Rereading *The Road to Serfdom*

by on October 7, 2010 at 9:41 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

Given all the recent fuss, I picked it up again and found:

1. It was more boring and less analytic on matters of public choice than I had been expecting.

2. Although some of Hayek's major predictions have been proven wrong, they are more defensible than I had been expecting.

3. The most important sentence in the book is "This book, written in my spare time from 1940 to 1943…"  In those years, how many decent democracies were in the world?  How clear was it that the Western powers, even if they won the war, would dismantle wartime economic planning?  How many other peoples' predictions from those years have panned out?  At that time, Hayek's worries were perfectly justified.

4. If current trends do turn out very badly, this is not the best guide for understanding exactly why.

It's fine to downgrade the book, relative to some of the claims made on its behalf, but the book doesn't give us reason to downgrade Hayek.

Freddy October 7, 2010 at 5:46 am

(Read: while we don't agree with anything Hayek has to say, per se, given his Nobel prize and recognition as a hip thinker, we approve).

pj October 7, 2010 at 6:04 am

Why should we downgrade the book? It is not a work of prognostication, like the writings of Nostradamus. It is an historical treatment of how Nazism rose and a warning that the West could follow the same path. As indeed we may. The essential phenomena he analyzed are still with us.

delirious October 7, 2010 at 6:13 am

Buckle up for the flame war…

David Smith October 7, 2010 at 6:37 am

There's just a lot of other Hayek out there that's a lot better and more thought-provoking. This one seems to get picked up because it's most easily used as a weapon.

k October 7, 2010 at 6:56 am

"Although some of Hayek's major predictions have been proven wrong."

I disagree, there have been enough countries that went down that particular road that Hayek warned against, for whom serfdom did arrive.

it's cute to think "oh he got a nobel so thats why he gets respect"…

Winter October 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

The complete list of countries with a democratic government in 1940:

1. Great Britain
2. Ireland
3. The United States
4. Canada
5. Australia
6. New Zealand
7. Sweden
8. Finland
9. Iceland
10. Switzerland
11. Mexico
12. Columbia
13. Costa Rica
14. Uruguay

JSK October 7, 2010 at 7:56 am

"You get the same reaction reading 19th century economists or political philosophers."

I disagree. Wealth of Nations (Smith) and On Freedom (Mills) still have some relevant and insightful portions. Hayek is probably not in their league as a philosopher.

Andrew October 7, 2010 at 8:42 am

"Hayek is probably not in their league as a philosopher"

Smith is in a league of one, is he not?

Andrew October 7, 2010 at 8:46 am

Tyler identifies the point. You don't judge someone by what you know today, because what you know today is partly the result of their insights.

How much credit does Hayek deserve that people chose not to descend into serfdom? Probably more than average, right?

Ned Baker October 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

@Andrew:

It's reasonable to judge a person in the context of his period, but I think here we're "rereading" a book for its modern relevance.

k October 7, 2010 at 11:13 am

oh yes, and the perfectly competitive model is very relevant to the more advanced capitalist economies today? Yet we are still taught that this is the model to which everyone must aspire to when it is really not clear why.

The theor(ies) of the firm and the asymmetric information theories were built to handle the main discrepancy in the general equilibrium model – that it was essentially useless to describe the forms that firms take in the real world.

Should we then say Walras was "wrong"? I don't get this.

Interesting October 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm
Barkley Rosser October 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm

This may be boring, but it gets forgotten. There is an important distinction to be made between different types of planning, one that Hayek recognized in scattered places in RtS. That is between command planning and indicative, or non-command planning. Hayek is right in that we have never seen a society that had command central planning outside of wartime that was a democratic society. However, we have certainly seen quite a few that had the indicative variety and remained so. Besides France, some other examples include India (which still has it), Japan, and South Korea.

Axel Kassel October 7, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Much of 'The Road to Serfdom' is indeed a reflection of its time and place, but it is still a remarkable book. I think his 'The Constitution of Liberty" may appeal more to readers looking for a broader treatment of political economy from the classical-liberal perspective. Even the discursive endnotes are interesting and educational.

R Richard Schweitzer October 7, 2010 at 6:38 pm

To grasp the common experience and reflections of those times by a contemporary thinker,read and compare "The Logic of Liberty," by Michael Polyani whose philosophical association with Hayek goes back to at least 1938

Troy Camplin October 7, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Perhaps some of the predictions didn't pan out precisely because the book came out. Not a bad reason to be wrong in your predictions — that your book prevented them from happening. That was the point of his writing the book, after all, wasn't it?

Jim Rose October 8, 2010 at 1:57 am

Would Singapore be an example of central planning leading to a one-party state?

• The state controls and owns firms that comprise at least 60% of the GDP through government entities; and
• The vast majority (more than 80%) of Singaporeans live in public housing;

Although initially styling itself an anti-Communist and Social Democratic, the People Action Party (PAP) was expelled from the Socialist International in 1976 because it suppressed dissent and jailed opposition leaders. Hayek would be vindicated?!

The 2010 index of economic says that Singapore is a nominally democratic state that has been ruled by the PAP since the country became independent in 1965, and that certain rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, remain restricted

The freedom house 2010 country report notes that Singapore is nor an electoral democracy despite elections free of irregularities and mentions that all domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by government-linked companies, which limits free speech.

The PAP has used the Government's extensive powers to place formidable obstacles in the path of political opponents. To quote the US state department:

• The PAP has an extensive grassroots system and carefully selected, highly disciplined membership.

• The establishment of government-organized and predominantly publicly funded Community Development Councils (CDCs) has further strengthened the PAP's position. The Councils promote community development and cohesion and provide welfare and other assistance services.

• The PAP dominates the CDCs even in opposition-held constituencies and has used the threat of withdrawing publicly funded benefits.

• During the last two election campaigns, the Prime Minister and other senior government officials warned voters that precincts that elected opposition candidates would have the lowest priority in government plans to upgrade public housing facilities.

• Government regulations hindered attempts by opposition parties to rent office space in government housing or to establish community foundations. In addition, government influence extended in varying degrees to academic, community service, and other NGOs.

• The threat of civil libel or slander suits, which government leaders have often used against political opponents and critics and consistently won, had a stifling effect on the full expression of political opinion and disadvantaged the political opposition. Government entities also used libel or slander suits, and dismissal from positions in government-related entities, to intimidate opposition politicians.

HT: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/41659.h

Hayek warned about the use of monopoly and monopsony powers of state owned enterprises to entrench one party rule.

Bill Stepp October 8, 2010 at 8:52 am

There's no such thing as a "decent democracy." All democracies are hoodmobcracies, crookeaucracies, thugcrocreaucies.

Greg Ransom October 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Your remarks suggest you merely skimmed the book, and skipped large chunks of it, i.e. hard to believe you thoughtfully read each and all chapters of the book, given the lack of substantive content to your remarks.

The notion that Hayek's book is a book of forecasts is ridiculous, and Hayek's discussion of rule by administration and the problem of the decline of governance according to the rule of law seems as relevant as ever.

Wonder if you had time to read that part.

Paul Johnson November 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

Perhaps Hayek should have called it "One Road to Serfdom". There are many other roads that will get you there, he was focusing on just one of many.

Curt Doolittle November 27, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Straw man. Self serving at that. No direct criticisms. Obtuse criticisms are illogical.

a) The book contributed to the current state of affairs.
b) The book was written for the masses, and that is why it has been widely read., and why it contributed to the current state of affairs. (more so than Braudel – although no discredit to him – and others.)
c) The book's criticism of central planning is not the same as the current criticism of the welfare state.

And I do not understand, nor does it appear others here do, why you grant particular grace to current democracies – the merit of which is still in play, until we observe how we fare now that the rest of the world has adopted capitalist instituions, and erased our prior advantage. It certainly appears, that instead of Democracy, the award goes to capitalist institutions, calculation and incentives. Democracy is irrelevant. Other than, under democracy, it appears, it is far more common to vote one's self into tyranny, than is possible under parliamentary monarchy, or oligarchy.

I believe the three points above refute all four of your observations. In fact, I'm having trouble understanding why you even view it through your empirical framework. It is a narrative pedagogical work. And as a narrative pedagogical work it will very likely be as durable as most innovative narrative works are, versus the very perishable empirical works of political economy that are fashionable flashes of the moment.

AFWIW: Whether one lives under tyranny or not is a matter of perspective determined by one's definition of property.

Cheers

Charles R. Williams November 30, 2010 at 7:22 am

Central economic planning is incompatible with liberty. Rather it tends towards highly repressive regimes.

That's the central message of RtS and it is confirmed every day.

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