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‘The Road to Serfdom’ at 75: Reflecting on Hayek’s enduring work

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This is the first in a series celebrating and exploring the enduring legacy and significance of Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.  

Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was first published 75 years ago this month. Initially written as a brief memo in 1933, it eventually grew into a book and is probably the Nobel Laureate economist’s most well-known work.

How does TRS hold up this many years later? What does it have to say about where we find ourselves today as a civilization and where we might be headed? This blog series will highlight some of its less widely known but just as critical political-economic lessons, which are as relevant today as at its publication in 1944.

For this first installment, let’s put into current context Hayek’s initial goals, motives, and approach for this influential text, so that we might better understand it’s continuing significance. (Citations throughout will point to “the definitive edition” available for purchase at the Acton Bookshop.)

Hayek’s Goals and Objectives

TRS is primarily known for its argument against central planning, a perennial concern for those who value human dignity, rule of law, and liberty.

But the book was not initially intended as a text for generations. Hayek wrote for a specific audience in a particular time. According to economist and Hayek biographer Bruce Caldwell, “Hayek’s immediate objective was to persuade his British audience that their heritage of liberal democracy under the rule of law should be viewed as a national treasure rather than an object of scorn, as a still-vital roadmap for organizing society rather than an embarrassing relic of times gone by.” (31) At the time, the British populace was in clear opposition to Nazism, but less clear about the dangers of socialism. (“Planning” seemed scientific and modern.) Hayek found traction for his argument against planning in the consensus about Nazism. He specifically argued that Nazism and even fascism were “not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” (59) That is, socialism is one step along the road to similarly totalitarian regimes.

Is this warning any less pertinent today?

Despite what some thought to be the end of history following the fall the communism and subsequently bringing to light its consequences, there seems to be a perennial temptation toward planning. In the U.S. context today, this manifests in myriad forms — democratic socialism, wide-scale redistribution schemes, anti-free trade populism, the regulatory state, and technocracy. TRS is no less timely just because few claim to be aiming for revolution.

In the foreword to the 1956 American edition of TRS, Hayek offers the following caution:

Just because in the years ahead of us political ideology is not likely to aim at a clearly defined goal but toward piecemeal change, a full understanding of the process through which certain kinds of measures can destroy the bases of an economy based on the market and gradually smother the creative powers of a free civilization seems now of the greatest importance. Only if we understand why and how certain kinds of economic controls tend to paralyze the driving forces of a free society, and which kinds of measures are particularly dangerous in this respect, can we hope that social experimentation will not lead us into situations none of us want. (45)

Non-Political Motives

The book is timely, too, because of this “heritage of liberal democracy,” given how many prominent thinkers are beginning to question the future of liberalism. Is liberalism failing as it becomes more of what it inherently is, or is the West committing collective suicide? (For my view, please see the second essay in this Values & Capitalism compilation.)

Hayek was a classical liberal who respected time-tested institutions, including traditional morality and religion. This is something he faced criticism for later in his professional life. But in 1944, he knew that taking on a political topic (through the context of economics) would bring largely negative consequences for him personally.

On the first page of the original preface to TRS, he wrote:

Though this is a political book, I am as certain as anyone can be that the beliefs set out in it are not determined by my personal interests. I can discover no reason why the kind of society which seems to me desirable should offer greater advantages to me than to the great majority of the people of my country. In fact, I am always told by my socialist colleagues that as an economist I should occupy a much more important position in the kind of society to which I am opposed—provided, of course, that I could bring myself to accept their views. … For those who, in the current fashion, seek interested motives in every profession of a political opinion, I may, perhaps, be allowed to add that I have every possible reason for not writing or publishing this book. It is certain to offend many people with whom I wish to live on friendly terms; it has forced me to put aside work for which I feel better qualified and to which I attach greater importance in the long run; and, above all, it is certain to prejudice the reception of the results of the more strictly academic work to which all my inclinations lead me. (37)

In our polarized times characterized by identity politics and a new tribalism, it is important to note that Hayek was not looking to narrow self-interest or benefits for his class or profession in writing TRS. This stands in stark contrast to some contemporary caricatures of liberal motivations, which might dissuade us from exploring classical liberal ideas. For example, Patrick Deneen, in his popular book, Why Liberalism Failed, claims that liberalism appealed to its “architects” largely and “precisely because they anticipated being its winners” (135). About Hayek, specifically, Deneen says that economic growth and progress were important values mainly because they made Hayek’s preferred economic system more politically feasible by “lead[ing] to nearly universal endorsement” of liberalism. (139)

Refusing Determinism

Also, unlike Deneen, Hayek refuses determinism. The fact that, even if we’re currently on the road to serfdom, we can turn to our liberal roots (rightly understood) and avoid totalitarianism, should give us renewed interest in the heritage of those ideas and motivation to heed the words of TRS.

In the final preface to the TRS, reissued in 1976, Hayek clarifies his stance on how slippery the slope to totalitarianism is:

It has frequently been alleged that I have contended that any movement in the direction of socialism is bound to lead to totalitarianism. Even though this danger exists, this is not what the book says. What it contains is a warning that unless we mend the principles of our policy, some very unpleasant consequences will follow which most of those who advocate these policies do not want. (55)

In this blog series, we’ll explore further the lessons of TRS for mending our principles. Hayek would agree that we can do so with some (earthly) hope of turning the tides away from planning and perhaps best by being students of history. “Although history never quite repeats itself,” Hayek writes, “and just because no development is inevitable, we can in a measure learn from the past to avoid a repetition of the same process. One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers.” (57)

For an overview of some of Hayek’s major contributions, see this free ebook and this popular rap video.

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Sarah Estelle Sarah M. Estelle, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics and Business at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and director of the Markets & Morality program. She is a research fellow at the Acton Institute.