Review: Road to Serfdom

[Ed Note: CBLPI asks all its interns and Fellows to read The Road to Serfdom, a timeless classic published in 1944 by Friedrich August von Hayek, during their tenure with us.]

by Elisa Seegmiller

The ideas and concepts in The Road to Serfdom were written during a time of world distress and economic turbulence. In today's world and economic theater, this book has become even more relevant than during the time that it was written. With college students today being taught in their classrooms that equality of outcome is more important than equality of opportunity, we have quickly developed into a culture that is in desperate need of Hayek's wisdom.

Most students today will never be assigned to read this stunning and eye-opening little book. If they were, we would not have seen so many young students supporting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this last election cycle. This lack of guidance from our schools is why the bright-minded and prudent among our young must take it upon themselves to seek out these truths on their own. We must seek out the answers to why a strong nation falls under the rule of dangerous dictators and tyrants. We must discover how principles and values play heavily into preserving national and world freedom, and how a nation without them will quickly find itself on The Road to Serfdom.

Webster's Dictionary defines 'serf' as: "A person in the past who belonged to a low social class and who lived and worked on land owned by another person." Google's defines 'socialism' as: "(in Marxist theory) a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism." Socialism is defined by Hayek as:

Socialism means the abolition of private enterprise, of private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of a system of 'planned economy' in which the entrepreneur working for profit is replaced by a central planning body.

In other words, we can easily translate The Road to Serfdom, as the road to slavery.

The Road to Serfdom is an incredibly powerful and moving analysis and timeline of how a people fall under slavery to their government. Hayek clearly outlines the road other countries have followed that have brought their countrymen to live under totalitarian rules, and how we might also follow that road if we are not vigilant.

In a study of how well-meaning citizens are persuaded to give up individual rights, Hayek explains how it is usually the use of economic planning, which leads to the evils of totalitarianism. When economic planning replaces the free market, by nature big government planning invades and replaces the free will of individuals to choose how they live. As Hayek stated in the book,

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can we separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends." (pg 127)

Now as the reader I asked, how do you persuade a large population of people to adopt central planning and the stripping of individual rights? Hayek uses history as a guide and strongly cautions us, using the example of his time of Hitler and Germany.

Hitler did not… destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the crucial moment… (pg 108)

Hayek then goes on to explain that it is when a country is in a constant pool of chaos and economic disparity, the people will often become willing to trade freedom for economic "safety." The country then allows their government to take control of the nation's economic system. As the government takes over economic planning to protect businesses, the government-provided security becomes a form of having (and showing) rank and status. As the cycle progresses, it becomes clear that when the striving for security becomes stronger than the love of freedom, socialism is the natural evolution.

As one of our American Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, famously said:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

One of the most striking and thought-provoking parts when reading The Road to Serfdom is how Hayek concludes his book. He ends with his solution to save counties from taking that road to slavery. He points out that the Anglo-Saxons (specifically America and England) have historically prided themselves on their values. Individual values such as independence, self-reliance, individual initiative, local responsibility, etc. And also community values, such as the successful reliance on voluntary charity, noninterference with one's neighbor, tolerance, respect for custom and tradition, and a very healthy suspicion of power and authority. Hayek explains that these deeply held values are the reason for these countries' success. In turn, these values have molded the national character and the whole moral climate of England and America.

In a most stunning and perfect way, Hayek explains that this is more than just a war over economics. This is a war of ideologies.

If we are to succeed in the war of ideologies… we must, first of all, regain the belief in the traditional values for which we have stood in the past and must have the moral courage stoutly to defend the ideals which our enemies attack. (pg 221)

In conclusion, I would say that the two most important ideas that I have brought away from reading The Road to Serfdom, is first: "Political Freedom is meaningless without economic freedom" (pg 123). And second: it is the Anglo-Saxon's traditions and values that created Western civilization. It is the moral and self-reliant customs that have given us the right setting for freedom to flourish. If we abandon those traditions and values, then we abandon those very elements that made us great and prosperous.

Elisa Seegmiller is a 2016 fall Fellow.