Art Carden  

On Re-Reading Hayek's The Road to Serfdom

Nudge and Abortion... Huemer Symposium at BHL...

I'm spending the week at a Liberty Fund conference on Hayek dubbed "Hayek Boot Camp." One of the assigned readings was, not surprisingly, The Road to Serfdom. The first time I read it was right before I started grad school, and I don't think I've given it a full cover-to-cover re-reading since (I've read and re-read sections, but I think this is the first time I've gone beginning to end since 2001).

It's a book for the ages. I don't write that lightly; I suspect there are few books from that era (or this one, for that matter) that will have the same staying power. Sadly, a lot of intellectuals have either flat-out ignored it because they don't like Hayek's message, or they have rejected it because they reject a caricature of Hayek and the book--something to the effect of "Hayek said we will all end up in the gulags if we permit the government to deliver the mail, and that's ridiculous." I agree, and it's also a ridiculous (and unfortunate) misreading. Indeed, some of the more interesting and challenging passages for the libertarian are in the sections where Hayek points out that interventions like a guaranteed minimum income are still consistent with a free society and need not necessarily lead to serfdom. Of course, his argument is heavily qualified, and the contributions of public choice analysis that followed Buchanan, Tullock, and others give us reasons to be suspicious of the stability of liberty-respecting welfare states over the long run.

The Road to Serfdom is a libertarian classic. It deserves to simply be celebrated as "a classic" with no modifier. Here is co-blogger David Henderson's review of the most recent edition. According to Francis Bacon, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." The Road to Serfdom is definitely one of the "some few."

Note: parts of this post were inspired by Daniel J. Smith's lecture on The Road to Serfdom at the 2013 Intercollegiate Studies Institute seminar at Samford University.

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Pithlord writes:

Sorry. But you haven't persuaded me.

Even interventions like nationalizing the coal industry turned out to be consistent with a free society -- unless you want to claim the Brits became serfs after World War II. And if you want to claim that (as your comment about Buchanan and Tullock logically implies), then you are using the word "serf" with your own private, libertarian meaning. I don't see why I should consider arguments that use private meanings of common words to bludgeon their political opponents.

Pithlord writes:

According to Wikipedia's entry on the Road to Serfdom, Tullock actually crticized Hayek's slippery slope argument. He pointed out that Sweden was still politically free in the mid-1980s and argued that economic liberals ought to make an argument for economic liberty that did not depend on the premise that it is a pre-requisite for political liberty.

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