Whilst doing some work in UCL library I happened to come across a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s famous book The Road to Serfdom. Since inexcusably I have never read it I thought I would do so.
I was frankly disappointed. The book is not a serious work of economics as I had expected. Instead it is a sustained and at times vitriolic critique of central planning, which Hayek equates with Socialism, which he in turn equates with totalitarianism. Interestingly Hayek denounces central planning not on grounds of economic inefficiency but on the grounds that it represents an attack on “freedom”.
As a work of (very) right wing journalism written to influence political discussion at a particular moment in it time (it was written in 1944) the book is just about understandable. Even then its often abusive and even hysterical tone and language are off putting. More to the point the book also grossly distorts facts and the arguments of those it criticises. Its purpose very obviously is to exonerate the Right for the rise of Hitler. It explains Hitler’s rise as being caused not by the support of people on the far Right or by the failure of classical economics leading to the Depression but rather as a logical development of the growth of state interference in the economy.
That this view has no historical basis I need hardly say. This of course is not something that would have worried Hayek. I have often found when trying to argue with people who hold passionately to a particular point of view that the mere fact that their argument has no factual basis never seems to bother them.
For what it’s worth subsequent events have also shown that Hayek’s premise is wrong. Hayek’s book is littered with warnings that unless state interference in the economy is reversed then the trend towards totalitarianism will become inexorable. In reality those post war democracies where the role of the state has been biggest eg. Sweden, Germany, Austria etc, have never become dictatorships but on the contrary amongst democracies have tended to be the more prosperous and the most happy.
Not for the first time I found myself thinking that the day will come (it may not be far off) when people will look back in astonishment at how towards its end western civilisation took seriously such Cold War polemicists and propagandists as Hayek, Friedman, Irving Berlin (with his facile contrast of “positive” and “negative” freedom), Ayn Rand and Karl Popper and elevated them to the status of serious thinkers and great scholars.