stormin's Reviews > The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, politics

I will admit that I started reading The Road to Serfdom a few years ago when I still considered myself a Glenn Beck fan because he talked about the book on his program. It has taken me three or four years to finish, despite finding the book fascinating, simply because I have a harder time wading through texts that are good for me, even though I recognize their impact. (It's also taken me years and I'm not done with The Brothers Karamazov, either.)

So it's interesting to read a book about politics while my own beliefs about politics have been going through so much change and flux. Here, in the end, are my impressions.

First of all, it's without doubt that F. A. Hayek was concerned with a very 20th century vision of tyranny typified by the Nazis, and other fascists along with (later on) the Soviet, Chinese, and other communists. In this sense, he is similar to Orwell George and most others who have described very overt forms of totalitarianism. The exception to this rule is Aldus Huxley who described an entirely different dystopia in Brave New World. In Huxley's vision, totalitarianism will not come from external coercion, but because society grows so complacent and apathetic that they erect their own prison of 24/7, senseless entertainment. (This, by the way, was the major influence for Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which was written in 1984).

As such, Hayek's superficial focus seems outdated. The book, which was written during World War II while Hayek lived in the UK, is primarily concerned with the idea that the victorious Allies will seek to continue the kind of wartime centralized planning and rationing into peacetime in an act of willful, intentional centralization. That's not a real threat in the 21st century, when the ideas of central planning per se have been largely discredited and the guiding principle of American liberalism is not to kill but rather to domesticate the free market by harnessing a load of social programs to it and carefully fencing certain industries of considerations away from its ravenous maw.

However, Hayek's reasoning against central planning is rooted in a deeper philosophical rationale that is, for the most part, still quite relevant. For starters, his contribution to the view of history is important, because he correctly saw that the right-wing fascists and left-wing communists were not ideological opponents but rather ideological substitutes, which is why the competition between the two was so fierce. (This insight was further developed in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.) That's important because Hayek correctly diagnoses the common flaw in both ideologies to be collectivism, which in many ways is still alive and well today. (He wrote: "It is probably preferable to describe the methods which can be used for a great variety of ends as collectivism and to regard socialism as a species of that genus.")

My copy of the book has underlines, arrows, stars, and notes on almost every single page, so I'm hesitant to delve any deeper lest I never climb back out of the rabbit hole. I will simply say that most of the really fundamental ideas of classical liberalism (some blend of small-government conservatism and libertarianism, in modern terms) are explained and articulated in this book. In contrast to the kind of arrogant petulance of an Ayn Rand, Hayek wrote with great nuance and sensitivity and serious concern for the regard of his fellow human beings.

If anything, the central thesis of the book is that it is in the overzealous pursuit of laudable goals that The Road to Serfdom lies. It's a path that, like another infamous trail, is paved with good intentions. What's really important about this book is that rather than just assert that you'll end up enslaved if you adopt collectivism, Hayek spends a lot of time investigating the particular reasons for that unhappy conclusion, arguing convincingly that certain unstated assumptions and logical implications of collectivism will unfortunately lead to anti-liberal outcomes. (Liberal in the traditional sense of individualistic.)

I think this is a crucial book for anyone interested in politics to read. For conservatives, it will help you understand your own political heritage and provide insight into the why's of many important policy positions. For liberals, it will help you understand that there is much, much more to conservatism than simply "I got mine, and you can't have any."
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Reading Progress

July 6, 2010 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 18, 2013 – Finished Reading
July 19, 2013 – Shelved as: non-fiction
July 20, 2013 – Shelved as: politics

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