Strolling Down the Road to Serfdom

Originally published July 1, 1985

INTHE PREFACE to their best seller Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman write, “We are still free as a people to choose whether we shall continue speeding down the ‘road to serfdom,’ as Friedrich Hayek entitled his profound and influential book …. ” Since Hayek’s book was published 40 years ago, it would seem that we have been “speeding” down that road at a remarkably sedate pace. I must confess that praise like the Friedmans’ put me off reading The Road to Serfdom until now.

That was a mistake. Hayek is well worth reading, both for what he says and for what he doesn’t say. Looking first at the latter, we find that he is far from advocating the sort of libertarian – that is, practically nonexistent state the Friedmans envisage. The Friedmans share with Marx a longing for the state to wither away, but Hayek is having none of that; he merely wants the state to act responsibly.

He is, for example, willing to consider “restricting the allowed methods of production, so long as these restrictions affect all potential producers equally and are not used as an indirect way of controlling prices and quantities …. ” He also believes that “To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.” Hayek would thus not be sympathetic with the notion, advanced by both neoliberals and neoconservatives, that factories should be allowed to pollute as they please, so long as they pay a fee for the privilege.

Nor would he approve of the merger movement and the consequent concentration of power in sprawling conglomerates. He disputes, without naming him, his fellow countryman Joseph A. Schumpeter (who is at present being touted by neoconservatives as a foil to Keynes), rejecting “the myth … that … competition is spontaneously eliminated by technological changes.” In addition, Hayek quotes with favor from the New Deal report of the Temporary National Economic Committee: “‘The superior efficiency of large establishments has not been demonstrated … monopoly is frequently the product of factors other than the lower costs of greater size. It is attained by collusive agreement and promoted by public policies. When these agreements are invalidated and when these policies are reversed, competitive conditions can be restored.'”

In another place Hayek says, “It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us.” He is against monopoly as well as against the “monster state,” and in his last chapter, he writes (anticipating E.F. Schumacher), “It is no accident that on the whole there was more beauty and decency to be found in the life of the small peoples.”

Though Hayek’s main thesis is objection to a comprehensively planned economy, he recognizes that “the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.” He holds, too, that the state should be concerned in “the extremely important problem of combating general fluctuations of economic activity and the recurrent waves of large-scale unemployment which accompany them.” And strong as he is in his insistence on private property, he thinks that the case for inheritance may not be supported with “the same necessity.”

I have quoted Hayek extensively because his reputation is that of an extreme, devil-may-care, laissez-faire conservative. His book was actually greeted with qualified praise by Keynes, as Robert Heilbroner tells us in The Worldly Philosophers; but endorsements like the Friedmans’ have established his reactionary” image.” Much of Hayek’s later work, however (e.g., his attack on John Kenneth Galbraith; see” Rereading Galbraith,” NL, June 13,1983), does exhibit a hardening conservatism.

This is not, I think, an instance of the notorious syndrome whereby flaming youths turn into reactionary elders (“When old age came over them / With all its aches and qualms, / King Solomon wrote the Proverbs / And King David wrote the Psalms”[1]). Rather, it is an instance of a common, albeit little noticed, progression whereby a great leader becomes misled by his followers. The change is not always in a conservative direction. Marx became more violent and conspiratorial at least in part because his most vocal supporters were conspiratorial. John Dewey, whose Human Nature and Conduct showed strong elements of philosophical idealism, became famous for the contrary theory of instrumentalism that appealed to his admirers.

I have also seen such changes occur at less rarefied levels. One of the most delightful books I ever published was Little Britches (I was never good at titles) by Ralph Moody. It was the first of several memoirs of family life. No one reading the series would guess Little Britches was begun as a polemic against the Social Security system. But Ralph’s readers – starting with those in an extension writing course in Berkeley-praised him for the warmth of his characterizations, and he became more interested in people and less in abstract theory.

THERE ARE other interesting themes in The Road to Serfdom.  One of these appears in his analysis of the failure of the Social Democrats to stop Hitler. We have heard much of the trahison[2] of the Communists; but Hayek argues that the socialist emphasis on comprehensive planning predisposed the German electorate in favor of grandiose schemes like Hitler’s. If he is right, this fact should give pause to our Atari Democrats, who want to set up a committee to decide which industries we should foster and which we should abandon and in general to plan how to use our resources. As Robert Lekachman has pointed out, such committees are more likely to be run by big business than by idealistic planners.

The Social Democrats were further weakened, Hayek says, by a split that appeared in the labor movement. For various reasons, certain unions and certain categories of workers were able to achieve remarkable economic gains, while others were left far behind. The laggers were understandably disillusioned about the Social Democrats and became ready to acquiesce in, if not support, the National Socialist program.

“To them,” Hayek writes, “and not without some justification, the more prosperous sections of the labor movement seemed to belong to the exploiting rather than to the exploited class.”

This is a problem that American labor leaders have yet to solve. The split in our labor movement was opened, as I suggested last year (“Voodoo on the Primary Trail,” NL, April 30, 1984) by the Vietnam War. But it has been astutely widened by apologists for big business and by the just- folks demeanor of President Reagan, and deepened by the misguided anti-labor Presidential campaign of Gary Hart.

It is said, by the way, that Hart appealed especially to the so-called Yuppies- young, upwardly mobile professionals. I venture to think that Hayek’s analysis of what happened in Germany is closer to what is happening here. He writes that “no single economic factor has contributed more to help [the Nazis] than the envy of the unsuccessful professional man, the university-trained engineer or lawyer, and of the ‘white-collar proletariat’ in general for the … members of the strongest trade unions whose income was many times theirs.” I suggest that the “white-collar proletariat,” hitherto most visible in countries like India, will become a growing and destabilizing factor in our public life as computerization and conglomeration steadily reduce the need for “middle management.”

Another theme of current interest in Hayek’s book is his concern over the tendency of legislatures to turn hard questions over to independent public authorities. I suppose he would therefore welcome a good deal of the current deregulation, but he would appear not to have been a knee-jerk deregulator. Hayek’s concern is also a central topic in Theodore J. Lowi‘s widely read The End of Liberalism. Both men describe the irresponsibility that results from the delegation of undefined powers. Hayek emphasizes the dictatorial arrogance that ensues; Lowi notes (as does Lekachman in the comment cited above) that ill defined regulatory commissions tend to be co-opted by the industries they regulate. A different example of irresponsible delegation is the willingness of Congress to give the President power to commit military forces to action, and indeed to launch a nuclear strike, without carefully defining limits to that power.

In the same way, control over our money, and hence over our economy as a whole, has been surrendered to the Federal Reserve Board. I regret to have to admit that three Democratic Presidents played crucial roles in the surrender: Woodrow Wilson, who admitted he knew nothing about banking, signed the Federal Reserve Act. Harry Truman allowed his Secretary of the Treasury to dissolve the agreement with the Federal Reserve that had held the prime interest rate down to 1.5 per cent during the War. Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker chairman of the Fed.

How all this came about is told in fascinating and chilling detail by F.W. Maisel in a little book entitled Great American Ripoff (Condido Press, Box27551,San Diego 92128). Maisel may upset the sensitive by his espousal of a conspiracy theory of American banking; nevertheless, it’s hard to fault his facts, and I’m not even prepared to say he’s wrong about the conspiracy.

Should you feel that the bankers running the Federal Reserve, far from being conspirators, are idealistic public servants who have, in Hayek’s phrase, “devoted their lives to a single task,” there is still reason to be wary of them, for “From the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a step.” Single-minded conservatives please copy.

The New Leader


[1] A poem by James Ball Naylor http://www.jamesballnaylor.com/

[2] French for “betrayal” or “treason.”

1 comment
  1. As it happens, today, Bruce Bartlett, an economist who “held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul” wrote a piece in his New York Times blog on Paul Ryan and his mis-understanding of Hayek: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/28/why-hayek-isnt-paul-ryans-guru/

    You’ll find the points made by Bartlett and Brockway about Hayek to be similar.

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