A rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive.
—David Hume

It is one of the most disheartening spectacles of our time to see to what extent some of the most precious things which England … has given to the world are now held in contempt in England herself.
—Friedrich A. Hayek

We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.
—Benito Mussolini

In fact, Benito, you weren’t the first. The palm for first promulgating that principle in all its modern awfulness must go to V. I. Lenin, who back in 1917 boasted that when he finished building his workers’ paradise “the whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of work and equality of pay.” What Lenin didn’t know about restricting the freedom of the individual wasn’t worth knowing. Granted, things didn’t work out quite as Lenin hoped—or said that he hoped—since as the Soviet Union lumbered on there was less and less work and mostly worthless pay. (Care to exchange some of those dollars for rubles, comrade?) Really, the only equality Lenin and his heirs achieved was an equality of misery and impoverishment for all but a shifting fraction of the nomenklatura. Trotsky got right to the practical nub of the issue, observing that when the state is the sole employer the old adage “he who does not work does not eat” is replaced by “he who does not obey does not eat.” Nevertheless, a long line of Western intellectuals came, saw, and were conquered: how many bien pensant writers, journalists, artists, and commentators swooned as did Lincoln Steffens: “I have been over into the future,” he said of his visit to the USSR in 1921, “and it works.”

Of course, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. But it is remarkable what a large accumulation of eggshells we have piled up over the last century. (And then there is always Orwell’s embarrassing question: “Where’s the omelet?”) I forget the sage who described hope as the last evil in Pandora’s box. Unfair to hope, perhaps, but not inapplicable to that adamantine “faith in a better world” that has always been at the heart of the socialist enterprise. Talk about a hardy perennial! The socialist experiment has never worked out as advertised. But it continually blooms afresh in the human heart—those portions of it, anyway, colonized by intellectuals, that palpitating tribe Julien Benda memorably denominated “clercs,” as in “trahison de.” But why? What is it about intellectuals that makes them so profligately susceptible to the catnip of socialism?

In his last book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), Friedrich Hayek drily underscored the oddity:

The intellectuals’ vain search for a truly socialist community, which results in the idealisation of, and then disillusionment with, a seemingly endless string of “utopias”—the Soviet Union, then Cuba, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Tanzania, Nicaragua—should suggest that there might be something about socialism that does not conform to certain facts.

It should, but it hasn’t. And the reason, Hayek suggests, lies in the peculiar rationalism to which a certain species of intellectual is addicted. The “fatal conceit” lay in believing that, by exercising his reason, mankind could recast society in a way that was at once equitable and prosperous, orderly and conducive to political liberty.

Hayek traced this ambition back through Rousseau to Descartes. If man is born free but is everywhere in chains, Rousseau argued, why does he not simply cast off his fetters, beginning with the inconvenient baggage of traditional social restraint? Whether Descartes deserves this paternity suit is perhaps disputable. But I see what Hayek means. It was a small step from Descartes’s dream of making man the “master and possessor of nature” through science and technology to making him the master and possessor of man’s second nature, society. How much that was recalcitrant about human experience and the world had suddenly to be rendered negotiable even to embark upon that path! All that was summed up in words like “manners,” “morals,” “custom,” “tradition,” “taboo,” and “sacred” is suddenly up for grabs. But it was part of the intoxicating nature of the fatal conceit—for those, again, who were susceptible to its charms—that no barrier seemed strong enough to withstand the blandishments of mankind’s ingenious tinkerings. “Everything solid,” as Marx famously said, “melts into air.”

John Maynard Keynes—himself a conspicuous victim of the fatal conceit—summed up its psychological metabolism in his description of Bertrand Russell and his Bloomsbury friends:

Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

What prodigies of existential legerdemain lay compacted in that phrase “all we had to do.” F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of “a first-rate intelligence” was “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time” and still be able to function. In fact, that ability is as common as dirt. Look around.

Friedrich Hayek (he dropped the “von” to which he was born) was a supreme anatomist of this species of intellectual or intellectualist folly. Born to a prosperous family in Vienna in 1899, Hayek had already made a modest name for himself as an economist when he departed for England and the London School of Economics in 1931. Over the next decade, he published half a dozen technical books in economics (sample title: Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle). Life changed in 1944 when The Road to Serfdom—published first in England, then a few months later in the United States—catapulted him to fame.

Chicago’s new edition of the book 1—Volume II in a planned twenty-volume “collected works”—offers a good occasion to remind ourselves both of the power of Hayek’s criticism and the intractable persistence of the attitudes he argued against. It takes courage, or something like it, to declare one’s offering “The Definitive Edition.” “Definitive” is a shifting and elusive trophy in such matters. I have no hesitation, though, in describing this as an excellent edition. The longer lines make the type slightly less readable than Chicago’s handsome Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, but the new edition corrects a handful of typographical errors and adds useful supplementary material, including notes identifying the figures Hayek cites.

The story of this short but extraordinary book—which is less a treatise in economics that an existential cri de coeur—is well known. Three publishers turned it down in the U.S.—one reader declared it “unfit for publication by a reputable house”—before Chicago, not without misgivings, took it on. One of Chicago’s readers, while recommending publication, cautioned that the book was unlikely to “have a very wide market in this country” or “change the position of many readers.” In the event, Chicago could hardly keep up with demand. Within months, some 50,000 copies were in print. Then Reader’s Digest published a condensed version, which brought the book to some 600,000 additional readers. A Look picture-book version a few years later further extended its reach.

Translated into more than twenty languages, The Road to Serfdom transformed Hayek from a retiring academic into an international celebrity. In succeeding years, his influence waxed and waned, but by the time he died, six weeks shy of his ninety-third birthday, in 1992, Hayek had at last become a darling of the academic establishment. He’d been a professor at LSE, the University of Chicago, and the University of Freiburg, and was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. In 1974, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics—the first free-market economist to be so honored—and his theories helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the economic revitalizations that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan undertook in the 1980s.

In a deeper sense, however, Hayek remained a maverick, outside the intellectual or at least the academic mainstream. The message of The Road to Serfdom shows why. The book had two purposes. On the one hand, it was a paean to individual liberty. On the other, it was an impassioned attack on central economic planning and the diminution of individual liberty such planning requires.

Hayek remained a maverick, outside the intellectual or at least the academic mainstream.

It might seem odd, in the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, to describe an attack on central planning or a defense of individual liberty as “maverick.” But in fact, although Hayek’s theories won some major skirmishes “on the ground,” in the world of elite intellectual opinion his views are as contentious now as they were in the 1940s. Even today, there is widespread resistance to Hayek’s guiding insight that socialism is a nursery for the growth of totalitarian policies. With the example of Nazi Germany before him, Hayek saw how naturally socialism, leaching more and more initiative away from the individual in order to invest it in the state, shaded into totalitarianism. A major theme of the book is that the rise of fascism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the 1920s, as is often contended, but on the contrary was a natural outcome of those trends. What began as a conviction that, if planning were to be “efficient,” it must be “taken out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts, ended with the failure of politics and the embrace of tyranny. “Hitler did not have to destroy democracy,” Hayek noted; “he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he yet seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”

Britain, Hayek warned, had already traveled far down the road of socialist abdication. “The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning,” he wrote, “create a state of affairs in which … totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” Hayek quotes numerous influential commentators who cheerfully advocate not only wholesale economic planning but the outright rejection of freedom. In 1932, for example, the influential political theorist Harold Laski argued that “defeat at the polls” must not be allowed to derail the glorious progress of socialism. Voting is all well and good—so long as people vote for the right, i.e., the left, things. In 1942, the historian E. H. Carr blithely argued that “The result which we desire can be won only by a deliberate reorganization of European life such as Hitler has undertaken.” The eminent biologist and commentator C. H. Waddington also proposed handing society over to the experts, noting that freedom “is a very troublesome concept for the scientist to discuss, partly because he is not convinced that, in the last analysis, there is such a thing.” Sir Richard Ackland, architect of the “Commonwealth movement,” wrote with bluff chumminess that the community says to the individual “don’t you bother about getting your own living.” The “community” as a whole will take care of that, determining how, where, and in what manner an individual will be employed. It will also, he added, run camps for shirkers, but don’t worry, “the community” will insist on “very tolerable conditions.” Like Carr, Ackland found a good deal to admire in Hitler, who, he said, had “stumbled across … a small part of, or perhaps one should say one particular aspect of, what will ultimately be required of humanity.” This, incidentally, was written in 1941, a moment when the world discovered that following Hitler required a very great deal of humanity indeed.

The two great presiding influences on The Road to Serfdom were Alexis de Tocqueville and Adam Smith. From Tocqueville, Hayek took both his title and his sensitivity to what Tocqueville, in a famous section of Democracy in America, called “democratic despotism.” Hayek, like Tocqueville, saw that in modern bureaucratic societies threats to liberty often come disguised as humanitarian benefits. If old-fashioned despotism tyrannizes, democratic despotism infantilizes. “It would,” Tocqueville writes,

resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves… . It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living? … [This power] extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; … it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Echoing and extending Tocqueville, Hayek argued that one of the most important effects of extensive government control was psychological, “an alteration of the character of the people.” We are the creatures as well as the creators of the institutions we inhabit. “The important point,” he concluded, “is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives.”

A major part of The Road to Serfdom is negative or critical. Its task is to expose, describe, and analyze the socialist threat to freedom. But there is also a positive side to Hayek’s argument. The road away from serfdom was to be found by embracing what Hayek called “the extended order of cooperation,” AKA capitalism. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted the paradox, or seeming paradox, of capitalism: that the more individuals were left free to follow their own ends, the more their activities were “led by an invisible hand to promote” ends that aided the common good. Private pursuits conduced to public goods: that is the beneficient alchemy of capitalism. Hayek’s fundamental insight, enlarging Smith’s thought, is that the spontaneous order created and maintained by competitive market forces leads to greater prosperity than a planned economy.

We are the creatures as well as the creators of the institutions we inhabit.

The sentimentalist cannot wrap his mind, or his heart, around that datum. He cannot understand why we shouldn’t favor “cooperation” (a pleasing-sounding arrangement) over “competition” (much harsher), since in any competition there are losers, which is bad, and winners, which may be even worse. Socialism is a version of sentimentality. Even so hard-headed an observer as George Orwell was susceptible. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell argued that since the world “potentially at least, is immensely rich,” if we developed it “as it might be developed … we could all live like princes, supposing that we wanted to.” Never mind that part of what it means to be a prince is that others, most others, are not royalty.

The socialist, the sentimentalist, cannot understand why, if people have been able to “generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts,” they cannot also consciously “design an even better and more gratifying system.” Central to Hayek’s teaching is the unyielding fact that human ingenuity is limited, that the elasticity of freedom requires the agency of forces beyond our supervision, that, finally, the ambitions of socialism are an expression of rationalistic hubris. A spontaneous order generated by market forces may be as beneficial to humanity as you like; it may have greatly extended life and produced wealth so staggering that, only a few generations ago, it was unimaginable. Still, it is not perfect. The poor are still with us. Not every social problem has been solved. In the end, though, the really galling thing about the spontaneous order that free markets produce is not its imperfection but its spontaneity: the fact that it is a creation not our own. It transcends the conscious direction of human will and is therefore an affront to human pride.

The urgency with which Hayek condemns socialism is a function of the importance of the stakes involved. As he puts it in The Fatal Conceit, the “dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival” because “to follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest.” We get a foretaste of what Hayek means whenever the forces of socialism triumph. There follows, as the night the day, an increase in poverty and a diminution of individual freedom.

The curious thing is that this fact has had so little effect on the attitudes of intellectuals. No merely empirical development, it seems—let it be repeated innumerable times—can spoil the pleasures of socialist sentimentality. This unworldliness is tied to another common trait of intellectuals: their contempt for money and the world of commerce. The socialist intellectual eschews the “profit motive” and recommends increased government control of the economy. He feels, Hayek notes, that “to employ a hundred people is … exploitation but to command the same number [is] honorable.” Not that intellectuals, as a class, do not like possessing money as much as the rest of us. But they look upon the whole machinery of commerce as something separate from, something indescribably less worthy than, their innermost hearts’ desires. Of course, there is a sense in which this is true. But many intellectuals fail to appreciate two things. First, the extent to which money, as Hayek put it, is “one of the great instruments of freedom ever invented,” opening “an astounding range of choice to the poor man—a range greater than that which not many generations ago was open to the wealthy.” Second, intellectuals tend to ignore the extent to which the organization of commerce affects the organization of our aspirations. As Hilaire Belloc put it in The Servile State, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.” The really frightening question wholesale economic planning raises is not whether we are free to pursue our most important ends but who determines what those “most important ends” are to be. “Whoever,” Hayek notes, “has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.” Thus it is that while it “may sound noble to say, ‘Damn economics, let us build up a decent world,’ … it is, in fact, merely irresponsible.”

No merely empirical development can spoil the pleasures of socialist sentimentality.

Ultimately, the appeal of socialism is an emotional appeal. And because one of the primary vehicles of our emotions is language, the perversions of socialism have their correlative in a perversion of language. “While wisdom is often hidden in the meaning of words,” Hayek notes, “so is error.” Consequently, the task of reclaiming liberty involves the task of reclaiming language. Throughout his work, Hayek devotes a great deal of attention to “our poisoned language,” showing how socialist sentimentality has distorted almost beyond recognition basic terms like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “equality.” Quite apart from any definite meaning they convey, such words are eulogistic: they automatically solicit our allegiance even when they have been conscripted to serve realities different from or even opposed to the things they originally named. As Hayek notes, the “most efficient technique” to achieve the requisite semantic transformation is “to use the old words but change their meaning.” The phrase “People’s Republic” epitomizes the process, but look at what has happened to words like “liberal,” “justice,” and “social.” In The Fatal Conceit, Hayek made a quick list of 160 nouns to which the word “social” had been affixed, from “accounting,” “administration,” “age,” and “awareness” to “thinker,” “usefulness,” “views,” “waste,” and “work.” A weasel was once said to be able to empty an egg without leaving a mark, and “social” is in this sense a “weasel word”: a phonetic husk with only an echo of meaning. It is, Hayek writes, “increasingly turned into an exhortation, a sort of guide-word for rationalistic morals intended to displace traditional morals, and now increasingly supplants the word ‘good’ as a designation of what is morally right.” Think only of the odious phrase “social justice.” What it means, in practice, is de facto injustice, since it operates by enlisting the legal machinery of justice in order to support certain predetermined ends. Partisans of “social justice” eschew “merely formal” justice; in so doing they replace the rule of law—which was traditionally represented as blind precisely because it was “no respecter of persons”—with the rule of (pseudo) “fairness.”

It is not surprising that Hayek is often described as “conservative.” In fact, though, he was right to object that his position is better described as “liberal,” understanding that term not in its contemporary deformation (i.e., leftist, statist) but in the nineteenth-century English sense in which Burke, for example, was a liberal. There is an important sense in which genuine liberals are (in Russell Kirk’s phrase) conservative precisely because they are liberals: they understand that the best chance for preserving freedom is through preserving the institutions and traditional practices that have, so to speak, housed freedom. Although cautious when it came to political innovation, Hayek thought traditional Tory conservatism too wedded to the status quo. His liberalism was in this sense an activist or experimental liberalism. This was a feature of Hayek’s thought that the philosopher Michael Oakeshott coolly discerned when he observed that the “main significance” of The Road to Serfdom was not the cogency of Hayek’s doctrine but “the fact that it is a doctrine.” “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite,” Oakeshott continued, “but it belongs to the same style of politics.” Perhaps so. But Hayek’s inestimable value is to have dramatized the subtle insidiousness of the socialist enterprise. “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once”: that sentence from Hume stands as an epigraph to The Road to Serfdom. It is as pertinent today as when Hayek set it down in 1944.

1The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume II: The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents—the Definitive Edition, by F. A. Hayek, edited by Bruce Caldwell; University of Chicago Press, 283 pages, $35, $15 paper.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 9, on page 4
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