hayek saw a significant "similarity of much of current English political literature to the works which destroyed the belief in Western civilization in Germany and created the state of mind in which naziism could become successful." And while "few people, if anybody, in England would probably be ready to swallow totalitarianism whole, [...] there is scarcely a leaf out of Hitler's book which somebody or other in England or America has not recommended us to take and use for our own purposes." Then, as now, the battle was over words, not ideas—the notion of the desirability of government control remained constant. Indeed, Hayek warns:

We should never forget that the anti-Semitism of Hitler has [...] turned into his enemies many people who in every respect are confirmed totalitarians of the German type.

Collectivists today think of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara just as collectivists of the 1940s thought of Hitler: "Yes, I have problems with some of the things they did, but many of their ideas were good!" Now, as then, "most of the works which are preparing the way for a totalitarian course in the democracies are the product of sincere idealists and often of men of considerable intellectual distinction." It's telling when the supporters of one sincere idealist in particular seem to also have an affinity for El Che.

Still relevant, thus, is Hayek's systematic demonstration that collectivism inevitably leads to corruption, arbitrary rule, tyranny, discrimination, individual irresponsibility, and the destruction of morality. Though the jargon is now "universal health care" and "Patriot Act" and "a living wage," nothing has changed—government continues to grasp for more power.

Hayek learned the lessons of those who thought they could make the world a better place by using the government for good. He saw that their real accomplishments were the destruction of liberty and the rule of murderous dictators.

Sadly, most of our society seems intent on repeating history.

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