On the merits of Hayek’s *Road to Serfdom*

I’ve seen this work bashed a number of times in the blogosphere over the last few years.  It didn’t get everything right, but it remains an important and seminal work and at the time of its publication it was a revelatory work.  Let’s turn the microphone over to Albert Hirschman, hardly a right-wing ideologue.  This is from Jeremy Adelman’s very useful biography of Hirschman:

…when he [Hirschman] found a copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s recently published…The Road to Serfdom in a Rome bookstore, a nerve was struck: “Reading this book is very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate — it makes you rethink many things and has shown me in how many important points I have moved away from the beliefs I had when I was 18 years old. The experience of the army has also confirmed or rather demonstrated forcefully the advantages of a monetary society, anonymous, and where one preserves at least a sector of private initiative.”

…Even more than a reminder of his skepticism of statist planners, Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world.  Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes who cause and nature he cannot understand.”

Hirschman was never convinced by Hayek’s desire to rely so heavily on the market, but in this appreciation of the book you will find more wisdom than in the recent attempted take downs.  In essence, the critics are not grasping how backward was the intellectual climate when Hayek’s book came out and what a useful corrective it was.

By the way, here is a new and good Cass Sunstein review of the Adelman bio of Hirschman.

Addendum: From the comments, Ricardo points us to Sen’s nice words about the book.


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