The Popularity of a Warning (Yet To Be Fully Heeded)

The success of F. A. Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom is in itself a fascinating story. Its origins date back to a memo written in the early 1930s by Hayek to Sir William Beveridge, then the director of the London School of Economics, disputing the fashionable claim of the time that fascism was a dying gasp of a failed capitalist system. Intellectually the age of Laissez-Faire was over and the age of scientism and planning had begun. Hayek was appalled to see fascism and National Socialism lumped in with the (classical) liberal system. Hayek believed that these systems were indeed socialist, just as the systems the intellectuals in the west were now arguing for. And this was a dangerous prospect.

Planning, even for freedom, inevitably leads to a totalitarian state due to the problems of economic calculation and bureaucratic inefficiencies. The efforts to plan, from both the right and left, were the real danger. Thus, Hayek was offering a warning to the countries of the west to avoid the paths taken by both Nazi Germany and the USSR. The analysis within the book traced out the unintended undesirable consequences of attempting democratic planning. Even these civilized attempts can end up with the result of a totalitarian state.

The book was written for the British audience and thus little was expected of it in the United States. In fact, Hayek, with the help of Fritz Machlup, attempted to find an American publisher with much difficulty. Three publishers rejected the book before the University of Chicago Press agreed to publish the it with just 2,000 copies in the first printing. When the book came out, however, it quickly sold out thanks to a laudable review by Henry Hazlitt on the front page of the New York Times book review section.

Over the years Hazlitt was often asked to tell how he helped make The Road to Serfdom a hit. Today’s document is a letter from Henry Hazlitt explaining just how this happened. The book became an even bigger hit after a condensed version appeared in The Readers Digest, again thanks in part to Hazlitt, as well as a cartoon version that appeared in Look.

Recently the book is once again seeing an increase in sales thanks, in part, to Glen Beck’s promotion. Both friends and foes, however, often miss the important message of the book. It frequently gets written off as an argument from the extreme right. Conservatives do use the book to attack the welfare state. This is different from the type of socialism Hayek was referring to; he meant the nationalization of the means of production, not extreme wealth redistribution through taxes and welfare programs. Though, in the preface to the 1976 edition Hayek did admit he believes such a system would lead to the same problems but in a longer and different way described in the book.

This does not make Hayek’s argument conservative. In fact, while Hayek did believe a certain level of conservativism was necessary in any stable society, it is not a social program and contains many dangerous tendencies that are paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring and as a result put it much closer to socialism than classical liberalism. In many ways Hayek is right. Conservativism is by its very nature bound to protect the established privilege and to lean on the power of government to protect such privilege. The classical liberal tradition, on the other hand, is the denial of all privileges.

The point is that the road to serfdom is a result of us giving up our own ability to run our own lives. Once we accept the top-down authoritarian worldview we create a sickness in ourselves, which leads to more trouble than even the most well-intentioned social planner would ever want. Ideas have consequences and planning, as Hayek traced out, leads to consequences few of us are willing to accept. As John Papola and Russ Roberts put it, what we want is the plans of the many not the plans of the few. Hayek’s book is only a warning but we should listen before it’s too late.

Download the Henry Hazlitt letter from January 30, 1975 about his role in the success of the road to serfdom here.

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