Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

A common mistake is to interpret Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as arguing that interventionism will inevitably lead to totalitarianism (e.g. Noah Smith; John Quiggin; and many others). Here is Bruce Caldwell, criticizing this interpretation,

Hayek's Challenge (Caldwell)One of the most frequent complains voiced by critics of The Road to Serfdom, sometimes called the inevitability thesis, is that Hayek predicted that any amount of government intervention or planning would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. As I have argued elsewhere, Hayek denied this reading both in the book itself and in subsequent responses to his critics. That the book was originally intended as a part of the Abuse of Reason project provides further evidence in Hayek’s favor. One of the major themes of the “Scientism” essay is that the historicist search for general laws that would allow one to predict the future course of history is chimerical. Would it make sense for the author of such an essay to then turn around later in his work and attempt to predict the future course of history?

— Bruce Caldwell, Hayek’s Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F.A. Hayek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 241, ftn. 241.

To add to that excerpt, also based on my reading of Caldwell’s book on Hayek, is that Hayek’s main target was a state of thought. For example, while he may not have been totally in favor of Karl Popper’s “piecemeal” social engineering, he wouldn’t accuse Popper’s ideas as some that, if implemented, would inevitably lead to socialism. The Road to Serfdom was written during a period in time that large swaths of British academia were genuinely interested in socialism, not just academically but as a possible alternative to liberal democracy (although, it may be better said that they believed it, or some of its specific ideas, to be complements to liberal democracy).

This kind of uncritical rejection of Hayek’s work — largely by dumping it into some kind of mental classification bucket that allows a thinker to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak — is an example of the “epistemology of rejection” that I wrote about yesterday. Remember that Hayek’s work on complexity and “scientism” is a more sophisticated version of my thoughts yesterday, applied to those he thought were practitioners of “scientism.”

11 thoughts on “Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

  1. Daniel Kuehn

    I don’t know… you want to know why people think Hayek said this – because of things like early in the recession guys like Peter Boettke get up and say that he and the Austrians who understand Road to Serfdom remind him of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, along with the countless accusations of statism and socialism.

    I’ve made an informal promise to myself simply not to touch the whole Road to Serfdom thing. Maybe some day. But the discussion around it is toxic and accusatory and it seems to me it only rarely turns up any valuable insights and almost always turns up misunderstanding. I don’t ever seem to get a straight answer. One minute people say there is no assumption of inevitability, the next minute people are talking as if of course socialism is inevitable. It’s really not worth it IMO. There’s plenty of other stuff out there to work on. There is no way to comment on Road to Serfdom without pissing off somebody.

    1. JCatalan

      In certain respects, it reminds of the whole Keynes’ introduction to the German edition of The General Theory — themes which may also radiate from the popular writings of modern Keynesians (or sympathizers), and therefore are used to classify Keynes’, and Keynesian writing more generally, as all in the same boat.

    2. Silvano

      Setting aside for a while Peter Boettke, it’s a matter of degree and historical contestualization.
      During ’30s and in 1944 (when The Road of Serfdom was published) “planning” meant “central planning”. The average european socialist (who often was a communist) strived for something like the nationalization of all the means of productions, not just for implementing more welfare programs, more investments and a public monopoly over water supply & electricity. The book underlies the socialist roots of Nazism (a too much politically uncorrect thesis at the time) and was written when two nice guys like Hitler & Stalin were still alive and in charge. You may think Hayek’s worries where overrated, but iit’s not a pamphlet against the unintended consequences of countercyclical policies..

      1. Daniel Kuehn

        “You may think Hayek’s worries where overrated, but iit’s not a pamphlet against the unintended consequences of countercyclical policies..”

        But this is not what a lot of people argue.

        People who like Road to Serfdom are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they want it to just be about central planning then it’s a pretty useless book today (at least in this part of the world – maybe it can still do some good in N. Korea and places like that). If they want it to be about other forms of planning, then Hayek looks more and more wrong.

        But I have definitely had people insist to me adamantly that it’s not just about central planning – it’s about more than that.

        1. Silvano

          I don’t know what the people you deal with argue. However, it contains a lot of good arguments that properly understood still hold about the abuse of reason, “why the worst get on top”, the economic and moral results of good intentions, etc. Obviously whoever quotes “The Road of Serfdom” to oppose every kind of intervention starting from State Highways up to the Obama-care is using a cannon to hit a sparrow and also misses the sparrow.

          I usually suggest two courses of research:

          1) The Road of Serfdom + Constitution of Liberty + Law, Legislation& Liberty if you wanna focus on the evolution of Hayek political thought.

          2) The Road of Serfdom (Hayek) + Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy (Shumpeter) + Omnipotent Government (Mises): all published during ’40s they show what these German economists (escaping from a totalitarian Europe) felt toward the evolution of capitalism. Lectures from these books are useful to understand the mood at the time.

        2. JCatalan

          It’s not just about central planning. It’s how, given an assumed intellectual atmosphere, attempts to control different things in the economy can lead to socialism. So, it is about a road to socialism, but the argument isn’t that the road must necessarily lead to socialism.

  2. Roman P.

    I tried reading it; and RtS is just an awful book. After getting through the first half or so I came to conclusion that Hayek perhaps got his hands on some special/military propaganda manual during the writing of it. And decided to cram into the book EVERY SINGLE propaganda trope or hook out there. The result was so un-subtle and heavy-handed that reading this otherwise normal pamphlet was almost unbearable for me.

    1. JCatalan

      Well, actually all those “propaganda trope[s]” come directly out of publications from some of the most respective natural and social scientists. That really was the intellectual atmosphere of the time.

      1. Roman P.

        No, I’m talking not about the content, but rather the meta-content. Not exactly WHAT von Hayek wrote, but HOW he wrote it. The content itself is fine – if a little useless, I didn’t really get any substantial knowledge from reading the book. And meta-content is just a very unsubtle propaganda. Had Hayek layed it a little bit less thick the resulting pamphlet would have been a more pleasant read.

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