The Road To Serfdom

     In an  Internet bookstore with millions of available titles, Amazon.com lists its category best sellers and overall best sellers monthly, an interesting pulse on the  interest areas of the reading public.  The number 1 best seller for all books on Amazon in June of 2010 was  The Road To Serfdom by F.A. Hayek. – WHO?? – It is reasonable to consider with some amazement that an economic treatise written by an obscure Austrian intellectual 66 years ago could captivate such a large segment of the population as to lead all books in all categories.  A book that dominated the usual summer classics, such as the vampire inspired The Passage or the son’s memoir of his father S**t My Father Says , would be assumed by all to have some violent or sexy angle to bring in all these literary stragglers.  Perhaps this is a book about a Serf mafioso who rules over a dangerous road through which a hero must travel to attain a powerful ring…clever premise, but no,  that’s far from the book’s central theme. 

      It turns out that the gripping premise of F.A. Hayek’s book that so absorbed the American public’s attention this summer is a call to intellectual arms to avoid the collectivist mistakes of socialized states and to defend the power of man’s individualism.  How could such ideas written by a relative unknown born in 1899 resonate so strongly this summer? The answer is obvious to those like me who have read Hayek’s treatise.  Its is Hayek’s description of the collectivist impulses of governments promoting good acts that ultimately strangulates the capacity of individuals to achieve success by “developing their own individual gifts and bents”.  Hayek saw the collectivist responses of governments to the world wide depression born of classic liberal utopian desires to level the playing field and eliminate the inequities presented by the capitalist model.  In the process of seeking societal ideals of social justice, grater, equality and security, the social utopian structures common plans that deferentially and without prejudice would “handle our common problems as rationally as possible”.  For these modern planners, “it is not sufficient to design the most rational permanent framework within which various activities would be conducted by individual persons according to their individual plans.  What our planners demand is a central direction of all economic activity according to a single plan, laying down how resources of society should be ‘consciously directed’ to serve particular ends in a definite way.”  Hayek saw the classic argument regarding a totalitarian socialism that neither cared nor understood how the utopian goals were achieved and were merely certain that they be achieved, no matter what the cost, and the democratic socialist who struggled with dictatorial tenets of such utopians, argued only regarding the means, not the ends.  Both fundamentally believed that government must ” centrally direct economic activity if we want to make the distribution of income conform to current ideas of social justice.”  Hayek quoted Benito Mussolini as objectifying the need for central planning to reduce the inequities of individual competition in a modern world – ” 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 (1929).

     Hayek was speaking to an audience dealing with the aggressive impulses of the totalitarian socialists Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, but asking them to recognize the tendencies in their own threatened democratic world to the less martial but every bit as threatening collectivist strains of their own society.  For Hayek , ”the welfare and happiness of millions cannot be measured on a scale of less and more.”  What becomes inherently clear in the democratic effects on building a collectivist society, is not that the equality of society transcends to an absolute good, but rather, that the benefits of society receive a more equal distribution.  The definition of good or bad can not be left to society to determine benefit, for obviously everyone’s opinion as to good differs, and millions of people’s definition of good differs absolutely.  Inevitably, the direction of relative good can not be left to people to decide as in the end, the decisions in attempting to satisfy everyone will satisfy no one.   The lasting consequence, Hayak suggests, is the inevitable “cry for an economic dictator as a characteristic stage in the movement toward central planning.”   The death of freedom of choice must be the outcome that permits the central planner to achieve his end, because every effort to direct tendencies brings the unforeseen consequence of the individual’s adaptation to the rules, to secure the individual’s best possible outcome against the difference of the definition of good acknowledged by the many individual variations, and the single definition of the central planners.

     The treatise of a long ago theorist has become the running commentary of today’s events and has once again made the obscure economist Hayek a best selling author and a prophet to millions of Americans concerned with the direction of current governmental actions.  The need to eliminate individual variation in decision making and responsibility to achieve a common good – government takeover of mortgage loans, college education loans, credit card and financial lending,  the government take over of health care decisions and insurance, the government takeover of major industries such as the automobile industry, the government regulatory processes to “effect” climate change, social justice, immigration, propagation of non-elected “czars” rather than legislators to effect change – all point to the road map to servitude Hayak pointed out so presciently many years ago. 

     The reason The Road To Serfdom is a best seller again, is because we, as a free society under attack are farther down that road than ever before, and a larger and larger proportion of the populus is recognizing it.

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