Why “The Road To Serfdom” Still Resonates

I first read Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom in 2007. For whatever reason, TRTS didn’t “wow” me upon first reading, but after recently revisiting the book, I’m now “wowed.” For this post, I’m going to comment on specific passages that resonated strongest upon my second reading.

1. “By giving the government unlimited powers, the most arbitrary rule can be made legal; and in this way a democracy may set up the most complete despotism imaginable.”

Civil asset forfeiture gives credence to Hayek’s warning. We’re reaching the point where government officials feel no guilt using deception to take the property of innocent middle class people:

• One city attorney called his legal documents a “masterpiece of deception” and has won 96 percent of his forfeiture cases.
• An assistant district attorney takes property, even from owners who have been acquitted, because “people are not found innocent, they are found not guilty.”
• One government official doesn’t want to disclose information about civil forfeiture, because it might become a “bullet-point for people that are trying to fight the program.”
• A prosecutor teaches other attorneys how to take property from innocent people. He even offers this piece of advice, “IF IN DOUBT…TAKE IT!”

The fact that we have a democracy isn’t enough to protect innocent people if the rule of law is disregarded.

2. “From this the individualist concludes that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s…”

Nowhere in this reading does Hayek try to condemn a person’s personal preferences. Compare this to Ayn Rand, who puts boundaries on what can bring you individual happiness. Per Ms. Rand, pursuing “any mindless fraud” will result in the “torture of frustration.”

3. “It is rarely remembered now that socialism in its beginnings was frankly authoritarian. The French writers who laid the foundations of modern socialism had no doubt that their ideas could be put into practice only by strong dictatorial government.”

Political freedom and socialism are not compatible. History has borne this out. Modern trends validate history.

4. “There has never been a worse and more cruel exploitation of one class by another than that of the weaker or less fortunate of a group of producers by the well-established which has been made possible by the “regulation” of competition.”

This is the type of cronyism the Institute for Justice fights every day, as they stand up for teeth-whiteners, food vendors, and taxi drivers (to name just a few examples) against politically-connected business interests. Leave it to the capitalists to smear capitalism.

5. “Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite…”

This tendency of governments was given a title a few years later by Orwell: doublespeak. Examples of doublespeak abound in politics. Both Democrats and Republicans have employed it for rather nefarious ends.

6. “Everything which might cause doubt about the wisdom of the government or create discontent will be kept from the people.”

As Jonathan Gruber explained, this is exactly what was done to pass Obamacare.

7. “It is, in fact, in this field that the fascination of vague but popular phrases like “full employment” may well lead to extremely shortsighted measures, and where the categorical and irresponsible “it must be done at all cost” of the single-minded idealist is likely to do the greatest harm.”

This mindset is what led the Democrats to rush through the so-called “stimulus” bill in 2009. “Full employment” was not attained. Again, history shows the poor track record of government spending ‘at all cost’ to create jobs.

8. “The part of the lesson of the recent past which is slowly and gradually being appreciated is that many kinds of economic planning, conducted independently on a national scale, are bound in their aggregate effect to be harmful even from a purely economic point of view…”

Again, modern trends verify this. Historically, there is no better case study than the Soviet Union on how the vile methods of central planning produced fatally dismal results.

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Why does The Road To Serfdom still resonate? Because ideas that have been tried before are being sold to the public again and again using the same arguments and buzzwords Hayek thoroughly debunked in this classic book.

Conservatives would also be wise to heed Hayek’s words, as the government intrusions they promote often produce the type of arbitrary government he staunchly opposed. This could be why Hayek distanced himself from the conservative label.

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