More than 60 years ago, when the world was at war and government planning of economies was held in the highest esteem by the Western democracies, the great libertarian economist F.A. Hayek wrote "The Road to Serfdom," a provocative work that quickly became one of the century's most important manifestoes for economic, political and personal freedom.
Hayek warned that giving governments more and more control over the economies of free societies was not going to lead to socialist utopias but to totalitarian hellholes like Nazi Germany. "The Road to Serfdom," one of those masterpieces of liberty that rocks the lives and awakens the minds of many who read it, is as influential and relevant today as it ever was.
Ed Feulner, the president of the Heritage Foundation public policy think tank in Washington, knew Hayek personally and is something of an expert on the "The Road to Serfdom's" ideas and its enduring influence.
Q: Why should everyone who is serious about politics, government policy and freedom still read “The Road to Serfdom” today?
A: I think “The Road to Serfdom” is essential for understanding the modern political landscape, wherever you live. The point Hayek makes in an educated but not supercilious way is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You’ve got a lot of people who see a problem, whether it’s a social problem or some difficulty afflicting some part of the body politic, and the immediate suggestion or thought is, “Gee, somebody ought to do something about that” and the second thought is, “It ought to be the government.”
As Hayek points out, different government bureaucracies operate different agendas. The legislators, when they put things in terms of central control, remove options to people. So “The Road to Serfdom” really is a set of guideposts for what the individual citizen’s relationship is to government. The basic principles outlined there are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.
Q: What did Hayek mean by “serfdom” in 1944?
A: His fundamental belief was that during wartime, when you have a concerted effort and everyone is pulling together to defeat a common enemy, you’re willing to give up certain freedoms. But, when the war leaves, it is very hard sometimes for the government to go back to the way it used to be. Instead, they think, “Hey, this is efficient. This is the way it ought to continue to be and let’s keep it that way.” So what you have is an individual controlling less and less of the decisions in his private life.
Basically, what he’s talking about is that the more decisions are made by somebody else about where you live, what kind of job you have, how much taxes you pay, what you can do with your own property – whether it’s real estate property or other things like a car -- the less real freedom you have. The more of a serf you are. The more subservient you are to government.
Q: The book’s central message was that the difference between Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and communist Soviet Union is not that great when you are the individual and you’re looking at big government.
A: Right. The notion in all three cases that you just cited was the idea that it could very easily happen in a democratic structure like ours, where if we just give up a little more freedom, somehow we’re going to be more secure. Government will be able to provide this for us, whether it is cradle-to-grave health care or whatever other desirable sounding program it might be. The next thing you know, you’ve got the government fundamentally making decisions like who goes to the head of the line to get a gall bladder operation or to have their cancerous prostate removed.
Q: In America was Hayek seen as a dangerous radical nutcase by the establishment?
A: Oh, yeah. The establishment, especially in Washington, which had the levers of power and which had built up boards and commissions and control groups here for virtually every part of the economy, didn’t like to hear what Hayek had to say.
But at the same time, there was a residue of sufficient popular belief that man’s destiny is not to be controlled, rather it is to be free and to expand freedom. That you could actually have a book of this intellectual content be run in a condensed version of the monthly Reader’s Digest, as it was, is unbelievable, when you think about what’s in every current magazine today.
Q: Who were some of the powerful people who would eventually read “The Road to Serfdom,” love it and put its ideas, lessons and values into practice?
A: In the political arena, probably the most prominent one who immediately comes to mind is Ronald Reagan. But even today Hayek’s book has a continuing influence. When I visited former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia in his offices in Richmond he asked me, “Who is the most important person in terms of ideas that you have dealt with, since Heritage is involved in ideas?” And I said, “Oh, probably Hayek” and he reached behind his desk and pulled out a thumb-worn, paper-bound version of “The Road to Serfdom.” He said, “This is one of the most important books I ever read. I read it in my freshman year in college and it changed my life.”
I was at a new-members of Congress conference in Baltimore a year and a half ago. I was sitting next to a brand new member from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, and we started talking about influences on our lives. The first person she mentioned was Hayek and “The Road to Serfdom.” Who would think a first-term congresswoman from Tennessee would come up with an answer like that?
Q: The book is a classic, but 99 percent of the college kids in America have never heard Hayek’s name or been introduced to his ideas.
A: No, they haven’t. But that goes back to the notion of how does the influence of an idea spread. It’s there. A lot of the faculty who have their heads more or less screwed on straight at some point or another have, if not been influenced by him, at least been exposed to Hayek.
Is it is as widely taught as it should be, or as widely influential as it should be? No. But it is probably more so than John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, who was his great intellectual nemesis in the late 1930s, through the ‘40s and into the ‘50s, and who was then infinitely more popular and people would say more influential than Hayek, is no longer considered mainstream. His economic theories no longer hold. Hayek, on the other hand, has still got the fundamentals right. They’re still as relevant as they were back then.
Q: What would Hayek think about the size, scope and power the federal government has today?
A: He’d be dismayed, for a couple of reasons. First of all, he’d be staggered by the shear size of the federal government and the size of the tax bite, both in absolute numbers and also in terms of the percent of GDP. But he’d be more concerned about the regulations coming out the government.
Q: Have today’s conservatives forgotten Hayek’s lessons and principles?
A: No. I don’t think so. They’re probably not as visible in terms of our day-to-day activities as they should be… But the bottom line is, Hayek is there to remind us of the longer-term truths. He doesn’t operate in two-year election cycles. That’s why Hayek is important.
Q: Milton Friedman in the 50th anniversary of "The Road to Serfdom" said it’s not overstating it to say on both sides of the Atlantic that we preach individualism and competitive capitalism and practice socialism.” Do you agree?
A: I’d say it is mixed. It is true to a large extent. Milton was right then and it still would be right now. But at the same time, you’ve got Tony Blair – a self-admitted socialist Labor Party leader as prime minister – and he is not undoing the Thatcher economic reforms. He has not tried to re-socialize housing or unscramble the privatized steel mills or the gas companies or anything because the privatized systems are working so much better. So there are mixed signals on both sides.
The fact is, it’s very easy to get depressed day-by-day and say, “Boy, it’s going the wrong way.” But there are some hopeful signs out there. It takes a long time for these ideas to become both popularized and to have really the fundamental impact on the system.
From the writing of Marx to the rise of Lenin, you had 50 years. Now I guess that’s about where we are now with Hayek. We did have Reagan and Thatcher and we did have the most obvious version of state serfdom pulled down, in terms of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. So we’ve come a long way positively. At the same time, yeah, there’s a lot still to be done.