F. A. Hayek and the Road to Serfdom: A Sixtieth-Anniversary Appreciation

By Ebeling, Richard M. | Freeman, March 2004 | Go to article overview

F. A. Hayek and the Road to Serfdom: A Sixtieth-Anniversary Appreciation


Ebeling, Richard M., Freeman


Sixty years ago this month, in March 1944, The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek was first published in Great Britain. For six decades it has continued to challenge and influence the political-economic landscape of the world. Hayek delivered an ominous warning that political trends in the Western democracies were all in the direction of a new form of servitude that threatened the personal and economic liberty of the citizens of these countries.

At the time the book was released Great Britain and the United States were engulfed in a global war, with Nazi Germany as the primary enemy and Soviet Russia as the primary ally. In 1944 the British had a wartime coalition government of both Conservative and Labor Party members, with Winston Churchill as its head. During these war years plans were being designed within the government for a postwar socialist Britain, including nationalized health care, nationalized industries, and detailed economic planning of industry and agriculture.

For the 12 years before America's entry into the war Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had transformed the United States through a degree of government spending, taxing, regulation, and redistribution the likes of which had never before been experienced in the nation's history. Many of the early New Deal programs had even imposed a network of fascist-style economic controls on private industry and agriculture; fortunately, the Supreme Court had declared most of these controls unconstitutional in 1935.

At the same time, the Soviet Union was frequently portrayed as a model-however rough around the edges-of an ideal socialist society, freeing "the masses" from poverty and exploitation. The Nazi regime, on the other hand, was usually depicted as a brutal dictatorship designed to maintain the power and control of aristocratic and capitalist elites that surrounded Hitler.

Hayek's challenge was to argue that German Nazism was not an aberrant "right-wing" perversion growing out of the "contradictions" of capitalism. Instead, the Nazi movement had developed out of the "enlightened" and "progressive" socialist and collectivist ideas of the pre-World War I era, which many intellectuals in England and the United States had praised and propagandized for in their own countries.

It was in Bismarck's Germany, after all, that there had been born the modern welfare state-national health insurance, government pension plans, regulations of industry and the workplace-and a philosophy that the national good took precedence over the interests of the "mere" individual.

In this political environment Germans came to take it for granted that the paternalistic state was meant to care for them from "cradle to grave," a phrase that was coined in Imperial Germany. Two generations of Germans accepted that they needed to be disciplined by and obedient to the enlightened political "leadership" that guided the affairs of state for their presumed benefit. Beliefs in the right to private property and freedom of exchange were undermined as the regulatory and redistributive state increasingly managed the economic activities of the society for the greater "national interest" of the German fatherland. By 1933, when Hitler came to power, the German people not only accepted the idea of the "fiihrer principle," Hayek argued, but many now wanted it and believed they needed it. Notions about individual freedom and responsibility had been destroyed by the philosophy of collectivism and the ideologies of nationalism and socialism. …

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