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Saturday, April 27, 2019 Leer en Español

Milton Friedman’s Introduction to “The Road to Serfdom” Reveals How Much America Has Changed

The battle for freedom must be won over and over again. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Peter Boettke recently provided readers of the American Institute of Economic Research a valuable reminder of an important work on behalf of liberty in his “The Road to Serfdom at 75 Years Young.” As Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has long been one of my favorite books, I appreciated the reminder of that major anniversary. And for today’s environment, I particularly liked the quote Boettke used to summarize Hayek’s warning in the book:

That democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable, but…to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who would now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences…

Since I have long been an avid collector of some of the finest words in defense of liberty (see my Lines of Liberty), I thought I would use the occasion to collect some of the best short nuggets worth reflection in The Road to Serfdom. But I didn’t get very far before I found far too many excellent quotes to put together in a brief collection. There are few books I can say that of.

Utopia or Dystopia?

However, along the way, I found that even Milton Friedman’s introduction to the University of Chicago Press’s 50th-anniversary edition, part of my home library, had a great deal to offer. And not just wisdom, but also an amazing personal endorsement. Friedman revealed that he had made it a practice to ask believers in individualism how they got there in the face of the “collectivist orthodoxy” and reported that the most frequent answer involved The Road to Serfdom.

“Now, as then, the promotion of collectivism is combined with the profession of individualist values.”

“Individualism…can be achieved only in a liberal order in which government activity is limited primarily to establishing the framework within which individuals are free to pursue their own objectives.”

“The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovering for achieving participatory democracy.”

“Unfortunately, the relation between the ends and the means remains widely misunderstood. Many of those who profess the most individualistic objectives support collectivist means without recognizing the contradiction.”

“To understand why it is that ‘good’ men in positions of power will produce evil, while the ordinary many without power but able to engage in voluntary cooperation with his neighbors will produce good, requires analysis and thought, subordinating the emotions to the rational faculty.”

“The argument for collectivism is simple, if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument.”

“Experience…has strongly confirmed Hayek’s central insight—that coordination of men’s activities through central direction and through voluntary cooperation are roads going in very different directions: the first to serfdom, the second to freedom. That experience has also strongly reinforced a secondary theme—central direction is also a road to poverty for the ordinary man; voluntary cooperation, a road to plenty.”

“The battle for freedom must be won over and over again. The socialists in all parties to whom Hayek dedicated his book must once again be persuaded or defeated if they and we are to remain free men.”

“While the talk is about free markets and private property…the bulk of the intellectual community almost automatically favors any expansion of government power so long as it is advertised as a way to protect individuals from big bad corporations, relieve poverty, protect the environment, or promote ‘equality’… The intellectuals may have learned the words but they do not yet have the tune.”

“It is only a little overstated to say that we preach individualism and competitive capitalism, and practice socialism.”

It is amazing how dead-on both Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman’s appreciative and insightful introduction are in terms of Americans’ current situation, unfortunately moving back down the wrong road in many ways. But I find the last two quotations particularly ominous.

Many today have moved to the point, in their confused understanding, that they want to not only practice socialism, particularly when they think its selective application will benefit them, but they also want to preach it, as well. But that “progressive” regression into utopian thinking that creates dystopian results also means that the benefits from renewed attention to Hayek’s lesson for liberty are greater, as well.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).