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The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) Paperback – March 30, 2007
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"In my opinion it is a grand book. . . . Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement."
--John Maynard Keynes
"It takes courage, or something like it, to declare one's offering 'The Definitive Edition'. . . . I have no hesitation, though in describing this as an excellent edition."--Roger Kimball "New Criterion "
About the Author
F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 1991 and co-winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1974, was a pioneer in monetary theory and a leading proponent of classical liberalism in the twentieth century. He taught at the University of London, the University of Chicago, and the University of Freiburg.
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Hayek’s book can be read from three perspectives: as a piece of history, as a piece about history, and as a reasoned argument on why socialism fails.
As a piece of history, Hayek (Nobel prize in economics 1974) wrote this book during the second world war while living in England. Having grown up and been educated in Austria, and teaching at the London School of Economics, he was concerned that the British (and the Americans) were moving toward post-war socialism. This was his warning of the dangers that socialism posed.
That Hayek had personally observed the development of socialism in Austria and Germany, this book is much about the history of socialism, from its origins in the early 19th century up to the establishment of the totalitarian governments of Germany, Italy, and Russia. A difficulty for current readers is that in much of what Hayek refers to, he assumed that readers of the 1940's understood implicitly. Wading through this now obscure history, however, provides interesting insight into the political discourse of the time, and is thus in its own right, a piece of history.
As a reasoned argument with observations on how socialism destroys liberty and fails economically is what I'll try to cover in this review.
Socialism encompasses the ideas of social justice, equality and security. These are its ultimate goals. The methods of how to obtain them are seldom detailed by its adherents, but generally what is required and expected is the abolition of private property, the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production, and the establishment of a centrally planned economy that distributes wealth equitably.
The central attraction to socialism is “the potential plenty for all.” The belief is that with the level of technology and wealth we have achieved we can now, with proper planning, create even greater wealth and rapidly and distribute it equally to all. What is forgotten - or drowned out in the demonization of capitalism - is that this current wealth and technology was achieved in the first place through the capitalist, free market system.
A dilemma immediately presents itself in the process of trying to achieve this justice and equality. The problem is that fairness of outcome cannot be achieved by the application of a universal rule of law. This is so because some people, due either to their natural talents or their preposition in life, will be better off and will do better than others. Laws under socialism may start with an equal application to all, but soon will evolve to favor or disfavor particular groups, ultimately crippling the universal rule of law with exceptions, and throwing decision specifics to politicized judges or other authorities to achieve ‘equality of outcome.’ The result is the destruction of individual rights and the rule of law.
Economic planning cannot help but interfere with political life and curtail individual freedoms. Transferring property and the means of production to state ownership is the ultimate form of a liberty robbing monopoly. Freedom of consumption becomes limited to what the state is willing or able to produce. Freedom to work in jobs of one’s own choice is limited by the state’s determination of the makeup of the workforce. The disaffected - those who have lost property, those stuck in unfulfilling jobs, those who cannot obtain the goods they desire - will find that freedom of speech is also not tolerated. Hardly any aspect of life will not be affected.
State ownership of the means of production - even limited state ownership - places the state in the position where, in effect, it determines all people’s incomes. The close interdependence of all economic phenomenon makes it impossible to limit the degree of planning. The livelihood of individuals will no longer be determined by the impersonal forces of free markets, but by the deliberate decisions of state authority. In socialism, everyone is to receive their due according to an absolute, universal standard of right, but the political difficulties in determining and enforcing a common view of ‘the right’ is insurmountable in large heterogeneous groups. The more security offered to any one group necessarily takes freedoms from others, contributing more to the legions of the disaffected.
One of the attractions of socialism is that it promises to eliminate the uncertainties of market economies, and thus provide ‘freedom’ from the vagaries of economic cycles. Enforcing security, however, from price fluctuations leads to inefficiencies and stagnation in the economy, as price discovery and labor flexibility is necessarily inhibited. This impulse for security leads directly to a loss of individual liberty along with a loss of economy vitality.
In a socialist system with income security, inefficiency and stagnation, individuals will not sustain their best productivity, thus burdening the economy further and sending society into an ever deepening malaise. The resulting degradation in the economy may result in an equality of benefits, but will also result in an equal sharing of greater poverty.
Motivating workers to maintain productivity is an ever present problem, as is the containment of the less than virtuous persons. The only power to be had in a socialist society is to share in the coercive power of the state. Clearly, becoming a member of a group that can influence or control the state machinery is the only avenue available to improve one’s position in life, a situation that naturally attracts the less than virtuous. A tug-of-war of interest groups ensues. Who will plan from whom? The poorest and most numerous are most likely to lose out, while corruption, graft, and a new ruling elite takes root.
There is the belief that because socialism springs from high moral beliefs that it will produce leaders of high moral character. Good results, however, do not necessarily follow from good intentions. Necessarily, the talents required to lead and administer a socialist system are the least desirable and least virtuous. The argument that current and past socialist failures is due to the wrong people fomenting them, and the argument continues that future socialist systems will succeed with the right persons in the lead. This is categorically wrong - as no political system should be dependent upon the talent and virtue of individuals. Even a democratically elected leader, with the intention of delivering on socialist goals, will either have to eventually give up his goals, or assume dictatorial powers to achieve them. For a dictator, he will have to either abandon standard moral values or face failure of his program. It is the unattainable goals of socialism that produces the heinous leaders that populate the history of the effort, and will continue to do so in the future.
Bringing socialism into being requires making everyone believe in the plan and goals of the system. Control of the public narrative, and suppression of private thought is necessary for the central authority to maintain power. The allegiance to truth is an early victim - and as respect for truth is the foundation of all morality, this ultimately leads to the debasement of all moral authority of the socialist system. Capture by the central authority of the entire knowledge industry, from news outlets, to opinion leaders, to the education system is a necessity. Even disinterested, apolitical knowledge, such as the pursuit of science and innovation is stifled; entertainment is closely monitored. The irony is that the impulse of collectivist thought is to guide social development through reason, yet it has the ultimate effect of destroying reason.
Power vested in the hands of individuals is feared and detested by those who advocate socialism. Their solution, to this seeming problem, is to take power away from individuals and create a new and greater center of power, a concentrated power unimaginable under any system of individual liberty. No one in an individualist, free market society could ever wield the power of a socialist planning commission. To define, implement, and administer central planning, a centralized authority is required, and ultimately, centralized authority leads to dictatorship.
Forgetting the devastation socialism causes to the life of the individual and consequent damage to the vitality of society, central planning can never direct the economy to equitably provide for all. This is evident simply on the basis that the centralized collection and analysis of the massive amount of information required is impossible. The residue of legitimacy left of socialism - the belief that it will secure a more just and equitable distribution of wealth - is false. Wherever greater information is gathered, greater wealth and privilege follows, be it capitalist or socialist. Self-sacrificing virtue cannot be relied upon to distribute goods and services equitably, and in fact it is structurally impossible.
Hayek does not make a concerted effort to promote capitalism or free market economies, this he assumes has been done adequately by others, but he does on occasion interject observations on how free markets solve various problems better than planned economies. Hayek’s view is that from the limitations of our money based economies, we are made to feel the restrictions of our relative wealth, which leads to the socialist impulse. However in Hayek’s opinion, money, and the free exchange of goods and services, is one of the greatest innovations ever created to promote freedom and alleviate poverty.
The only explanation for the current and apparently rising interest in socialism, is the general lack of understanding of what it is and where it leads. Hayek’s “Serfdom,” sixty-five years on, is for those willing to take on the challenge, a great antidote for this affliction
Like many young, intelligent, concerned people, Hayek started his adult life as a democratic socialist, the trendy thing for young people then and now. But World War I caused him to questions the assumptions he had made about the social order. In conversations with his cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein, he developed a strong desire to discover ways that humanity might avoid the tragedy of the War in future. He studied with numerous academic luminaries in Vienna after the war including the renowned economist and powerful anti-socialist Ludwig von Mises. Then, in 1931, he wrote a book that earned him an invitation to join the London School of Economics where he famously debated the demand-side guru, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes won these debates in the short run and held sway over mid-century world economic policy, but lost to history with the supply-side revolution of Freedman, Reagan and Thatcher who all acknowledged their great debt to Fredrick Hayek. This book is not Hayek’s crowning achievement in academic economics (for that work he won a Nobel Prize) nevertheless, it is his most famous and influential work.
As undergraduates, many people read Plato, particularly “The Republic”, and are enthralled. The idea that we can willfully design a perfect, conflict free society is seductive and desirable to young minds who have just left the security of the family, or not. Philosophers in the 19th century rebelled against the hegemony of determanistic materialism that had held sway since Francis Bacon began the struggle to push the Church’s Plato back into the Pandora ’s Box it came from. Successively, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte and Mill reopened the box. But without the Church to teach them otherwise, men began to believe they could perfect themselves. Bismarck and Woodrow Wilson made the first political attempts at a Great Society with seeming benevolence. Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo, Stalin and Mao followed their example with significantly less universally humane intent. All of these politicians believed they could organize the world into a scientifically created Eden sans deity through extensive economic planning by a central governing authority vested in academic experts. This authority would have the power to distribute goods and services in such a way that people would be freed from want and from mundane economic decisions. They could live their lives in pursuit of those things much loftier than material wealth. They could fill their days with art and science and comradery and love. Organization and planning would liberate humanity from strife, privation, drudgery and tedium. For nearly one hundred and fifty years socialist doctrine has imbued this dream-world into the heads of the young, the desperate, the hungry, the angry, the resentful and the lonely. Social economic planning was the perfect religious message for generations of men who had lost the Religion of Divinity and were searching for a religion within themselves. Many politicians believe this still today or cynically advocated such policies to accrue power from the gullible.
So the Road to Serfdom is analysis of this intense human desire to organize the world around us through planning in order to achieve some always ill-defined optimum for all. The book clearly demonstrates that the great flaw in this idea is that men can never get together and agree exactly what to plan for or what is optimal. The artist will want resources allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts; the scientist will insist that more be sent to the National Institutes for Health; the farmer will demand that subsidies for corn are the only way society can survive, parents and students will demand bursary, and the poor will clamor for support. This will inevitably lead to conflict as what each man lobbies for is not really an optimum for all but an optimum for himself. The only way these conflicts can be resolved is through a strong central authority that can coerce the cooperation of all the members of society and assign priorities for the allocation of resources. As men will always resist coercion, the applied authority must become increasingly violent to the point of being life threatening in order to impose its central economic will. As the process of organization and planning becomes ever more comprehensive, ultimate authority must eventually be concentrated in the hands of one person, a dictator. In Hayek’s words:
“Most planners who have seriously considered the practical aspects of their task have little doubt that a directed economy must be run on more or less dictatorial lines. That the complex system of interrelated activities, if it is to be consciously directed at all, must be directed by a single staff of experts, and that ultimate responsibility and power must rest in the hands of a commander-in-chief whose actions must not be fettered by democratic procedure .........[planners believe that] by giving up freedom in what are, or ought to be, the less important aspects of our lives, we shall obtain greater freedom in the pursuit of higher values.”
But by giving up economic control do we attain that greater freedom? No. There was no such thing as recreation in Soviet Russia, Hitler had an entire program to fill peoples spare time, the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy), and North Korea’s uber thug, Kim Jong-un, has of late constructed a ski resort though very few people have the money or the nutritional health to use it. All these systems insisted that you will relax and recreate as they tell you. You will read the books they tell you to read. You will perform only the plays they tell you to perform. You will live your life for their priorities. For a planned society to work, people eventually must surrender complete control of their lives, even their leisure, to the planners for the sake of the whole.
Collectivist sentiment arose in the 19th century as a backlash against unrestrained, Laissez-faire Capitalism. Most of today’s remaining socialists view this Laissez-faire Capitalism as the enemy they are still fighting though such a system is long gone and unlamented. Who would play Monopoly if there were no rules at all and theft and deceit were the norm; that is lawless Laissez-faire economic anarchy. But who would play Monopoly if the rules changed at the violent and arbitrary insistence of an all-powerful “Planner” controlling every aspect of the board; that is Socialism. But why should we play either game with our economic lives? People use the term “The Third Way” to try and accommodate planning without resort to dictatorship. But Hayek shows the impossibility of this Third Way and points us to the only way. What Hayek advocates is a Capitalist system with clearly defined rules that apply to everyone, no exceptions, and enduring restraints and limits on the power of government. He argues for consistency and democracy where the playing field is level for everyone and we are all free economic entities making our own economic decisions based on our own desires, our own resources and our own conscience. What he argues is Edmond Burke, 175 years on in an effort to correct the horrific damage we have inflicted on ourselves with the hubris that we could actually perfect ourselves through planning without throwing away our very humanity.
Unfortunately, over 70 years after its completion, Hayek’s description of planners and his warning about their cynical attitude toward personal competence and responsibility can be seen hard at work within our own supposedly free democratic government. In the weeks before I wrote this, a powerful academic from MIT, economist Jonathan Gruber, renowned as the architect of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) has been discovered to have said that “the stupidity of the American voter” made it important for him and Democrats to obscure the true costs of the health care program from the public. “That [hiding the details] was really, really critical for the thing to pass,” said Gruber. “But I’d rather have this law than not.” Thus, Gruber’s ends justify any means including mass deception of the populous of the world’s greatest democratic republic, a populous he openly regards as incompetent and stupid. Deception is the first form of violence perpetrated on the people by planners when they achieve power. For such self-appointed experts, their plan is so important that the vox populi must be silenced first only by stealth, but surely force will soon follow. Their plan is just too important. This is Hayek’s warning for posterity. William F. Buckley Jr. said it best, following Hayek, “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” Or MIT.
Life is and will be always a struggle toward freedom and dignity for each man and woman. That freedom and dignity can never be perfectly attained, but what of these we can manage only comes through personal economic empowerment. That empowerment comes when we throw off the yoke of powerful individuals and defiantly refuse the thralldom they offer in exchange for illusions of security and freedom from the mundane. After the implosion of the former Soviet mega-dictatorship, numerous influential people threw off that yoke and immerged from the economic morass of Socialism to lead the Eastern bloc back toward prosperity on the model of the modern Western democracies and Capitalism based on knowledge they had gained from smuggled copies of this book and those of Hayek’s successor, Milton Friedman. Millions of people had gladly descended down the wrong path and now had to claw their way back out of the Cave Plato had lead them into. Hayek showed them that way back. Many people emerging from under the heel of that Evil Empire have attested to the enlightenment they received from the banned copies of the works of Hayek. Hayek showed these oppressed people as he has shown the ages that to allow people who strive through Plato’s supreme creation of societal hubris to plan and design and control our society for our own good is “The Road to Serfdom.”
Top international reviews
So, it’s five stars for Caldwell’s editorship.
What of the book itself? Four stars, I think.
Hayek came to the LSE from Vienna in the early 1930’s. He was already making a reputation as an economist and he was soon offered a visiting professorship at LSE. The ideas that gave rise to this work, first published in England in book form in March 1944, began as a memo to Lord Beveridge (his LSE director) ten years earlier. Hayek was convinced that Beveridge and many British intellectuals were hopelessly naïve about the true nature of National Socialism in Germany and were equally unable to comprehend the extreme authoritarianism of Stalin’s form of communism. Hayek, whose political philosophy might be characterised as ‘Whig’ in English terms, was fearful that the liberal cultures and widely cherished assumptions of post-enlightenment Europe were rapidly giving way to brutalising and authoritarian regimes. These often masqueraded as “efficient planned economies” in pursuit of an unobtainable goal of notional ‘equality’.
Hayek was deeply sceptical about the capacity of planned (or ‘command’) economies to deliver ‘equality’ without imposing draconian controls on labour and rights of free movement. He regarded any such tampering with the natural process of free-trade and interpersonal negotiations as a meddlesome and dangerous attempt to subvert social Darwinist ideals. He never mentions Darwin but there is little doubt that he believes in a ‘natural evolving order’, not of inherited privilege but ability, discovery and enterprise. To Hayek this natural order, however chaotic, is far more sympathetic to personal liberty than a rationalised and efficient impersonal order, however well planned. So, for Hayek, some degree of inequality reflects the natural differences in chance, ability and determination.
Why is he so resistant to the concept of social and economic planning? Because it reminds him of the excesses of Hitler and Stalin, it seems. Hayek probably knew far better than his English colleagues the nature of these regimes. This was a period when Stalin spoke contemptuously of his “necessary idiots”, by which he meant western intellectuals who sang the praises of Soviet Russia without having any knowledge of the Gulag or the terror trials.
His central thesis is that we surrender our powers to the planners at our peril and that ‘planning’ (as opposed to natural economic metamorphosis) involves first the reduction and then eventually the annihilation of liberty and individuality.
While the book is elegantly written, provocative and interesting it is not in any sense perfect. Some obvious criticisms spring to mind:
1) Is socialism really the twin of Nazism as he claims? To Hayek they seem congruent (see chapter 12, p181).
2) Didn’t real serfdom as opposed to his metaphorical “serfdom” precede both capitalism and socialism? Real serfdom has its origins in feudal traditions of gross inequality in which inherited privilege and vast tracts of property are concentrated in an aristocracy. In pre-revolution Russia a count, such as Tolstoy, actually owned not merely his estate but also his farm workers. Hayek is in danger of subscribing to the “myth of the golden past”.
3)Could soviet Russia have defeated Hitler in the crucial battles of 1942/3without central planning of the war economy? Hardly. Was that victory worth the terrible cost? Probably.
4) Was Clement Attlee, the ‘modest’ socialist planner of all planners, the victor of the 1945 general election, a despot? That accusation would be laughable. Thus Attlee is for Hayek that impossible chimera, a planner with a human face.
Caldwell acknowledges that while Hayek was respected at LSE for his fine intellect he was regarded by most academics there as on the “wrong side”. Hayek became far more popular in post-war America and we know that Margaret Thatcher was said to have found him “inspirational”. That is odd and reveals a misunderstanding of his political roots. Hayek was not a Tory. He hated inherited privilege and influence and went on to argue that: “A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege” (See his foreword to the 1956 American paperback edition, p46). He would have been a free-market ‘Whig’ had he lived a hundred years earlier. He was an old-fashioned Darwinian Liberal; a clear thinker whose warnings are still pertinent. Since most western (and some far eastern) economies are now planned with a precision he would have loathed, he would probably say that his nightmare has come to pass.
Yet many economies have achieved the trick of combining a Hayekian free-market with a socialist welfare state. These ‘mixed’ economies have achieved gains for many. The mass are better off, live longer and are more secure, while the gifted still have freedom to shine in a way that Hayek would have doubted possible in a planned economy.
But welfare provision has had to evolve just as Hayek would have predicted. In Darwinian terms it is simply too easy to ‘exploit’.
The road to serfdom is non-technical and easy to read, by the standard of most books on economics. But the argument emerges rather slowly and Hayek cannot resist the temptation to make the same point several times, even in adjacent chapters. His original editor should have insisted on the removal of this reiteration.
His early reviewers were quite caustic. Berlin called it “awful”, Tead described it as “long-winded and over written”. But the American public liked it and it sold well. It chimed with ‘Cold War’ rhetoric and the Readers’ Digest even serialised sections. That is most unusual for an academic book.
In case every reader tries to make it fit with their own ideology, it is worth noting that it was written for a British audience during wartime and that the dedication to the first edition was:
“To socialists of all parties”.
NB: Ich bewerte hier bewusst die Ausgabe, das Buch selbst kann zu sehr polarisieren. Für die einen hat "The Road to Serfdom" vielleicht den Rang einer "Freiheits"-Bibel, einer ultimativen Verdammungsschrift gegen den Sozialismus allerorten (wobei sich Hayek wohl nicht so einfach von FDP-Onkeln und Tories vereinnahmen ließe). Für andere wäre er der Gottseibeiuns, der übersehe, dass große Unternehmen natürlich viel mehr planen und eine "Freiheit" der Ökonomie andere Sphären massiv beeinträchtige (auch da beziehen sich mutmaßlich einige mit Kontra auf ihn, ohne das selbst geprüft zu haben). Wer eine Ausgabe wie diese findet, kann sich ja ein eigenes Urteil bilden. Zeit sollte man mitbringen, denn das ist noch ein gehaltvolles Buch.
Für die Ausgabengestaltung vier Sterne.
PS1: Etwas mehr zum Inhalt: Hayek widmet das Buch den "Sozialisten aller Parteien". Sozialismus - für ihn noch zentrale Planung und Vergesellschaftung der Produktionsmittel - drohe nämlich auch in Friedenszeiten von allen politischen Strömungen bejaht zu werden. Für England sieht er diese "deutsche" Gefahr besonders. Sozialismus werde aber nur mit Zwang funktionierend und eine Tendenz zur Totalisierung beinhalten. Hayek sieht - es sind die späten 1930er/ frühen 1940-er - die UdSSR und die faschistischen Staaten Italien und Deutschland als letztlich ähnlich und einen Liberalismus als Gegenspieler dazu an. Einen deutschen staats-sozialistischen Ansatz der Ökonomie möchte er erklären und verwerfen (Hayek kommt selbst aus der methodisch individualistischeren Österreichischen Schule). Es gebe Aufgaben des Staates, und Wettbewerb als überlegene, machtarme Organisationsform brauche auch Schutz, doch nicht viel mehr, bitte.
PS2: Hat er mich überzeugt (wie gesagt, bewusst nicht in die Sternchen eingeflossen)? Zunächst fand ich es interessant, den echten Hayek zu studieren und nicht nur das Abziehbildchen seiner Feinde oder Jünger. Sympathisch ist sein Streiten für abstrakte Regeln, die personen- und gefälligkeitsunabhängig sein sollen. Sein Streiten gegen eine platonische vereinfachte Pseudo-Wissenschaftlichkeit findet sich dann auch bei seinem späteren LSE-Kollegen und Mit-Wiener Kar l Popper .
Sein Misstrauen gegenüber einer staatlichen Lenkung ist nachzuvollziehen. Oft ist sie gescheitert, und in der Tat besonders unfähige Personen saßen an den (politischen) Schalthebeln. Die Liste derart korrupt-kaputter Staaten ist lang. Gleichwohl hat in einigen Ländern zeitweilige Planung offenbar funktioniert (gerade in aufholenden): Taiwan, Singapur, Japan, Deutsches Reich, Nachkriegsfrankreich, Roosevelts USA. Auch in Kriegszeiten konnte so plötzlich die Produktion massiv gesteigert werden. Auch kann ökonomisch wie sozial sinnvolle Umverteilung (Taiwans Bodenreform) so einfacher gestaltet werden. Als dann in den 1970-ern die "liberalen" Rezepte ausgepackt wurden (und auch die USA die Kosten ihres Kriegs abwälzten), ging es damit tief in die Rezession. Wobei Hayeks gewünschte "Entfesselung" (vgl. Obelix ) auch noch offenlässt, wie spätere Generationen, die ja jetzt nicht mitwettbewerben, zu einer fairen ökologischen Überlebenschance kommen sollen. Das hat man in den 1940-ern aber wohl zumeist noch nicht gesehen.
So eindeutig überzeugend finde ich Hayeks Position auch in Hinblick auf Freiheit nicht. Mit welchem Recht dürfte sich ausgerechnet die ökonomische Sphäre als unabhängig deklarieren, wie es übrigens früher nur die religiöse tat? Freiheit ist nicht nur die der starken Kapitalbesitzer, sondern auch ideell, politisch, solidarisch etc. Im Chile der Chicago-Boys und Pinochets war nicht gut leben. Wenn der Status einer Person wieder größtenteils von dem ihrer Eltern abhängt, wären wir wieder im Mittelalter. Also müsste Hayek eigentlich viel stärker für eine sensenscharfe Erbschaftssteuer plädieren. Ein heutiger Hayek sollte sich auch die Rolle der großen Unternehmens-Organisationen ansehen, die ja bewusst den Wettbewerb intern wie extern ausknipsen möchten.
Mein Fazit zum Buch: nicht 100% proselytenmachend, doch ein Ansatz zum Auseinandersetzen.
I read the book while researching on Thatcherism, as it has been the milestone of Mrs. Margaret's economic thought.
It is pleasant, never boring, insightful to read after knowing "What happened next".
Although economically questionable nowadys, Hayek's theories are a must for Economic History amateurs.
In The Road to Serfdom, I met a kindred spirit in Hayek. I felt vindicated that my concern was not unfounded, and my instinct was expounded so professionally and eloquently that I felt I had been released from my responsibility to speak my mind. Hayek not only speaks my mind in this classics, he illuminates the conflict to me and gives me insights into human nature and collective behaviour that I did not see before. But while we rightly admire his intellectual prowess, let's not overlook his human side - the passion and urgency with which he speaks his message. He was engaged in a fierce battle of the minds and ideologies that shaped the modern world and he endeavoured to turn the tide. No one could have stood in that position without some personal conviction.
The timeless central message of the book - that socialism / collectivism will inevitably lead to a totalitarian rule and in turn is in direct conflict with the virtue of personal liberty (in the 19th century definition) - is well-known, well-covered and well-analysied. You may say, history is not science; how one can predict history with such categorical certainty? This is where Hayek shows his intellectual prowess. From his economics background, he defines the tasks that collectivism MUST entail. Then he sets the tasks against the setting of democracy and proves that democracy cannot churn out arbitrary decisions as demanded by collectivism. In the end only a totalitarian rule can "plan" an economy. He also argues that it is naive to believe that one can ringfence the sphere of "planning" to economic field, and preserve individual liberty outside this field. By his analysis, it is inevitable that economic planning will infiltrate all aspects of personal life, and no boundary can be realistic, due to the intertwined relationship between economic life and personal life. Suppose you are convinced by Hayek's arguments up to this point and ask, "so what if collectivism produces totalitarianism, if it delivers social good?" To that, Hayek answers by a chapter entitled, "Why the worst got on top". The gist of the argument is that those bureaucrats in charge of making economic decisions for the society as a while would soon see how it contravenes individual freedom, and anyone with a conscience would call it a quit. This means that only the ruthless and reckless are able to succeed in such a system and fulfil the roles as demanded for collectivism. Not only that, Hayek repeatedly says that collectivism concentrates power and wealth in the state to an unprecedented level, and hence "the worst got on top". History is full of examples to support his hypothesis, and this is how Hayek opens his book, "One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers. An accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see."(p.57)
But to me, what makes this book stands out is not the overarching message. Rather it is Hayek's astounding insights into human nature, the development of history and our collective tendencies. These understandings normally bypass average people but are crystal clear to Hayek. Here are a handful of my moments of enlightenment:
1) If socialism is so dangerous, why is it so popular? Why are people so readily forsake the principles (i.e. free markets) which have brought them unprecedented growth and much blessing? Hayek's answer:
"The result of this growth surpassed all expectations. Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able to satisfy ever widening ranges of desire. And while the rising standard soon led to the discovery of very dark spots in society, spots which men were no longer willing to tolerate, there was probably no class that did not substantially benefit from the general advance. We cannot do justice to this astonishing growth if we measure it by our present standards, which themselves result from this growth and now make many defects obvious. To appreciate what it meant to those who took part in it, we must measure it by the hopes and wishes men held when it began: and there can be no doubt that its success surpassed man's wildest dreams, that by the beginning of the twentieth century the working-man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible.
"What in the future will probably appear the most significant and far-reaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own lot, which the success already achieved created among men. With the success grew ambition - and man had every right to be ambitious. What had been an inspiring promise seemed no longer enough, the rate of progress far too slow; and the principles which had made this progress possible in the past came to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away, than as the conditions for the preservation and development of what had already been achieved." (p. 70-71)
2) on political rhetoric and persuasion, here are the hidden agenda:
"It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program - on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off - than on any positive task." (p. 160-161) Does it ring the bell?
"The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they, or at least the best among them, have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognised before....the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.... If one has not one's self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion which it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates... And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of the words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them." (p. 174-175) So beware of empty political soundbites, which are designed to borrow our allegiance to some old concepts and to confuse us!
3) Some of the worst atrocities we have witnessed were committed by totalitarianism bred from collectivism. Sometimes, I wonder how human beings are capable of doing such evils. An explanation lies in the group identity.
"Apart from the basic fact that the community of collectivism can extend only as far as the unity of purpose of the individuals exists or can be created, several contributory factors strengthen the tendency of collectivism to become particularist and exclusive. Of these, one of the most important is that the desire of the individual to identify himself with a group is very frequently the result of a feeling of inferiority and that therefore his want will be satisfied only if membership of the group confers some superiority over outsiders. Sometimes, it seems, the very fact that these violent instincts which the individual knows he must curb within the group can be given a free range in the collective action toward the outsider, becomes a further inducement for merging personality in that of the group...There is a profound truth expressed in the title of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society ... "an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups," To act on behalf of a group seems to free people of many of the moral restraints which control their behaviour as individuals within the group. " (p. 162-163)
4) Instead of being compassionate, collectivism is amoral and cultivates an incompassionate and selfish society.
"Where there is one common all-overriding end, there is no room for any general morals or rules." (p. 168)"We are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else's expense nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice." (p.216) "There can be no limit to what its citizen must be prepared to do, no act which his conscience must prevent him from committing, if it is necessary for an end which the community has set itself or which his superiors order him to achieve." (p. 167)"...there is literally nothing which the consistent collectivist must not be prepared to do if it serves "the good of the whole," because the "good of the whole" is to him the only criterion of what ought to be done. "(p. 166)"Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation, most of those features of totalitarian regimes which horrify us follow of necessity." (p. 168)
More eerily familiar is this description of a collective society, which we can find some resonance in today's welfare state!
"There is much to suggest that we have in fact become more tolerant towards particular abuses and much more indifferent to inequities in individual cases, since we have fixed our eyes on an entirely different system in which the state will set everything right. It may even be, as now without compunction collectively indulge in that selfishness which as individuals we had learned to a little to restrain.
"It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now - independent, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one's own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one's neighbours - are essentially those on which the working of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed them it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good." (p. 217-8)
As I close the book, I seem to get the message that there is no middle ground between capitalism and collectivism, and yet searching for this "third way" is precisely the current endeavour. Granted that socialism in Hayek's book and socialism in today's terminology refers to quite different things. Nonetheless the appeal and pressure to move away from free enterprises with minimal state intervention and a small government to some hybrid is never relented. I wonder the focus of our effort in addressing the shortcomings of a market economy has been misguided. While Hayek is very clear which path we are not to take, it leaves us no wiser on which path we should take. The direction of state intervention is briefly addressed but it is not discussed. Meanwhile, China is attempting another model, making free enterprise to serve its totalitarian regime. Does Hayek's message imply that this model is internal incoherent and will break at some point and somewhere? Perhaps another book similar to Hayek's is due to draw insights for us to comprehend the world we are living in!
But as I close the book, I share Hayek's lamentation: "A foreign background is sometimes helpful in seeing more clearly to what circumstances the peculiar excellencies of the moral atmosphere of a nation are due. And if one who, whatever the law may say, must forever remain a foreigner, may be allowed to say so, it is one of the most disheartening spectacles of our time to see to what extent some of the most precious things which England, for example, has given to the world are now held in contempt in England itself." (p. 219) And what are the precious things referred to here? The English ideals of liberalism. Let's not give them up without a fight and due care, and be mindful of what Hayek describes as "the supreme tragedy" that "in Germany it was largely people of good will ... who prepared the way for, if they did not actually create, the forces which now stand for everything they detest." (p. 58-9)
Consigliato; Spero di tornare a comprare da voi.