The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich A. von Hayek

road-to-serfdomNot many books in the field of ethics and economics have had as much enduring success as The Road to Serfdom. Because of its status as a classic and its relevance for Christian faith and public ethics, I wrote a summary of the work for Books At a Glance. Below is an excerpt of my introduction, which is a summary of the editor’s 30 page introduction to the book, originally published in 1945 and now reprinted in 2007.

Friedrich A. von Hayek was a young economist from Vienna who joined the London School of Economics in 1932, where he remained until after World War II. Hayek experienced the move from socialism to totalitarianism in Germany and the economic trends that led to the state of affairs. He began speaking, teaching, and writing against the socialist trends in Britain, but he was not well received. The majority opinion was that National Socialism in Germany was a capitalism reaction against socialism, which painted capitalism as the villain and socialism as the solution to society’s ills (5). Most agreed that “scientific planning was necessary if Britain was to survive” (8, emphasis original).

During the war, Hayek offered to help the British government with propaganda aimed at the German masses, but he was denied. So he continued at his teaching post. But he was afraid that the centralized war economy of Britain would be continued under the influence of socialists after the war. The Beveridge Report (1942), which sold about half a million copies, laid out the socialist goals for after the war. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom sought to reverse these trends by making the economic and moral case against socialist planning, while also reminding the British of their political liberal heritage, which collectivist, central economic planning would destroy (“liberal” in this context refers to political liberalism, which values liberty for the individual over coercion from the government).

While The Road to Serfdom sold some thousands of copies in Britain, Hayek was rejected by three American publishers because his ideas were out of step with contemporary socialist trends. Finally, the University of Chicago Press published it with some edits to include America in the purview of the book. But it was really the Reader’s Digest version that popularized the book, along with a cartoon edition in the February 1945 version of Look magazine. These condensed versions gave rise to many misunderstandings in Hayek’s positions, which are nuanced throughout the book, but it led to the mass popularity of the book, which has now seen over 350,000 copies sold since its publication in 1944 (1). We offer this summary for our readers because of both its historical significance and its contemporary relevance.

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The thesis of the book is that Britain and America were following the same path as Germany on the “road to serfdom.” That is, they were enamored by Germany’s socialist policies and, despite Hitler’s rise to power, the free countries still had many clamoring for collectivism.

Hayek’s job was to argue that socialism itself only promises a false utopia under the banner of “liberty.” But liberty for central-planning socialists only meant the alleviation of choice by seizure of private property to control the means of production and plan everyone’s job and status. The centrally planned market can never be as functional as a free market because it cannot adjust to the actions of people in real-time and will inevitably collapse.

Moreover, Hayek argued against socialist advocates in Britain and America who thought socialism could prosper with the right leaders. He argued socialism leads inevitably to corrupt leadership, because socialism involves government coercion at every level, and that power attracts the dirtiest to get the jobs done. Leadership in such a country also attracts power from the masses who are less educated and more willing to sacrifice freedom for government control, while Hayek believed the more educated would not conform to the government’s propaganda (as in Germany) and would resist taking leadership in such a centralizing government.

The end result is a classic that argues for freedom and warns against the road to serfdom. Any path to socialism, as long as it is not reversed, will inevitably lead to corrupt government, coercion of the people, failed markets, and eventually totalitarianism.

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If you have not read Hayek’s work, I highly recommend it as an important work in Western political and ethical thinking. If you haven’t given Books At a Glance a try yet, you can preview the first chunk of my summary here. If you sign up and pick a plan, you automatically get a free 30-day trial with no strings attached.

Find Road to Serfdom here on Amazon.

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