by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Oct 2010
First off, the more I read of this book, Road to Serfdom, the more fun I think it would have been to sit down with Friedrich over a couple of espressos in a coffee house and just talk: the guy has interesting points of view and he talks about interesting things.
That said, I found the book interesting, but an energetic read -- I had to constantly pay attention to what I was reading because there were a lot of surprises and a lot of topics covered. It also was a lot of work because Hayek gave few examples -- he'd make a point, and I was expecting to have him describe an example of his point, but that often didn't happen, he'd just move on. Net result: it took a lot of concentration to follow what he was saying.
In this blog, I will address the book on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Like my writing, his writing covers a lot of topics, but in small bits. Each chapter of this book could have been published separately, and originally was.
Hayek was a well educated Austrian economist and scientist who emigrated to England as Nazism and Fascism engulfed central Europe. He became a professor at the London School of Economics, where he was a contemporary of Keynes. He wrote the essays of this book because he was upset that the progressives of England seemed to be badly misreading what was going on in central Europe in the post-World War One years, and badly misunderstanding the harmful effects of the collectivism that socialism of that era was endorsing.
This book was published in 1944, at the tail-end of World War Two, but the various essays in it were written starting in the early 1930's. As a result Hayek writes from the point of view of the jury still being out on how good or bad various kinds of socialism will be. He also argues that Fascism and Nazism are not strange aberrations of socialism, but logical evolutions of mainstream socialist thinking in German and Italian conditions, just as Marxist-Leninist Communism is an evolution of socialist thinking in Russian conditions.
Hayek’s analysis is written early enough that it is not tainted by the Hollywood horror-style of viewing Nazis, the comic clown blundering-style of viewing Fascists, or Cold War paranoia-style of viewing Communists. This makes for a refreshing point of view on all these topics. He writes not about the emotion, but in a straightforward and analytic way about why these schemes won’t work well, and why the “invisible hand” can do better.
Hayek is famous for arguing against collectivism/socialism in the forms of Communism, Nazism and Fascism. He wrote these essays in the 1930's and 40's when these concepts were at the peaks of their popularity. Happily, all of these have now been pretty heavily discredited -- the last famous symbol of failure of these ideas being the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Hayek points out why supporting these ideas is irrational and won't work well in the real world. But these ideas did not become wildly popular because of their rationality, they became wildly popular because they resonated well with human emotional thinking.
This is important because that emotional thinking is still with us -- human thinking hasn't changed that much in a hundred years. This means that the root thinking supporting collectivism is still very much with us, and still constantly looking for contemporary ways to express itself.
This root thinking isn't going to be any more rational in contemporary expression, but it's going to be just as emotionally powerful, so we need to be vigilant -- this kind of thinking is going to be just as happy to have us do crazy things now as it was a hundred years ago.
One example of contemporary craziness that may be linked to the same root thinking is the enthusiastic condemning of banker greed as the root of the Great Recession. In both cases you have people condemning others who have tried something different and conspicuously profited from their efforts. In both cases the outcry is to take the goodies away from those who have too much and give it to those more deserving.
Another example is that of collectivism being alive and well in the US, in the form of teachers unions and their role in education reform. The unions have come out solidly in favor of teacher solidarity, and with that teaching environment monotony, which has helped make public school reform a glacial process.
Yet another example is of Obamacare bringing central planning to the health care process. This bold change to promote social justice in health care is done with the best of intentions, but the effects of doing so may give us results that are far from the best health care we health care consumers, and providers, could get.
These are examples of how Hayek's observations of eighty years ago can be of value in contemporary times.