Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 1, “The Abandoned Road”

This analysis is the second installment in a series of chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The previous analysis of Hayek’s introduction can be found here.

If Hayek’s introduction gave us a brief summary of the ideas and practices he is setting out to oppose and contextualized the progression toward a socialist political culture in the last half century of Europe’s history, his first chapter, “The Abandoned Road”, firmly roots his grievances in the present and the problems facing England at the time of his writing and seeks to explain how England (and the West more generally) arrived there. He describes the intellectual evasions, distortions, and faulted epistemology—often consisting of poorly defined key concepts —that led to and are, in his time, perpetuating the state of affairs he observes. He then proceeds to address the subject of liberalism and how socialists who misconceive of their own system do so at least as much with its antithesis. In the process, Hayek makes many excellent observations, but also succumbs to several dangerous philosophical errors and unsubstantiated claims against laissez-faire capitalism that tarnish what might otherwise be an outstanding defense against government controls.

Hayek begins the chapter with one of the most argumentatively powerful, poignant approaches that one can take in opposing socialist ideas: illustrating to those who support more moderate, tempered versions of statist controls that though they may differ in degree from those statists they oppose, the philosophical fundamentals they advocate are the same. “We all are, or at least were until recently, certain of one thing,” he writes,

“that the leading ideas which during the last generation have become common to most people of goodwill and have determined the major changes in our social life cannot have been wrong. We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilisation except one:  that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part, and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals have apparently produced utterly different results from those which we expected” (8).

Hayek’s point is well made and much needed at a time when such widespread, utter contradictions were even more severe than they are today. Writing to Britons in the 1940s, but with as much truth to offer Americans who stumbled over the same contradictions in the 1960s and 1970s, as the platitude “we are all socialists now” manifested on Nixon’s lips as “we are all Keynesians now” (and with less fundamental difference between them than Keynesians would have you believe), he asks us to recognize that “the tendencies which have culminated in the creation of the totalitarian systems were not confined to the countries which have succumbed to them” (8-9). Nor, for that matter, are they confined to those times, and Hayek’s message to this effect—the importance of recognizing the same fundamental ideas across contexts—is as much needed today as it was then.

He goes on to recognize that the conflict between the Axis and Allied powers in World War II is fundamentally a conflict of ideas: “The external conflict is a result of a transformation of European thought in which others have moved so much faster as to bring them into irreconcilable conflict with our ideals, but which has not left us unaffected.” He is quick to point out, though, that “the history of these countries in the years before the rise of the totalitarian system showed few features with which we are not familiar” (9).

Such an appreciation for the motive power of ideas in human conflict was not so unique in Hayek’s time. In fact, the Allied leaders superlatively acknowledged the enemy they faced as “fascism” and condemned it explicitly (though the economic and social policies of FDR, along with his earlier overt flirtations with such ideas, may have made the condemnation somewhat ironic). If Hayek has a lesson to teach to this effect, it is most needed in today’s world, when the significance of philosophy is so frequently cast aside by the influences of multiculturalist nihilism and the failure, even in academia, to appreciate the role of broadly held cultural ideas in deciding man’s fate. At a time when the mention of a “clash of civilizations” invites accusations of oppressive Western chauvinism, Hayek’s acknowledgement that conflicting fundamental ideas may lead to actual conflict is a welcome reminder.

Much of the chapter appropriately looks to fundamental ideology as the cause for the rise of Nazism, seeing the rejection of individualism in favor of collectivism as a necessary prerequisite to the “National-Socialist revolution” and a “decisive step in the destruction of that civilisation which modern man had built up from the age of the Renaissance.” The spirit of this argument is undoubtedly sound. However, the method by which he proceeds to argue it leaves much to be desired. Hayek proceeds down a path of questionable historical interpretations, a half-cocked swipe at moral philosophy (that, as we shall see, is flawed but not unfamiliar to readers of this site), and ultimately an incomplete defense of the liberal policies he hopes to defend—showing the consequences of that brief glimpse of skepticism we witnessed in the introduction.

In his historical contextualization of the trends he observes, Hayek writes,

“How sharp a break not only with the recent past but with the whole evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend towards socialism means, becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century, but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton… Not merely the nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides is progressively relinquished” (10).

Hayek’s invocation of these great names in the history of liberal thought is, in most instances, not misplaced. It is true that all emerged from Western civilization and that to varying extents they all fit well into the liberal, individualist tradition he means to illustrate. One would be wise to regard the inclusion of Hume and Montaigne, paragons of skepticism, as only conditional points on such a list, though Hayek’s own skepticism and that of many libertarians in his tradition would certainly allow them.

More broadly, however, it must be said that the individuals mentioned, no matter how great their contributions to political and social thought, were not often the rule in their place and time, but the exception. One can admire the works of Pericles, but should bear in mind the fickle reception he received among the Athenians. Likewise, Cicero may deserve praise above any in his time, but for those virtues we might praise he was slaughtered without trial by a dictator who faced no consequences.

Thus, as admirable as Hayek’s examples may be, to suggest that they were the norm throughout most of Western civilization is unsubstantiated. They may have embodied those qualities that most distinguished Western civilization and have been most responsible for its progress, but it was a progress often achieved by much-abused minorities. The Renaissance, Enlightenment, and nineteenth century were the high-points of individualism and Western ideals, and Hayek is right in singling them out. However, he also runs the risk of obscuring the philosophical roots of National Socialism, itself the product of contrary trends in Western thought, by engaging in careless generalization from those high-points and distinguished individuals to Western history in general.

Departing from this somewhat problematic historical interpretation, Hayek moves through a favorable discussion of the benefits of economic and political freedom on scientific innovation. His recognition and argument that “[w]herever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed man became rapidly able to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire” is incontestable (12). He also anticipates the common objections by socialist apologists today who characterize the Industrial Revolution as a period of oppression by citing the difficult living conditions of the urban poor. He rightly rejects this by contextualizing the period in the experiences and expectations of those who lived through it, writing that

“[w]e cannot do justice to this astonishing growth if we measure it by our present standards, which themselves result from this growth and now make many defects obvious. To appreciate what it meant to those who took part in it we must measure it by the hopes and wishes men held when it began… that by the beginning of the twentieth century the working man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible” (12-13).

What proceeds from there is where Hayek seems on unsteady footing, as he briefly undertakes the task of trying to explain what ideas diverted man from the individualist course set from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Inexplicably, Hayek credits an excess of ambition as responsible for the turn toward socialism. He writes,

“What in the future will probably appear the most significant and far-reaching effect of this success is the new sense of power over their own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving their own lot, which the success already achieved created among men. With success grew ambition—and man had every right to be ambitious” (13).

He returns to the idea again later, writing that,

“Because of the growing impatience with the slow advance of liberal policy, the just irritation with those who used liberal phraseology in defence of anti-social privileges, and the boundless ambition seemingly justified by the material improvements already achieved, it came to pass that toward the turn of the century the belief in the basic tenets of liberalism was more and more relinquished” (14-15).

It is here that Hayek’s inadequacy in analyzing philosophical ideas, and perhaps an economic bias toward looking at matters purely as a function of supply and demand, begins to show. The notion that an inadequate or insufficiently rapid provision of living standards by capitalism is to blame for the introduction and spread of socialism is baseless, as it not only commits the philosophical error of attributing a total change in fundamental beliefs to external conditions, but also ignores the fact that the introduction of socialist policies preceded the slowdown in quality of living improvements in the Western world—and, furthermore, that the slowdown still wasn’t all that slow, as anyone who looks at world history from 1870 to 1928 will readily observe.

Thus, Hayek’s notion that “ambition” is somehow to blame is irrational. If we accept the notion that capitalism was responsible for man’s improved quality of living, then the only function that ambition should serve in this context is to drive men back toward capitalism and its fundamental values—not toward socialism. To the contrary, it is not an excess of ambition that drove men away from capitalism, but the fact that the philosophical principles that underlie and empower capitalism were not consistently established in the minds of its practitioners in the first place. That is: those who lived under capitalism had not explicitly embraced reason as man’s means of acquiring knowledge, nor rational egoism as his proper ethical system, and thus lacked the fundamentals on which individualism rests. Thus, ultimately, the individualism that Hayek admires was present in the West, but not firmly rooted enough to survive the philosophical revival of Plato in the forms of Kant and Hegel. Undercut by their philosophies, in the face of Marx and Engels the West was a pushover.

Hayek’s invocation of excess ambition as an explanation for socialism shows that though he understands the role of political ideology in man’s fate, his ability to explain how that ideology stems from deeper levels of philosophy is severely lacking. Unfortunately, he does not allow this lack of expertise to stop him from making such baseless speculations as to the roots of socialism being in man’s ambition, nor from making a similarly arbitrary and more dangerous conjecture: that the essential quality that animated the Renaissance and Western civilization’s embrace of individual man was “tolerance.”

“Tolerance,” he writes, “is, perhaps, the only word which still preserves the full meaning of the principle which during the whole of this period was in the ascendant and which only in recent times has again been in decline, to disappear completely with the rise of the totalitarian state” (3). Hayek offers no further explanation to support this statement or the implication that tolerance was the animating virtue of these times, or at the very least played some crucial role in it. Nor does he illustrate the point with citations or examples. The claim stands alone.

We are thus left to speculate as to his actual beliefs on this point. However, a look at a somewhat younger contemporary libertarian economist who dabbled in political writings such as this and who shares certain philosophical fundamentals—namely a skepticist epistemology—may shed some light on the claim. Milton Friedman similarly cited ‘tolerance’ and, more specific to Friedman’s case, “tolerance based on humility” as the fundamental basis of his libertarianism. That is: the rejection of statism based not on the rights of individuals but based on the fact that no one can rightly initiate force against another since the initiator has no basis by which to know whether the cause in whose name he would initiate that force is right or wrong. Put simply, it establishes a social system in which peaceable relations between men depend upon the impossibility of establishing objective principles. In which ignorance, not knowledge, is man’s saving grace. In which moral certainty is perceived to be the root of all tyranny.

(I will not go further into Friedman’s confused moral philosophy here, though it is encouraged that the reader reference my article “The Failures of Milton Friedman” for a fuller explanation his views and the dangers they entail.)

Whether Hayek’s implication in citing “tolerance” as the great virtue lost by the rise of collectivism is in line with Milton Friedman’s connections of “tolerance” and libertarianism is unknown, but the fact that the two men share a skepticist epistemology and both ultimately land at the same word to describe the virtue that they see to be animating their ideals cannot be ignored and provides a possible explanation for Hayek’s unsupported statement.

Where skepticist epistemology and haphazard forays into moral philosophy are found, an incomplete defense of freedom usually follows. So it is here with Hayek, who shows us precisely his conception of freedom and how it should be fought for, writing, “There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed, there are no hard and fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications” (13).

I will not engage with this statement directly, as it has been soundly argued elsewhere in other essays from this publication such as “The Philosophy of Capitalism” and Brian Underwood’s “Political Capitalism”, as well as in Ayn Rand’s essays “Man’s Rights”, “The Objectivist Ethics”, and “The Nature of Government.” I will observe simply that for a man accepted by many to be symbolic of twentieth century liberalism to take such a pragmatic, unprincipled approach to the defense of freedom stands as much as a symbol of the unsteadiness and lack of a moral basis in that movement as it does a condemnation of the man himself. What’s more, it shows that no sound defense of liberty can be based on a skepticist epistemology. A defense of man begins with an admiration for man and his nature as a rational, efficacious being. Whoever hopes to undertake a task so daunting and so crucial as a defense of man’s rights against oppression cannot enter the fray with a puttering “Who knows?!” as his battle cry.

It is the inevitable fate of such pragmatists that they should ultimately abandon a strict conception of liberty and that they should shrink principles down to the level of momentarily expedient guidelines to be cast aside at the first sign of opposition. We must be immensely grateful that the Founding Fathers of the United States had the moral basis to recognize and firmly assert the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, yoking future statesmen to these principles rather than settling for such a shrugging recommendation that they “make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society.” We must be proud that Jefferson swore “an oath upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, and not merely an oath to “resort as little as possible to coercion.”

The distortions, sadly, do not end there. Hayek confounds our expectations further by seeking to balance his critique of socialism with a contrary charge against advocates of full individual rights, writing that “[p]robably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez faire” [emphasis mine] (13).

Hayek’s ambiguous accusation against advocates of laissez-faire, that they are somehow partly responsible for the rise of socialist policies, apparently rests on the capitalists having viewed the principle as a “hard and fast… rule which knew no exceptions” (13).  He goes on to explain that the downfall of liberalism is explainable by reference to the liberal’s strict adherence to the laissez-faire principle, finding it “inevitable that, once their position was penetrated at some points, it should soon collapse as a whole” (13).

At this point, Hayek quickly reveals several key implications: that advocates of laissez-faire are partly responsible for the rise of socialism, that laissez-faire is a flawed system, and that its legitimacy has indeed “collapse[d]” through being disproven. He continues, “No sensible person should have doubted that the crude rules in which the principles of economic policy of the nineteenth century were expressed were only a beginning, that we had yet much to learn, and that there were still immense possibilities of advancement on the lines on which we had moved” (14).

To be clear: Hayek is not referring to changes in application or translation of the existing principles, but a shift in principles as such. ‘What’, one must ask, ‘could have fundamentally changed so drastically in the period in question, to make the basic principles of economic freedom no longer relevant or applicable in one period as they had been in the previous one?’ According to Hayek, it was the inevitable result of having

“gained increasing intellectual mastery of the forces of which we had to make use. There were many obvious tasks, such as our handling of the monetary system, and the prevention or control of monopoly, and an even greater number of less obvious but hardly less important tasks to be undertaken in other fields, where there could be no doubt that the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil;” (14)

Thus, Hayek posits that our “increasing intellectual mastery” (though I can think of a century of economic instability primarily brought by government controls that would refute this alleged “mastery”) is to credit for government intervention in the economy. He implies that the belief that governments could regulate the economy by force somehow translates to the presumption that they should do so—a significant leap that Hayek does not and cannot, without reference to philosophy, explain. Not only does this misconceive of the problem; it carelessly implies that those statesmen of earlier times did not intervene in the economy because they could not conceive of how to do so. To the contrary: earlier liberal thinkers did not plead ignorance in the face of proposed interventionism—they opposed it on principle, and suggesting otherwise is a discredit to their defenses of liberty.

Hayek’s passing statements apparently endorsing the “control of monopoly” and his suggestion that “the governments possessed enormous powers for good and evil”—that is, that good could be achieved by force just as surely as evil—only add layers to the disappointing picture established thus far. He goes on to make an unconvincing argument that the slow pace of economic progress under liberalism was to blame for people having turned away from it—a confounding claim to make about a century that witnessed the most rapid and dramatic rise in quality of life in the history of humankind, and one that even Marx himself would likely have disputed as unsubstantiated.

Finally, he ends the chapter on an agreeable note with a brief description of how the geographical flow of ideas—from Britain and the US east to continental Europe—reversed at this period in history and the prevailing current turned westward, exporting German socialist ideas to the Atlantic. He astutely summarizes how the ideas of Marx, Hegel, List, Schmoller, Sombart, and Mannheim overtook the intellectual tone set by the English after 1870. He ends on the essential point that it was ultimately the lack of confidence in their own convictions by Western thinkers that made this shift possible. In this effort—narrating the history of philosophical and cultural trade balances—Hayek is excellent and displays the power of which he is capable when he remains in his purview, capitalizing on his unique perspective.

After a promising introduction, the first chapter of Hayek’s book has proven shaky at best. The flaws are numerous and fatal: a questionable interpretation of the histories of both liberalism’s origins and socialism’s ascendance, a dangerously inadequate grasp of the role of moral philosophy in the histories he details, a desire to blame liberalism for its own destruction with insufficient substantiation, a skepticist rejection of principles that leads to a pragmatist’s approach to policy, and, finally, a rejection of laissez-faire capitalism.

To his credit, Hayek is overall favorable on matters of economic history, arguing effectively for the role of capitalism in promoting scientific progress and advances in standards of living. However, his suggestion that advancement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was slow, and that this slowness of progress is to blame for the West’s acceptance of socialism, is largely without a supporting argument, is contrary to the unrivaled history of economic progress that we know to have characterized that period, and, incidentally, indulges a determinist philosophy that we saw him as likely to avoid in the introduction—a serious point of inconsistency.

Overall, Hayek’s first chapter is a dramatic step down from the introduction and a disappointment considering the reputation of the book. It is, in its own way, an abandonment of the road, if in a slightly different direction than those whom Hayek criticizes. Though future chapters may redeem the work to some extent, the fact that so much ground is lost in the first few pages is a severe blow, but one that is in keeping with the suspicions which we noted in assessing the introduction and which we warned to be on the lookout for. It illustrates well the consequences of even small cracks in one’s intellectual foundation and confirms the value of critically applying careful philosophical detective work in reading works such as this, no matter their reputation.

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