Friedrich Hayek believed that the very institutions of liberalism and republicanism, when misused, can foster the totalitarianism of democracy…

The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek (University of Chicago Press, 1944)

Professor Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992) wrote The Road to Serfdom while a professor at the London School of Economics as the allied war with Germany raged. A native of imperial Austria, Hayek brought an outsider’s perspective to Britain and found close parallels between Britain’s and Nazi Germany’s social thought over the century leading up to the Second World War; both exercised a form of social engineering derived from common collectivist roots. Still, Hayek was not as much an outsider as one would understandably first assume. He found the British people as well as the historic thought of Britain (prior to the kinship with the Germans) profoundly attractive. In particular, he identified with the Celtic thinkers Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Adam Smith.

Thus, the self-admitted Anglophile Hayek wrote this polemic work of intellectual history and political science as a warning to the English-speaking public. Both the British and American public received the book favorably, though intellectuals of the left absolutely hated it. To be sure, it has become since 1944 a classic in the history of conservative and libertarian thought. Indeed, one might regard it as the pre-opening salvo that would find its full bombardment with Russell Kirk’s 1953 masterpiece, The Conservative Mind. In the long run, Kirk’s dissertation speaks more mightily to those still fighting the good fight in 2017 than does Hayek’s work, but both are essential to the fight.

Hayek sharply distinguished the intellectual development of Britain from that of Germany, though he warned that each might ultimately end in some form of despotic socialism. Following the great Western tradition harkening back to the Republics of Greece and Rome and the Italian Renaissance, Britain’s legal and political system evolved into one of liberty and equality through an embrace of the common law. The British system—in language as well as in law—treated human persons as distinct and unrepeatable ends, not as means to a third thing. For Hayek, Britain reached the apex of its civilization in the later half of the nineteenth century. Such classical liberals as Lords Acton and Prime Minister Gladstone represented the true intellectuals of cultured Britain. But, as Hayek clearly perceived, Great Britain had lost its interest in classical liberalism before the First World War and, by 1944, the British as a whole considered nineteenth-century liberalism as little more than passe, Victorian, and even downright embarrassing.

Germany, however, had long practiced the dark arts of statism and social welfare, and, by the early twentieth century, had come to dominate the intellectual thought in the non-British academic West. Germany was the home of the earliest socialists—Hegel, Marx, List, and Schmoller—who preached totalitarianism as the means for the realization of their own philosophies. As such and not surprisingly, these German socialists hated everything British and liberal, but especially its tradition of common law which they perceived—not incorrectly—as chaotic and disorderly. Still, after the democratic revolutions of 1848, the socialists necessarily mixed their philosophy with the rhetoric of classical liberalism to appeal to the rising masses. These two movements became one in the Social Democrats, and, unfortunately, many German classical liberals accepted this as a completely natural evolution of thought. In 1879, Bismarck created the first “scientifically planned” welfare state. As a result, intellectuals throughout the world considered Germany “progressive.” By 1928, the German government controlled fifty-three percent of the country’s economic resources, determining the fate of the entire nation. As the economy and democracy dived into a tailspin, Hitler stepped in, gained the levels of power, and asserted an order based on the will of man, rather than on the manifestation of nature.

For Hayek, Naziism represented far more than what many regarded as an irrational and illogical movement. Instead, Hayek believed, Naziism resulted from the inevitable failure of the German experiment to mix socialism and democracy. As Hayek argued, “Fascism and National Socialism, on the other hand, grew out of the experience of an increasingly regulated society’s awakening to the fact that democratic and international socialism was aiming at compatible ideals.” Additionally, the “rise of fascism and Naziism was not a reaction against socialist trends of the proceeding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” Most fascists started as socialists, he noted and, from the beginning, had hated everything that even slightly resembled the republican and the liberal. While modern leftists might balk at the possibility or even the accusation of such an inheritance, it is historically true that fascism and socialism have common roots, each being in opposition to the republican and liberal ideals of the West. Hitler, of course, believed originally in socialism, though he gradually shifted toward a form of corporatism in the 1930s, as he needed the aid of Germany’s largest industries to implement his own fascist program. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had also once believed himself a disciple of Lenin, but he also came to believe that that which inspired the Russian people would never work well for the Italian people.

Though Hayek never accepted the notion that iron-clad historical laws ruled the world, he certainly thought the rise of Nazi Germany demonstrated empirically that a democracy could destroy itself with socialist beliefs. The very institutions of liberalism and republicanism, when misused, can foster the totalitarianism of democracy. Parliaments, for example, based on representation of different geographical areas, constituencies, and interests, divide and then unite a country through the vote, a consensus. Rather than haggle openly and lose votes, the politicians delegate increasing power to the bureaucracy, and one person or a few people take control the economy. Bureaucratic planning and control inevitably corrupt and next destroy a democracy. After all, the planners must necessarily turn the individual into a “means” for the end of the social or general welfare of the country. In the process, even when not intending it, the planners destroy the “rule of law” which theoretically protected all peoples as political equals; the state must then exercise arbitrary force to protect its plan. In the process, the governmental bureaucracy turns both its resources and its institutions into propaganda. This immorality seeps into every aspect of a once-healthy society. The government, now ruled rather platonically by the lowest common denominator—that is, those who desire power—takes over, promoting some ideology or nationalism as a means of crushing opposition. Echoing Tocqueville, Hayek claimed that as economic controls lead to a less fluid market, the bureaucracy, in a vicious circle, must intervene more. Governments simply cannot calculate the sum of individual actions or create a price mechanism, both essential factors of a well-functioning market.

In almost incalculable ways, The Road to Serfdom served as a scholarly prelude to George Orwell’s 1984. While reading it, one gets a foreboding sense of imminent political collapse. One wants to run to the forsaken fallout shelter! Taken as an original historical source, The Road to Serfdom offers a fascinating, if frightening, glimpse into the 1940s. With its impeccable logical and (sometimes) oversimplified history, it still provides a powerful, intellectual insight into the risks of planning as well as an introduction to Hayek’s thought. It’s a polemic, but a fine one that stands the test of time.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email