The Road to Serfdom after 75 Years

Another anniversary this year. This one is of Hayek’s much acclaimed and criticized book: Road to Serfdom.

Bruce Caldwell of Duke Univ in this paper reviews what motivated Hayek to write the book, the reactions of the book and the overall message of the book.

F. A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom in 1944, so 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the event. The paper traces how Hayek came to write the book, who his opponents were, and how the book got interpreted by both friends and critics after its publication. Because the book is more typically invoked than read, part of the goal of the paper is to identify and correct some common misperceptions.

Caldwell says people usually think Hayek’s idea was to oppose any govt intervention as it leads to eventual totalitarianism. However, Hayek mainly wrote the book opposing the idea of nationalisation:

To sum up: Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom as a liberal who was worried that England would embrace “hot socialism,” or full nationalization of the means of production, after the war. His warning that socialism so defined was incompatible with democracy seems well borne out. People who opposed such policies, but also anyone who thought government was getting too big, or saw that as a looming danger, would be happy to invoke the book to justify their position, despite his later insistence that his target was not big government per se.

Progressives who favored more government intervention would counter that many countries in Western Europe and elsewhere had expanded the size of the welfare state and not experienced any of the horrors that Hayek described.But in the book Hayek’s target was not them, but those who were promoting full nationalization of production. That is, after all, what socialism means.

In short, the slippery slope argument – any increase in the size of government is bound eventually to end up in totalitarian outcomes – never died because it was popular with both those who believed it and those who felt that the experience of the twentieth century democratic welfare states refuted it. Despite his protests, this was how The Road to Serfdom was inevitably read. Ah, the dangers of choosing a provocative title.


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