Most college students—and many other people, for that matter—at some point encounter F.A. Hayek's popular book The Road to Serfdom.
Hayek (1899-1992), an Austrian-British economist and political philosopher, was one of the twentieth century's leading proponents of classical liberalism. Thirty years before Hayek received the Nobel Prize for his work in economics, The Road to Serfdom (1944) challenged the prevailing view—nearly universal among economists and intellectuals, in fact—that central planning was a necessary precondition of the modern world. As Hayek explained in his work, this was essentially a foregone conclusion for respectable economists and policymakers.
"It is a revealing fact that few planners are content to say that central planning is desirable," Hayek wrote. "Most of them affirm that we can no longer choose but are compelled by circumstances beyond our control to substitute planning for competition."
It's safe to say that Serfdom shattered this perception. While many today may still contend that politicians and policy experts should direct the economy in ways to achieve desired ends (a public good, social justice, etc.), few today would argue that central planning is inevitable.
Much of this can be attributed to Hayek's small book—266 pages, to be precise—which propelled the author to international fame. Hayek and his ideas would contribute to the influential Austrian school of economics and kindle the minds of untold numbers of classical liberals, libertarians, and proponents of freedom.
Here are seven things you might not know about the book that helped make it possible:
1. It Started as a Memo
In his introduction to The Road to Serfdom, economist Bruce Caldwell notes the "decidedly inauspicious" origins of the work. It began as a memo to the London School of Economics, in which Hayek challenged the prevailing view that fascism was capitalistic. The memo eventually evolved into a magazine article, which in turn evolved into a plan for a (much larger) book.
2. Several Publishing Houses Rejected the Book
Three U.S. publishing houses—Macmillian, Little Brown, and Harper and Brothers—rejected the manuscript of The Road to Serfdom. Some of the criticism was harsh.
“Frankly, we are doubtful of the sale which we could secure for it, and I personally cannot but feel that Professor Hayek is a little outside the stream of much present-day thought, both here and in England,” a representative of Macmillian told Fritz Machlup, whom Hayek had tapped to pitch the work.
The economics editor of Harper had this to say: “I do feel the volume is labored, is over-written and that [Hayek] can say all that he has to in about half the space.”
The work was eventually accepted by the University of Chicago Press. To date, The Road to Serfdom has sold more than 2 million copies.
3. The Book Almost Had a Different Title
Though the University of Chicago Press accepted Hayek’s manuscript, the publisher wanted a different title: “Socialism: The Road to Serfdom.”
Hayek believed such a title would be misleading, however. He argued that central planning was a philosophy to which both the left and the right were susceptible. Hayek rejected the suggestion, and the press relented.
4. ‘Serfdom’ Sold Out in Less than 10 Days in the U.S.
In England, The Road to Serfdom, which debuted on March 10, 1944, with a run of 2,000 copies, sold out in less than a month. In America it sold out even faster. The book hit stores on Sept. 18 with a run of 2,000 copies. By Sept. 28, the press had ordered an additional 15,000 copies.
Like Jordan Peterson today, Hayek was suddenly an intellectual star, of sorts. Caldwell writes that his first lecture, hosted by New York’s Town Hall Club, drew a crowd of some three thousand people.
5. Much of the Book’s Popularity Can Be Attributed to a Forgotten Editor
Serfdom’s initial success was impressive in its own right. But the book truly became a hit in April 1945, when The Reader’s Digest offered an abridged version of the book through its Book-of-the-Month Club. The Digest, which had a circulation of nearly 9 million at the time, had sought permission for the condensation on the advice of “roving editor” Max Eastman, who had enjoyed Hayek’s book. More than half a million condensed reprints eventually were sold.
6. Keynes Loved the Book
While many intellectuals saw Serfdom as “reactionary,” the book received praise from an important figure still remembered as one of Hayek's intellectual rivals.
The economist John Maynard Keynes (1886-1946), whose macroeconomic theories shaped much of the world’s economic policy in the twentieth century, read The Road to Serfdom while traveling to the Breton Woods conference. Keynes, whose ideas Hayek and his disciples would challenge during and beyond the Cold War-era, later sent a letter to Hayek praising his “grand book.”
“[M]orally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it,” Keynes wrote, “and not only in agreement with it, but in a deeply moved agreement.”
7. ‘Serfdom’ Indirectly Brought the Austrian School to America
The famed Austrian school of economics might never have come to America if Hayek had not written The Road to Serfdom. While on tour promoting the book, Hayek encountered Kansas City businessman Harold Luhnow, who had read the book and found Hayek’s arguments persuasive. Luhnow, who oversaw the William Volker Fund, would be a key player in bringing the Austrian school of economics—and libertarian and conservative academics—to American universities.
Editor's Note: Intrigued? Learn more with our eBook guide to Hayek's classic, The Shortcut to Serfdom by Brittany Hunter.