Hayek's Road to Serfdom


As we noted with C. S. Lewis, the problem with being a prophet is that your powers are acknowledged only after it is too late.

Friedrich von Hayek

Once it's all caved in, or blown up, or come crashing down, everyone sees that you were right.

Things are a bit different for Friedrich von Hayek's classic The Road to Serfdom. Published in Britain in 1944, its warnings about state socialism were immediately recognized as profound and pertinent to the dismal post-war economic situation. Once published in America the following year, it became a bestseller, and Hayek, a hitherto unknown Austrian economist living as an expatriate in England, became an international celebrity. A Reader's Digest version of the book alone sold over 600,000 copies. People at the time obviously understood the seriousness of his warning.

Hayek was responding to the European and American infatuation with socialism, i.e., with the notion that we'd all be better off if the central government would take control of everything, and direct the political, social, and economic activities of the nation. The logic of socialist thinking went something like this. Scientists have made great headway in conquering nature, and even approach god-like knowledge in physics, chemistry, and the other material and mechanical sciences. Shouldn't we be directing human beings and human society with the same kind of technical efficiency? Couldn't society itself purr along happily if we ran it like a large, well-oiled machine? Wouldn't an elite panel of scientific experts be the obvious candidates for firmly and boldly steering the wheel of state?

Sounds inviting, even thrilling to those given to fantastic visions of our utopian future. All that was needed was to clear the nay-sayers, luddites, traditionalists, yokels, and all obstructive institutions standing between the state and the individual from the decks of the ship of state. Then, full steam ahead.

Hayek was horrified at such a vision, and not merely for economic reasons. While Hayek was an economist, he had a much broader, deeper education that guided his economic arguments. In fact, he describes The Road to Serfdom as a "political book." By "political" he meant something much broader and deeper than we do today, more like what the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle meant by calling human beings "political animals." We are rational creatures that live together in community, not just to supply our physical needs, but also to enjoy the higher human goods and perfect our moral nature. Part of our moral perfection is learning to govern ourselves, to guide our own lives.

Democracy, at its best, is a school of self-government. If democracy is to work properly, it must be built from the local ground up, layer by layer—the very opposite direction of top-down totalitarian socialism. In Hayek's words,

"Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the important decisions rest with an organization far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend. Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders. It is only where responsibility can be learned and practiced in affairs with which most people are familiar, where it is the awareness of one's neighbor rather than some theoretical knowledge of the needs of other people which guides action, that the ordinary man can take a real part in public affairs because they concern the world he knows."

But as Hayek pointed out, the associations and institutions that are so important for schooling us in self-government—town councils, civic organizations, churches, clubs, county governments—are the very intermediate institutions that state socialism seemed to think were not only unnecessary but downright obstructive to top-down utopian visionary planning.

"What our generation is in danger of forgetting," warned Hayek, "is not only that morals are of necessity a phenomenon of individual conduct but also that they can exist only in the sphere in which the individual is free to decide for himself and is called upon voluntarily to sacrifice personal advantage to the observance of a moral rule."

Again, for Hayek, the socialist desire was rooted in scientism, the notion that the social sciences should imitate the material sciences, and manipulate and reform human beings like some kind of mechanical objects according to some techno-utopian scheme.

"Those who argue that we have to an astounding degree learned to master the forces of nature but are sadly behind in making successful use of the possibilities of social collaboration are quite right so far as this statement goes. But they are mistaken when they carry the comparison further and argue that we must learn to master the forces of society in the same manner in which we have learned to master the forces of nature. This is not only the path to totalitarianism but the path to destruction of our civilization and a certain way to block future progress."

For Hayek, an essential bulwark against the scientific management of man was freedom from government centralizing power. Centralization of power leads to micromanaging the daily lives of citizens from Washington. Decentralization puts economic, political, and social decisions on the local level where they belonged, the place where people can make the best decisions because they are the ones who are most familiar with the details.

But even more important, putting economic, political, and social decisions on the local level is a moral imperative. "What our generation is in danger of forgetting," warned Hayek, "is not only that morals are of necessity a phenomenon of individual conduct but also that they can exist only in the sphere in which the individual is free to decide for himself and is called upon voluntarily to sacrifice personal advantage to the observance of a moral rule." If someone takes that responsibility from us, they have stripped us of our moral nature. "Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one's conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one's own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name."

The Road to Serfdom
by Friedrich von Hayek

That is what the economic "collectivism" of a socialist-style government destroys. "A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth."

Now we must ask ourselves, in all seriousness, are we now on the road to serfdom to an all-powerful, all-encompassing federal government? Even more painful, is our liberty being taken from us because we have shirked our moral responsibility to govern ourselves well? Failed to provide for our own families? Frittered our own way into hopeless personal debt? Carelessly destroyed our own health? Foolishly mismanaged our own businesses?

Such are the moral failures that can pave the road to serfdom, and bring us to run gladly into the arms of the state to save us from ourselves.



Benjamin Wiker. "Hayek's Road to Serfdom." tothesource (January 28, 2010).

This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.

Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.


Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, The Mystery of the Periodic Table, and co-author of Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature and Architects of the Culture of Death. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.

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