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Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: Texts and Documents ? The Definitive Edition, Bruce J. Caldwell, editor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. xi +268 pp. $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-226-32055-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steven Horwitz, Department of Economics, St. Lawrence University

This reissue, which is Volume II (though about the eighth to appear) of the University of Chicago Press’s Collected Works of F. A. Hayek under the General Editorship of Bruce Caldwell, contains an editor’s introduction by Caldwell, who also serves as this volume’s editor, as well as several additional documents relevant to the book’s history. As has been the case with all of the releases in the Collected Works series, the text itself is enhanced by detailed editor’s notes correcting, clarifying, and explaining more fully Hayek’s references. The result is a version of a recognized classic text that provides a full and rich context from which to understand its emergence and eventual powerful impact on the course of events and ideas in the twentieth century.

The core argument of The Road to Serfdom is that attempts to put economic planning into practice while still maintaining a commitment to democracy and respect for the individual would inevitably face a dilemma. Because such attempts to plan would eventually require that the planners act according to a scale of values that was unlikely to command unanimous agreement, the planners would either have to give up their commitment to democracy and individual rights by using propaganda or force to garner “agreement” on those values, or, if they wished to keep those commitments, they would have to give up on their attempts to plan. Much of the first half of the book covers this ground. Given that Hayek (like Mises before him) had argued for the impossibility of rational calculation under socialism, and that he therefore believed planning could not achieve its goals, and given that institutions of power would then lack a coherent rationale, leading to the “worst getting on top,” (as he titled chapter 10) one can see how Hayek would view the rejection of the liberal, market order underway in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s as “the road to serfdom.”

A second strand of Hayek’s argument was that the fascist movements in Italy and Germany were not capitalist reactions to headway made by socialism, but simply a nationalist variant of that very socialism. He provides a brief overview of the development of ideas in Germany, including the elements of the Nazi Party program that were rooted in the socialism of a generation before. (Many of these arguments were developed at more length in his later book, The Counter-Revolution of Science.) More to the point, he argues convincingly that what Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy shared with Stalin’s Russia was a deep and abiding hatred of “Manchester” liberalism. The chapter entitled “The Socialist Roots of Nazism” tackles this argument powerfully, if quickly.

These two strands of argument comprise the theoretical and historical core of the book and provide the sense in which it was a “warning” about what could happen if Great Britain, the U.S. and others were to reject uncritically the liberal market order in favor of some form of planning. The chapter on “The Totalitarians in Our Midst” provides textual evidence of the sorts of arguments being raised in Great Britain in the 1940s that Hayek saw as providing the first steps down precisely the road that he was warning against. In some ways, his “warning” anticipates that of Orwell a few years later.

The Road to Serfdom was a sensation when it was published, both in Britain and the U.S. In his introduction, Caldwell provides some background on the process by which it came to print, and the additional materials include referee reports by Frank Knight (“I doubt whether it would have a very wide market in [the U.S.], or would change the position of many readers”) and Jacob Marschak (“Hayek’s book may start in this country a more scholarly kind of debate … This book cannot be by-passed”). For a generation of readers, as Milton Friedman notes in his here-reprinted introduction to 1994’s fiftieth anniversary edition, this was “the” book that led people to the somewhat forgotten tradition of classical liberalism (much as Friedman’s own books would do for many in the next generation).

In retrospect, the success is fascinating. The book is very much scholarly, though with the ideas applied to then-current events. Nonetheless, it was condensed in Reader’s Digest and transformed into a cartoon summary in Look magazine. The Reader’s Digest condensation was significantly responsible for the book being noticed by a more general audience, causing the University of Chicago Press all kinds of problems keeping up with demand.

Like many “classic” books, its core ideas have been consistently misread over the years, perhaps because more people talk about the book than actually read it. Caldwell’s introduction does a masterful job in responding to several of those misinterpretations, especially the one that reads the book as saying that totalitarianism is an “inevitable” outcome of any step away from classical liberalism. As Caldwell notes, even Hayek himself explicitly argued to the contrary, but that did not stop the “inevitability thesis” from becoming canonized in the 11th edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics (which led to a strongly-worded letter from Hayek and an apology from Samuelson) as well as numerous other secondary sources.

Re-reading the book in 2007, I am struck by how far the debate has moved in Hayek’s direction. Hayek’s positions in the book are hardly of the more radical sort often associated with some of those who invoke his name today. This book is not an argument for contemporary libertarianism, as Hayek gives the state a significant role to play in economic life. However, in 1944, Hayek was branded the worst sort of reactionary, such as Herman Finer’s reference to his supposed, “thoroughly Hitlerian contempt for democratic man.” That Hayek’s mild classical liberalism would generate such venom sixty-three years ago, while it would today be seen as utterly middle of the road, is a testimony to the impact The Road to Serfdom (and Hayek’s later work) had in changing the nature of the intellectual debate in the Western world in the direction of that classical liberalism.

The University of Chicago Press and Bruce Caldwell have done an excellent job in dressing up this classic book for both the general reader and scholars in a variety of disciplines and the history of ideas.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and has written extensively on Hayek, Austrian economics, and the history of economic thought.