I have never actually completed F.A. Hayek’s, The Road to Serfdom. I am completely comfortable admitting that. Still, like many who are intrigued with Hayek’s ideas but lack the willpower to read the entire book, I alway list The Road to Serfdom as one of my most influential readings.
To be sure, I had read the few chapters that were assigned to me by my school’s token libertarian political science professor. I assumed I had accurately interpreted its message. The three chapters I read were full of highlights and great quotes about the importance of the individual. But with all the other books out there in the world, why was finishing this one book so important?
It was not until my current mentor called me out on my inability to follow through on one of the most economically relevant books of all time, that I realized that I had robbed myself of an education by not finishing Hayek’s important work.
As a matter of millennial pride and also wanting to reclaim the knowledge I foolishly pushed aside as an undergrad student, I decided to dedicate the next sixteen days to both reading and liveblogging The Road to Serfdom.
The Individual Built the Modern World
Proponents of laissez faire capitalism and libertarian thinkers alike constantly throw around the phrase,” the road to serfdom.” And while most understand its general negativity towards socialism, the phrase is so ingrained in liberty speak that few often take the time to really explore what Hayek was trying to tell us.
In the book’s opening chapter, “The Abandoned Road,” Hayek makes it clear that this path refers to society’s “progressive” rejection of individualism. More importantly, he goes on to describe how this rejection of the sanctity of the individual has, and will continue to have, negative impacts on the society.
For a period of time, the western world had flourished under the 19th-century ideals of free market capitalism. For the first time in history, an individual was allowed to follow his own desired path without the status of his birth holding him back. All he needed was an idea and the ambition needed to make that idea a reality.
As a result, we saw a revolution in thought and an industrial revolution incomparable to anything the world had ever experienced. In fact, even with the advent of the internet, the world has still never progressed quite as dramatically as it did during this laissez faire revolution.
And while this period brought the world the wisdom of Adam Smith and the rebellion of the American Revolution, it did not maintain its momentum of popularity as the 20th century approached.
As Hayek points out:
“We still believe that until quite recently we were governed by what are vaguely called nineteenth-century ideas or the principle of laissez faire…But although until 1931 England and America had followed only slowly on the path which others had led, even by then they had moved so far that only those whose memory goes back to the years before the last war know what a liberal world has been like.”
If in 1944, Hayek thought the world had already forsaken and forgotten true liberalism, I can scarcely imagine what he might say today. And it’s true that he was writing about a period of wartime economic planning both in the US and the UK. Prices and wages were controlled. Censorship was in place. Rationing and quotas governed the production and distribution of all essential goods and services. But even given all this, government consumed a far smaller degree of overall national production than today.
So far removed are we in 2017, that the individual is not even a consideration when contemplating economic policy. In fact, the “greedy” “selfish” individual is often the villain in modern economics, as he seems to always operate contrary to the whims of the collective. Now, terms like “individual mandates” are used to convey each person’s “social responsibility” to care for the collective.
As common as this anti-individualist sentiment has become, it wasn’t always this way. As Hayek reminds us in this opening chapter, the most tremendous strides towards human and economic progress were taken during a time when the individual was allowed to innovate and create without worrying about interference from the state on the grounds of protecting the greater good. But even though the positive implications of a pro-individualist society were proven by the innovations created during that time, society had still been steadily moving away from it.
“We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but one of the salient characteristics of Western civilizations…Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth- century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides, is progressively relinquished.”
Again, I have to wonder what Hayek might say if he were alive today and around to see how groupthink and collectivism have shaped our modern policies.
This chapter, then, sets the stage. He names liberalism as the system that gave birth to the greatest of human achievements ever seen in history. It was individualism that caused the most spectacular effect. If you understand that–and vast numbers today do not understand this–you are prepared to see how the abandonment of this system and idea leads to not only the unraveling of liberty but even what we call civilization.
So, yes, this book is a warning, not just against one party but all ideological positions that reject individualism for one or another version of the planning state.
Now onward to chapter two!