Book Review: Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

Reproduced from:

Zaman, Asad: Book Review of Friedrich A. Von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Journal of Islamic Business and Management, vol 3, no 1, 2013. road2serfodom

The Road to Serfdom is the book written by the famous economist F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), the recipient of the US President’s Medal of Freedom in 1991 and co-winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1974. Originally published in 1944, the book is among the most influential and popular expositions of market economy, selling over two million copies, and remaining a best-seller. F. A. Hayek warned of the danger of tyranny that may result from government control of economic decision making through central planning. He argued that the abandonment of individualism and classical liberalism inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, the creation of an oppressive society, the tyranny of a dictator and the serfdom of the individual.  A classic work in political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, and economics, The Road to Serfdom has inspired and infuriated politicians, scholars, and general readers for over six decades.

However, The Road to Serfdom has been criticised as well on the ground that unfettered markets have undermined the social order and that economic breakdown had paved the way for the emergence of dictatorship. The present review is also a critique on the book taking evidence from the history that the facilitator’s role of the State requires the rulers / regulators to take remedial measures for the promotion of social interest, if individual interest is in conflict with it.  The classical individualism and liberalism promote selfishness that must be distinguished from the value based ‘self interest’ which requires that one should be conscious of the interest of others and should avoid hurting them. The State is required to adopt a policy mix of market based competitive system along with the core value of justice and fair play.

Historical Background

Western social science is intimately tuned to Western history. The emergence of Social Science in the West was coincident with the loss of faith in the West, referred to as “Death of God” by Nietzsche. Loss of Divine Guidance forced fresh thinking about human nature. Hobbes thought that the natural state of humans was a “war of all against all”; the state or government was necessary to intermediate this conflict and bring about a peaceful outcome. In contrast Locke granted rights to men and thereby limited the rights and powers of the government. These early philosophers became the precursors of substantially different views on the crucial of issue of the appropriate balance between the powers of the government and individual liberty.

The Liberal Tradition: Hayek is squarely within the liberal tradition, a particular kind of social and political philosophy espoused by British and Continental thinkers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, and Adam Smith, and American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  In essence, these classical liberal thinkers were committed to three types of freedom: economic freedom, political freedom, and freedom of speech and religion.  For classical liberalism, freedom meant severely limiting the power and scope of invasive government, thus increasing the scope for individual and private action.
 “Unintended Consequences” of Socialist Policy: Hayek presents a sophisticated and subtle defence of liberalism, but could not escape the influence of the horrifying World War II which he lived through in formulating his philosophies. One the main themes of the RtS is the “the law of unintended consequences”. Hayek contends that well-intentioned German socialists created government controls to help the poor and bring about desirable social reforms. However these government policies, like Frankenstein’s monster, went out of control and led to the emergence of Nazi-ism. He foresees the same process occurring in Britain, and warns that similarly well-intentioned efforts to help the poor would lead to powerful governments and Serfdom in Britain. Part of his prophecies came true in that the Labor Party did come to power in Britain and did pursue and implement many socialist policies including nationalization of industries and socialized medicine. However, there was no apparent resultant loss of individual liberty in UK that Hayek thought would inevitably result[2]. Subsequently, the Thatcher government reversed most of the nationalizations but left the socialized medicine system intact.

Intended Consequences of Socialist Policy: While the “unintended consequences” Hayek warned about did not emerge, the intended consequences were very prominent. The lot of the sick in UK, Europe and Canada, with socialized medicine, is substantially better than that of the USA, where private medicine leaves a large proportion of the poor population uncovered in medical emergencies. Studies have shown that large proportions of people who fall into poverty do so as a result of medical problems. There is substantial evidence showing that quality of life of the poor is much worse, and their percentage much greater in the USA than in European countries which have adopted many socialist type policies for the benefit of the poor. Taken in the context of post World War II policy making, which is the narrow context for Hayek’s RtS, it seems clear that Hayek was dangerously wrong. Had Hayek’s warnings been heeded, the lives of vast numbers of the poor in Europe would have been miserable, and human suffering would have increased. European countries did implement socialist policies and provide substantially more support to the poor than USA, but none of them slipped into Nazi-ism or the Serfdom that Hayek thought would result. A glaring counterexample to Hayek is provided by the Scandinavian countries, and most prominently Sweden, who have most aggressively pursued socialist policies of the kind held to be dangerous and damaging both to long run economic performance and to individual freedom by Hayek. As a group, these economies have done better in terms of growth, unemployment and inflation, and also have had higher rankings in terms of various measures of political and individual freedom, than other European economies with less socialist policies [see Rosser (2004)].
The Larger Debate: Free Markets. We next consider the broader context for RtS, namely the debate about whether markets should be regulated by the state, or whether they should be allowed to operate freely as the liberals advocate. There is overwhelming empirical evidence on all aspects of this debate. It is clear that markets do well at some thing. In terms of creation of wealth, and efficient fulfilment of demands and desires of the rich and powerful, markets work very well. However, markets fail at providing equitable income distributions or adequate support to the poor. As the remarkable studies by Amartya Sen have shown, a fully functioning free market and adequate food supplies are perfectly compatible with famines which lead to death by hunger of large masses of people. The emergence of Keynesian doctrines in the 1930s was due to the Great Depression which showed again very forcefully to a very large number of people that market outcomes cannot be trusted to deliver the goods, i.e. economic welfare. This clear and overwhelming evidence was so strong that Hayek and all liberal thinkers were eclipsed until horrors of the depression had faded from memories. Only in the late 70’s, some 40 years after the Great Depression was there a revival of fortunes of liberal thought. It appears strange that these neoclassical liberals have learnt nothing from experience. They insist that markets equilibrate very fast, and that unemployment will be quickly eliminated by free market mechanisms. Even ignoring the Great Depression, the experience of Chile under the Chicago Boys, where unemployment remained at around 20% during fourteen years of ultra liberal policies is enough to show that this is not true (see Rayack (1984)). Similarly, liberals are still developing theories to account for the failure of Russia to respond quickly to free market mechanisms, and the subsequent economic disaster leading to massive poverty, heavy unemployment and a fall in productive output of more than 60%. The liberals make much of the argument that central planning requires information typically unavailable and hence leads to inefficiencies. However, they have never considered or calculated the time taken and the cost of reaching the efficient market equilibrium, which is borne by the poor and unemployed in the form of hunger, suffering and misery.

Power/Knowledge: Given overwhelming empirical evidence that unregulated markets often deliver disastrous outcomes, leading to misery, hunger, death and exploitation for masses of people, what accounts for repeated insistence of liberal theorists that “markets work”? Surely this message, frequently made with emphasis in nearly all standard economic textbooks, deserves some qualifications and refinements, together with some explanation of contrary empirical evidence. However, typical texts sweep all contrary evidence under the rug, rather than treat it with intellectual honesty. This leads one to reluctantly consider Foucault and his explanation of the link between (actually the identity of) Knowledge and Power. The naïve view is that Knowledge consists of understanding phenomena, and validity or truth of the knowledge depends on how accurately it describes the reality. Many case studies done by Foucault and his followers show that Knowledge consists of rules of manipulating reality to achieve desirable results (Power). When considered in the context, the repeated re-emergence of liberal thought, despite repeated and massive failures on the empirical front, makes perfect sense. In all ages, social requirement of justice, equity, compassion for the poor and other social norms (including environmental issues) place powerful restrictions on the scope of actions available to the rich and powerful. Liberal thought, and the message that Laissez Faire leads to optimal social outcomes, is a strategic tool which is helpful in removing these restraints. The rich and powerful have access to media, can fund colleges and think-tanks etc. and therefore produce “knowledge” that will enhance the power of this group.

An Ironic Twist: Recent post 9/11 US experience provides an ironic twist on the central message of Hayek’s RtS. Nearly all of the signposts on the Road to Serfdom identified by Hayek can be found in some form or the other in the curtailment of personal freedoms in the USA, supposedly as a defence against terror. People have been arrested and imprisoned for talking against US policies. The radical curtailment of individual freedom in the “Patriot Act” is a source of concern to many liberal thinkers. The irony is that the apparent cause of this path to Serfdom in the USA is not socialist policy but the pro-free market and laissez faire policies pursued to the extremes in the USA. Relentless pursuit of profits by US and multinational firms, unrestrained by any considerations of equity and fairness, has created tremendous amounts of social injustice, poverty, exploitation, etc.  The attempts to squelch popular protest against such market-friendly policies has led to police-state like policies in the USA bearing a striking resemblance to those described by Hayek as being signposts on the road to Serfdom. It has also been suggested that the market itself enslaves vast numbers of humans, reducing their lives to endless drudgery in the name of greater profits and production. It would appear that there is more than one road to Serfdom, and one of the roads is extreme laissez faire advocated by Hayek and his followers.

Lessons from European History: One important reason for considering the context for Hayek and its critique is to show that it is deeply grounded in European historical experience. It has been a European conceit that their experience is somehow universal, and hence lessons from it applicable to all societies. One of these lessons is that the liberal tradition, with maximum individual freedom, is the ideal state which all societies will ultimately achieve. Indeed, the collapse of Russia led to the (premature) celebration of “The End of History” by Fukuyama – history is about to achieve its goal of leading all societies to conform to the ideal European culture with maximum individual freedom for all.  [ see link for: Conclusions & References ]

For more material on the urgent need to develop an alternative to Eurocentric Social Science, which completely ignores humanity, morality and spirituality, leading to devastation of communities and environment, see: An Islamic Approach to Humanities. (also available from Academia)

 

 

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2 comments
  1. First, excellent review. Just a few comments. First, Hayek was not an economist, and certainly not a famous one. His doctorates were in law and political science. And he was more adept at philosophy than economics. Also, during his entire career he was over shadowed by Keynes. Often embarrassed by Keynes. Second, Hayek seemed unable to take a broad view of liberalism. He focused on only one aspect of liberalism, the welfare of individuals. Important, but impossible to create or protect without society (collective life). It’s my view that’s why Hayek invented the self-perpetuating and self-adjusting market. It served in the place of society to protect individuals. There is no historical support for such a market. Markets before the time of Hayek had been mostly local and tightly overseen by government and church. Despite Hayek’s claims to contrary this makes his philosophy ahistorical, and thus useless. Third, Hayek stands in stark contrast to another classical liberal, de Tocqueville. Tocqueville backed parliamentary government, but was skeptical of the extremes of democracy, such as the sort of extreme individualism that Hayek finds so central. This brings into question Hayek’s support for democracy and democratic decision making. Hayek seems wholly aware that most decision making inside markets is not democratic. So, if he wasn’t a liberal democrat, what was Hayek? This question must be addressed. Fourth, Hayek’s fear of Frankenstein’s monster government must be balanced with Frankenstein’s monster individualism. Both can lead to oppressive, tyrannical life for humans – the serfdom Hayek does battle with. Finally, Hayek’s claim that markets cure all ills and protect individuals and collective life leads to policies that place protection and promotion of individual freedom first in all situations. Even government programs that provide health care and old age pensions are deemed impediments to individual freedom. We see this today in debates in Congress about health care insurance and college tuition payment. To paraphrase James Michener, organizing society according to the guidelines of Hayek leaves each of us a lonely and alone individual forced to build and live alone, to find success or failure alone.

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