May 16, 2017

The Shortcut to Serfdom



It is well-known that the classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek dedicated The Road to Serfdom to “socialists of all parties,” and wrote the book “as a warning to the socialist intelligentsia of England.” I suspect  we now understate the importance of these facts. After decades of the Cold War and self-conscious conservative-libertarian “fusionism” in both the U.S. and Britain, what sticks in our memory of The Road to Serfdom is its defense of liberal open markets against economic planning and regulation of the sort advocated on the left. That is of course how it was wielded in the post-2008 surge in interest in it, in the wake of the financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts and stimulus packages: as a weapon of the right.

But if Hayek’s argument characterized socialist planning and regulation as a slippery slope, the slope did not only slope down toward the left. Fascist Italy and Germany figure even more prominently than the USSR in the book’s image of the despotism being risked:

“It is necessary now to state the unpalatable truth that it is Germany whose fate we are now in some danger of repeating… students of the current of ideas can hardly fail to see that there is more than a superficial similarity between the trend of thought in Germany during and after [World War I] and the present current of ideas in the democracies…. And at least nine out of every ten of the lessons which our most vociferous reformers are so anxious we should learn from this war are precisely lessons which the Germans did learn from the last war and which have done so much to produce the Nazi system…. [A]t an interval of fifteen to twenty-five years we seem to follow the example of Germany.”

In the face of resurgent right-wing populist and nationalist authoritarianism in the world, it is worth reconsidering the legacy of The Road to Serfdom and of Hayek’s work to bolster liberalism.

You Can’t Fight Fascism with Fascism

Not to put too fine a point on it, Hayek thinks the danger of socialism is that it leads to something like fascism: “the rise of fascism and naziism was not a reaction against the trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” One cannot get from there to the conclusion that it is worth allying with fascists in order to prevent socialism. You don’t defeat a slippery slope by jumping off the cliff and taking the shortcut to the bottom.

One major theme of The Road to Serfdom is the intellectual and historical affinities between the left-wing and right-wing rejections of liberalism in the prewar decades: the triumph of collectivism over individualism, the rising attraction to a militarized image of social planning and conscious coordination. But more of the book is concerned with the future, with the security of such liberal goods as the rule of law, parliamentary government, international peace, free trade, and free inquiry and debate.

Throughout these chapters, the argument is less about affinity than about unintended consequences: in the long term “socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove.” The prewar socialist parties had, “without knowing it, set themselves a task which only the ruthless ready to disregard the barriers of accepted morals can execute.” The socialists were, however, too constrained by democratic scruples to carry the task out; “they did not possess the ruthlessness required.” And so fascist parties, which did possess that ruthlessness, took command. The evil to be avoided is, particularly, the triumph of the ruthless, lawless authoritarians of the right. The critique of socialists is that they pave the way for that triumph.

In the chapter on “why the worst get on top,” Hayek seeks to explain the dominance of totalitarian parties by “blackguards and thugs,” the “unscrupulous and uninhibited.” The explanations he offers center on demagoguery and, especially, nationalism. The “universal tendency of collectivist policy to become nationalistic” and even “violently nationalist” is the key to the chapter. Indeed the book as a whole is marked by great hostility to nationalism; he counts it as an argument against totalitarian Communism that it abandons the in-principle internationalism of socialists in favor of militarized nationalism. The propaganda tools of the fascist countries “are destructive of all morals: the sense of and respect for truth,” including even “questions of fact.” (Indeed Hayek devotes some special attention to the authoritarian war on science.)

The Danger of an Arbitrary Government

Throughout Hayek is concerned for constitutional parliamentary government and the rule of law, and their protection against arbitrary government. The idea that freedom requires clear and general rules of conduct anonymously applicable to all—that government run by ad hoc edict is oppressive— was to be the major theme of his subsequent works in political theory, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation, and Liberty; but it is central to the argument of Road to Serfdom as well.

In the preface to the 1956 edition, Hayek described the postwar Labour government as having created a bureaucratic “despotism exercised by a thoroughly conscientious and honest bureaucracy for what they sincerely believe is the good of the country. But it is nevertheless an arbitrary government, in practice free from parliamentary control; and its machinery would be as effective for any other than the beneficent purposes for which it is now used.”

Here one hears a predecessor of the widespread classical liberal “we told you so” after the election, blaming the Obama administration for increasing the presidential power that the Trump administration would now inherit. But it is worth emphasizing that Hayek still called the purposes pursued by the left-wing bureaucratic state “beneficent.”

The tone Hayek adopts here is not the schadenfreude of contemporary whataboutism. Now that “hot socialism is probably a thing of the past” (hardly what one would expect Hayek to say were he the determinist caricature sometimes embraced by fans as well as critics), the welfare state calls for “careful sorting out” in the pursuit of its “practical and laudable” aims. He calls for the welfare state and social insurance to be implemented through general rules and fiscal policy rather than administrative coercion, nationalization, and direct economic planning, because the latter instruments “are not compatible with the preservation of a free society.”

The Meaning of Serfdom

After the war, Hayek led the creation of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international association of classical liberal scholars dedicated to revitalizing the free society. The Society’s ambitious “Statement of Aims” included the study of “the problem of the creation of an international order conducive to the safeguarding of peace and liberty and permitting the establishment of harmonious international economic relations.” This echoed his call in Road to Serfdom for an international agency “which can restrain the different nations from action harmful to their neighbors,” one which is “above all, able to say ‘No’ to all sorts of restrictive measures” in trade and exchange.

A deceptive, ruthless, nationalist executive, unconstrained by either traditional rules of law or by parliamentary or legislative oversight, choosing particular firms and industries for favor and disfavor, seeking to undo the international system of trade: this is very much the shape of the rising populist and nationalist authoritarianism in the world, from Turkey to Hungary to the United States. Hayek’s warning is that the good intentions of the democratic left can lead to bad results like that. To embrace those results for the sake of keeping the democratic left at bay is to dishonor the warning, not to heed it. This is true even if the lawless nationalist authoritarian promises a few pro-market victories on policies or personnel: some deregulation here, a tax cut there, a couple of undersecretaries.

As an aside: a feature of the book that has become so familiar as to be easily overlooked is the title. The reader is warned against, not the road to genocide or totalitarianism or censorship or central planning, but the road to serfdom. Serfdom is a pretty distinctive kind of unfreedom, and in 1944 the last clear instance of it in the west was fading but not yet gone: the postbellum sharecropping system of the Jim Crow American south. I don’t know how carefully Hayek considered this choice of words; as far as I can tell the word “serfdom” never appears in the body of the text. The book is concerned with centralized authoritarian and totalitarian rule of European states, not the decentralized domination of the manorial lord or the plantation master’s son. By his own subsequent admission Hayek did not write the book with an American audience in mind. But the naming of the evil to be avoided as “serfdom” ought to give American audiences pause. The long postwar “fusionist” alliance with organized conservatism entangled many libertarian admirers of Hayek with the rearguard defense of Jim Crow. The Confederate-sympathizing southern populism of some self-identified libertarians is even worse, identifying the cause of liberty with the celebration of serfdom or slavery itself. It is long past time for those links to be broken, and for the people who think of themselves as heirs to Hayekian liberalism to identify with the civil rights movement that broke serfdom once and for all.

The Constant Threat of Shortcuts

It may be that the willingness to sell law-governed constitutional democratic government for 25 pieces of silver—ahem, sorry, for a 25% top marginal income tax rate—is an idiosyncratic effect of American fusionism. But perhaps not. The early 19th-century French classical liberal theorist and statesman Benjamin Constant—arguably the first really complete liberal—argued forcefully that the “liberty of the moderns” is located in the pluralistic private sphere. Unlike the “liberty of the ancients” that consisted of collective participation in political action, modern liberty protects our ability to believe our various religions, live our various lives, engage in our various commercial pursuits, and so on. But he concluded his classic essay on this distinction by warning of the temptation that we commercial moderns, “absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests,” will “surrender our right to share in political power too easily.” With an eye on the middle class’ embrace of Napoleon’s despotism, he emphasized the precariousness of protections of private and commercial liberty without guarantees; “and where should we find guarantees, without political liberty? To renounce it, Gentlemen, would be a folly like that of a man who, because he only lives on the first floor, does not care if the house itself is built on sand.”

It’s an old—literally ancient—commonplace that the mob or the masses can be convinced to abandon constitutionalism if a demagogue buys their affection with bread and circuses. Constant warned that the modern commercial bourgeoisie are vulnerable to something similar: the demagogue who promises them public order, protection from the mob, and enjoyment of private profits. He spent decades arguing for the combination of secure private liberty, including freedom of religion, speech, and commerce, with public constitutional, parliamentary government anchored by the rule of law. Without a strong commitment to that combination, he worried, those who sought the enjoyment of private commerce might always be tempted to sacrifice public constitutionalism. That choice, he thought, ended in despotism. Hayek’s Road later argued that there was a longer way to the same destination; that’s no argument in favor of taking the shortcut.


Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom; a blogger at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow and Advisory Board Member.