Road to Serfdom book cover and FA Hayek headshot

Road to Serfdom

American style, lightly regulated democratic-capitalism so dominated the late 20th century that it’s easy to forget it was not destined to be. The form’s critics (and fans) can benefit from unwinding the tape.

Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) was among the chief architects of an ideology that resulted in that system, which gave us unprecedented growth and predictable inequality. With John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), Hayek outlined much of today’s economic thought, in part by inspiring economist Milton Friedman who influenced the so-called Reagan Revolution. That’s not to say the system is necessarily the best option, but it is worth remembering Hayek viewed himself in opposition to fascists.

Whatever your stance on it, Hayek’s book Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, is an influential of classic liberalism and modern American and western light-touch capitalism. That’s why he still catches the ire of those defending greater state intervention. Since it is so often referenced, I finally read the thing myself.

I share my notes for future reference below.

My notes:

  • French totalitarian Auguste Comte criticized individualism as “The perennial Western malady, the revolt of the individual against the species”,
  • “There is nothing in the basic principles of [classic] liberalism to make it a stationary creed; there are no hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications. There is, in particular, all the difference between deliberately creating a system within which competition will work as beneficially as possible and passively accepting institutions as they are.”
  • Holderlin: “what has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man is try to make it his heaven.”
  • Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1848, “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
  • “The finest opportunity ever given to the world was thrown away because the passion for equality may be in the hope for freedom.” Lord Acton (1834-1902)
  • “The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we are individuals can decide what to do with ourselves.”
  • Who has more control, Hayek asks? One employer or an agent of the state? Who has more independence, a member of a minority group that owns property or one part of a government controlled system?
  • Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
  • Collectivism: view “not its moral basis but its moral results”
  • Totalitarian states require a strength that few collect and fewer are willing to yield —“ a task, which only the ruthless, ready to disregard the barriers of accepted morals, can execute.”
  • Hayek had a long-running philosophical beef with Keynes (A Hayek interview)
  • “It is entirely in keeping with the whole spirit of totalitarianism that it condemns any human activity done for its own sake, and without ulterior purpose. Science for science to say, art, for art sake, are equally important to the Nazis, our socialist intellectuals, and the communists. Every activity must arrive its justification from a conscious social purpose. There must be no spontaneous, on guided activity, because it might produce results which cannot be for seeing him for which the plan does not provide. It might produce some thing, new, and dreamed of in the philosophy of the planner.”
  • “The battle for freedom must be won anew in every generation.”
  • “From the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a step.”
  • “It is not because we are free that we shall prosper, but because free men can prosper in industry, science, and the arts.”
  • “The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.”
  • “The power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work.”
  • “The more the state ‘plans’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”
  • “It is the price of progress that the two different types of mind should work together.”
  • “The worst forms of tyranny, or certainly the most successful ones, are not those we rail against but those that so insinuate themselves into the imagery of our consciousness, and the fabric of our lives, as not to be perceived as tyranny.”
  • “It is always from a minority acting in ways different from what the majority would prescribe that the majority in the end learns to do better.”
  • “It is not so much the freedom of the individual that constitutes the basis of the free society as the conviction that the direction of his own development is entrusted to him.”

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