The Road to Serfdom Study Guide

The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

The Road to Serfdom Book Summary

Hayek argues that Western democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States, have "progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past". Society has mistakenly tried to ensure continuing prosperity by centralized planning, which inevitably leads to totalitarianism. "We have in effect undertaken to dispense with the forces which produced unforeseen results and to replace the impersonal and anonymous mechanism of the market by collective and‘conscious’ direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals." Socialism, while presented as a means of assuring equality, does so through "restraint and servitude", while "democracy seeks equality in liberty". Planning, because it is coercive, is an inferior method of regulation, while the competition of a free market is superior "because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority".

Centralized planning is inherently undemocratic in Hayek's view, because it requires "that the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people". The power of these minorities to act by taking money or property in pursuit of centralized goals, destroys the Rule of Law and individual freedoms. Where there is centralized planning, "the individual would more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the 'social welfare' or the 'good of the community'". Even the very poor have more personal freedom in an open society than a centrally planned one. "[W]hile the last resort of a competitive economy is the bailiff, the ultimate sanction of a planned economy is the hangman." Socialism is a hypocritical system, because its professed humanitarian goals can only be put into practice by brutal methods "of which most socialists disapprove". Such centralized systems also require effective propaganda, so that the people come to believe that the state's goals are theirs.

Hayek argues that the roots of National Socialism lie in socialism, and then draws parallels to the thought of British leaders:

The increasing veneration for the state, the admiration of power, and of bigness for bigness' sake, the enthusiasm for "organization" of everything (we now call it "planning") and that "inability to leave anything to the simple power of organic growth"...are all scarcely less marked in England now than they were in Germany.

Hayek believed that after World War II, "wisdom in the management of our economic affairs will be even more important than before and that the fate of our civilization will ultimately depend on how we solve the economic problems we shall then face". The only chance to build a decent world is "to improve the general level of wealth" via the activities of free markets. He saw international organization as involving a further threat to individual freedom. He concluded: "The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century."

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