I’ve been meaning for quite a while to write about how The Road to Serfdom doesn’t say anything like what most people think it says. Because Conor Friedersdorf’s post about the book is getting all kinds of love in my Twitter feed, right now might just be the time. Friedersdorf writes:
Every day, more see that the road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.
– Arthur C. Brooks and Rep. Paul Ryan, writing in The Wall Street Journal
The size and scope of the federal government is alarming. Spending is out of control. The budget deficit and the national debt are long term threats to American prosperity. On all these subjects, I am in agreement with Messieurs Brooks and Ryan. I share both their preference for a free enterprise system and their aversion to European-style socialist economy.
Seven decades have passed since The Road to Serfdom was published. Social democracy hasn’t yet led Europe or any of its diverse countries into serfdom. On the contrary, they’re are among the most free and prosperous countries in the history of human civilization. I prefer the American system. It’s better, all things considered. In order to make the case for it, we need not pretend that the people of Europe are in chains.
On the other hand, “the jack booted thug” and “the knock in the night” aren’t consigned to history merely because the authors act as though they’re quaint vestiges of history — to be read about in Holocaust memoirs and dystopian novels, but ignored when it comes time to assess how best to guard our liberty.
The United States is not on the brink of turning into Oceania, or even Singapore. But anyone with their eyes open ought to notice that the United States is already too close for comfort to “knocks in the night” and “jackbooted thugs.”
To which I agree in full. And zombie Friedrich Hayek, who has lately taken up residence in Brink Lindsey’s old office, would probably agree as well. Here he is in chapter five of The Road to Serfdom:
The effect of the people’s agreeing that there must be central planning, without agreeing on the ends, will be rather as if a group of people were to commit themselves to take a journey together without agreeing where they want to go: with the result that they may all have to make a journey which most of them do not want at all…
It may be the unanimously expressed will of the people that its parliament should prepare a comprehensive economic plan, yet neither the people nor its representatives need therefore be able to agree on any particular plan. The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective ‘talking shops,’ unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts — permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies…
Yet agreement that planning is necessary, together with the inability of democratic assemblies to produce a plan, will evoke stronger and stronger demands that the government or some single individual should be given powers to act on their own responsibility. The belief is becoming more and more widespread that, if things are to get done, the responsible authorities must be freed from the fetters of democratic procedure.
In short, the road to serfdom isn’t paved with social democracy, which may after all be modest and well-contained. It’s paved with an overweening faith in the democratic process to solve complex, detailed problems of economic allocation. This faith eventually turns sour when (as inevitably happens) the democratic process can’t do the impossible.
Democracy, social or otherwise, fails when we start out with too much faith in its ability to plan. We may imagine that democracy can produce a more rational and efficient economic system, but this is absolutely beyond its powers. As a result, we stand to lose faith in democratic institutions. We might even demand that broad discretion be given to experts, or to dictators. That’s the road to serfdom.
By contrast, it’s certainly possible to have a social democratic government that isn’t on the road to serfdom. This is true both by empirical observation and by Hayek’s own very clear statements about the matter. To imagine anything other is both to ignore history and to admit that you don’t really know your Hayek.
None of this is to say that I personally approve of social democracy or think that more of it, in whatever form you may be imagining, would necessarily be better for our country. But there are meaningful differences between social insurance and comprehensive economic planning. These differences seemed readily apparent to Hayek even if his fans don’t all agree.