Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom maintains a near unrivalled influence on the political imagination of conservative and classical liberal thinkers. Published in 1943, at the height of the Keynesian consensus, it elaborated a worldview considered intolerable within academic economics.
The central thesis of The Road to Serfdom is that descent into tyranny is the ultimate and inevitable trajectory of a society in which the sovereignty of the individual is subverted in the accumulation of economic power by the state. Central planning leads invariably to authoritarianism. Hayek is not timid in making these claims.
Studying the seemingly disparate political systems which dominated Europe in the run-up to the Second World War (communism, fascism, socialism), Hayek concluded that they each had a common endpoint – the development of a totalitarian state. Despite their contrasting social and economic goals, each necessitated the central consolidation of power and the explicit planning of an economy to achieve those goals.
As such, their distinct political flavours were largely irrelevant to their ultimate destination. Position along the political axis was less important than most commentators predicted. The binary Hayek was interested in, rather than left wing versus right wing, was whether the state uses its authority to promote individual freedom or to restrict it.
Hayek saw that the wartime governments of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and communist Russia all fell within the latter category: they sacrificed the freedom of individuals to empower the state to achieve its own goals. In doing so, their citizens suffered similarly. Repression, poverty and death are the consequence of a government which has taken ownership of those responsibilities previously held by individual citizens.
Hayek’s argument faced an uphill struggle. Despite its enormous popularity among classical liberals and conservative policymakers, we continue to view the political machines of the first half of the 20th century through the lens of their self-assigned labels, rather than under Hayek’s consequentialist umbrella of totalitarian collectivism.
His criticism of socialism is not a left versus right argument, but a general observation of the tendency of systems of government who accumulate economic power to achieve social goals to veer towards repression. The different political labels are just different positions along the road to serfdom, valuing centralised economic planning over individual liberty.
By transcending traditional political labels, and regrouping governments in terms of how they wield the formidable power of the state, The Road to Serfdom gains its enduring appeal. Its lessons are a stern warning to any who believe that a government can accumulate vast powers and maintain them for purely beneficent purposes.
The road described by Hayek, one in which citizens entitled to commercial freedom, private property and the rule of law might ultimately see their individual sovereignty become secondary to the aims of the state, is worryingly benign in its superficial appearance. The transition is not particular to any time or place or political position. There is no discontinuity or abrupt transition of power. The passage by which individuals find themselves subservient occurs gradually, and often in places where commentators would not believe it possible.
To Hayek, economic freedom is as inseparable from individual liberty. When the economic freedom of the individual is handed over to the state it is a key step towards totalitarian government. Economic freedom is a necessary condition of individual liberty. Individual liberty cannot long exist without economic freedom.
Hayek observes that the transition of power from individuals to the state is almost always voluntary, at least initially. Military coups and political assassinations generally happen late along the road, after the state power has already amassed considerable power, and are more symptom than cause. More important is the steady and insidious sacrifice of economic liberty performed by citizens in exchange for security. Individuals expect their government to fill an ever-greater role within the economic function of their country and as such within their lives, and those in government desiring power are all too happy to accept.
The transfer of power is too slow to set alarm bells ringing, but it is never without cost, and when it occurs steadily it allows the state to gradually acquire instruments of enormous social and economic influence. The nature of society is such that it eventually becomes psychologically reliant on the state; with every new problem its citizens turn to their central planners in expectation of a solution. Expedience takes precedence over personal responsibility.
And as this power is accumulated, instead of the instruments of the states serving their citizens, a change begins to occur. Citizens are increasingly asked to serve the instruments of the state, rather than the other way around, often to fulfil some vague goal of general welfare.
We have seen this during the current pandemic with the ever-present “Protect the NHS” slogan. Yet few have dared to ask why we are being asked to sacrifice those hard-won liberties in the name of a state institution. To those who would point out the apparent selfishness of such questioning, Hayek notes that those crises which precipitate the transition of power from the individual to the collective are often driven initially by conceptions of the “public good” in which a unified national response is demanded.
The NHS was, of course, founded with the most noble of intentions. But that does not mean we should not question why we have now, over 70 years on from its birth, found ourselves in a situation in which every facet of public life has been redirected to protect an instrument of the state, to which the political careers of our central planners are intrinsically bound.
The path towards an oppressive society generally begins with protective measures enacted with good intentions, as has happened with Covid-19. A common early step on the road is national emergency. This might be war, economic depression, political gridlock, or a pandemic. Citizens are willing to accept that a temporary curtailment of individual liberty is necessary to overcome a national crisis.
An asymmetry between the urgency the initial crisis demanded and the public’s hunger to protect their personal liberties is exploited. There is an assumption that freedoms lost will be quickly regained. This asymmetry, taken at the flood, allows early sceptics to be easily smothered. Yet power remains centralised even after the initial crisis passes. Arguments that “what’s good in wartime is good in peacetime” arise. Those individuals who might personally gain from the accumulation of power are reluctant to hand back controls to citizens who previously relinquished it in good faith. An exit strategy is not forthcoming.
These difficulties are exacerbated in “advanced” nations. The institutions of the state in Britain have reached such a point that these is little aspect of public life not regulated by departmental oversight. Substantial influence is held over increasingly high-resolution aspects of individual lives. The bloat of party manifestos at each election is testament to this, and the growing intrusion of the state into our lives primes it for an executive who is willing to wield that power without restraint.
A state which readily accepts responsibility for the minutiae of the lives of its citizens will inevitably infantilise them to a certain degree. And when new difficulties arise, citizens are emotionally conditioned to expect the state to intervene again. The individual’s sphere of influence is whittled away as the collectivist sphere of government expands to form an increasingly comprehensive political and moral narrative.
Rather than face the difficulty of building a policy consensus during Covid-19, we have instead seen the concentration of executive powers outside the reach of parliamentary scrutiny. The policies implemented have no clear goal (“save lives” is vague, unhelpful, and, one would hope, the natural default goal of policy anyway) and no clear exit strategy.
The scope has expanded beyond measures which might be considered within the realm of public health to absurdly detailed prescriptions for how we should live. Where we should go to work, what kind of businesses are sufficiently important to continue, who we should socialise with and within which hours, how democratic institutions can assemble, which causes may be legitimately protested.
These goals clearly reach well beyond what could reasonably be described as within the bounds of public health. And with this amassed power, governments seem to implement pitifully detailed restrictions as they try to substitute themselves for common sense: which way to walk within a supermarket, which products are deemed “essential” by the government’s planners, how far apart we must stand, where grandma should sit at the dinner table.
The measures rolled out in the name of a public health emergency are not public health measures. They are, instead, an all-encompassing social and economic prescription for how we must live and work, authorised by an executive using extra-parliamentary measures which they argue that the complexity and seriousness of the situation have necessitated.
Any system of central planning is necessarily a poor imitation of the innumerable complexity captured by a free market economy. The attempts of central committees to assign to products and services values which can only be truly assigned by citizens introduces inefficiency. But Hayek is not advocating for laissez-faire economics. He argues that there does exist a natural duty of government “planning”: to level the playing field for those engaging in commerce and reduce barriers to market entry. This in opposition to a view of “planning” which uses economic control to achieve specific social goals.
These two categories of planning are necessarily exclusive. Planning cannot be performed with a goal of some social intervention without necessarily distorting markets and producing barriers to free trade, regardless of the purpose. The sweeping measures introduced to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 demonstrate this clearly: small businesses have suffered terribly, while corporate giants such as Amazon have consolidated their grip on the market.
Britain is generally a nation of political consensus. Since the Second World War, with the exception of the advent of Thatcherism, there has been a unidirectional and steady transfer of power from individual citizens into the hands of government. Being so willing to accept the prescriptions of government in regulating the most minute of aspects of our everyday lives, we prepared the stage for an event such as this current pandemic, precipitating a dramatic shift from a society in which the individual is sovereign to one in which their needs are secondary to those of the state and its institutions.
Hayek’s ultimate message is that, as far as the relationship between the state and its subjects goes, nothing is free. That which the government gives us necessarily requires the sacrifice of individual responsibility. Security is not without cost, and freedom can only be protected at a price. The only truly progressive system is one which respects the individualism above collectivism.
Those lives we might save by reducing transmission with lockdowns will ultimately be paid for down the line. Either through those conditions which we have decided secondary in priority to Covid-19, those heart attacks, strokes and cancer being diagnosed and treated too late, or through the innumerable opportunity cost of stifled innovation in a society whose government has obtained greater economic and social control since the Second World War. Freedom, hard-won, is easily lost.