Thoughts on ‘The Road to Serfdom’: Chapter 4, “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”

The following is part of a series of chapter-by-chapter analyses of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Other installments in the series can be found here: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3.

In Chapter IV of The Road to Serfdom, entitled “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”, Hayek sets out to dispel the claim by advocates of socialist planning that controls are a necessary part of an advanced, modern economy and that without them the economy would cease to function. He recognizes that socialist claims as to the inevitability of planning can be broadly categorized into three types of argument, then proceeds to refute each. He does so thoroughly and effectively. In the course of reading his arguments, however, we unfortunately find more of the same sorts of errors that have punctuated previous chapters. Though these errors are not as numerous as those we have already seen from Hayek, they are fatal to the cause of liberty. Hayek’s flaws here confirm our earlier assertion that his view of the argument for freedom is so firmly rooted in an economic, cost/benefit framework as to make him unsuited to presenting the comprehensive defense that capitalism as a system of individual rights needs and deserves.

Hayek begins by accurately describing a circumstance quite familiar to us today: politicians who advocate central planning doing so on the claim that circumstances somehow demand controls, and that it is not a choice but a necessity that the government intervene if we are to retain a functioning economy. The familiarity one finds in reading his characterization of this mode of thinking reveals how constant and unchanging such arguments are across generations and throughout the Western world. The arguments he describes, though drawn from England in the 1940s, are replayed in the halls of the US Congress week after week, year after year to the detriment of the rights and success of private businesses, their vendors, customers, employees, investors, and all who share in the economy with them.

Distinguishing the various arguments used to support this insistence upon the need for planning, Hayek finds three purported bases for their claims: technological advancement, societal complexity, and the need for coercive monopoly.

Argument I: Technological Advancement

As to the first, he writes, “Of the various argument employed to demonstrate the inevitability of planning, the one most frequently heard is that technological changes have made competition impossible in a constantly increasing number of fields, and that the only choice left to us is between control of production by private monopolies and direction by the government” (32). The preeminence of this argument above the others may not hold the number one position that it did in Hayek’s day, as other arguments for market regulation have debatably become more prevalent, but it certainly remains one of the leading lines of thought in antitrust.

Hayek characterizes such arguments as resting largely on deterministic conceptions of economic progress, ones that in the early 20th century viewed Germany, with its coincidence of economic planning, a strong industrial sector, and large companies operating in collusion with the national government as the vanguard of human progress. He points to the roots of this thinking in Germans’ misconceptions of their own system: “It is largely due to the influence of German socialist theoreticians, particularly Sombart, generalising from the experience of their country, that the inevitable development of the competitive system into ‘monopoly capitalism’ became widely accepted” (34), Hayek offers several valid economic and historical arguments against this, refuting the suggestion by many that a free economy naturally, inevitably congeals into small number of sprawling monopolies.

Hayek points out that monopolies arising purely from efficiency and natural market forces are rare and very difficult to sustain, thus making competitive arguments the norm in a free economy. He acknowledges that most monopolies arise from government favors and protection—constituting what can best be termed coercive monopolies. “Not only the instrument of protection, but direct inducements and ultimately compulsion, were used by the governments to further the creation of monopolies for the regulation of prices and sales” (34).

He makes clear that the progress of the German economy was not such that monopolies resulted naturally and were subsequently checked by government controls, but rather that the companies in question attained their monopoly status through that very culture of political collusion. He points to the same mechanism of political influence and pull-peddling in the establishment of protectionist policies and the formation of inefficient, monopolized industries in the United States and Great Britain as well.

“That [in Germany] the suppression of competition was a matter of deliberate policy, that it was undertaken in the service of the ideal which we now call planning, there can be no doubt. In the progressive advance towards a completely planned society the Germans, and all the people who are imitating their example, are merely following the course which nineteenth-century thinkers, particularly Germans, have mapped out for them. The intellectual history of the last sixty or eighty years is indeed a perfect illustration of the truth that in social evolution nothing is inevitable but thinking makes it so” (35).

Making this and other points as to the origins of large monopolies, Hayek establishes a strong historical case against the belief that unchecked market forces lead naturally to the creation of monopolized industries. What he does not do, however, is take a stand in defense of naturally occurring, non-coercive monopolies when and where they do occur. This is to be expected. Influenced by ideas dominant in the field of economics both then and now, Hayek has already established briefly in previous chapters his support for employing antitrust policies to facilitate competition.

What Hayek and others of this persuasion fail to note, however, is the two-fold case for free market monopolies: the profound economic value they offer and the protection of individual rights. As rare as these monopolies are, they do occur. When they arise, they do so because a company has achieved such a profound degree of efficiency that no other company is able to compete in the same market and must exit the market place.

Such monopolies have not attained their status through force or the rule of law, but through so consistently providing the best product for the money that their appeal in a market overwhelms all potential competitors. It may not conform to the idealized, Platonic notion of ‘competitive markets’ to which modern economics has become so hidebound, but that is a paltry explanation to offer people as an apology for why the company they patronize had to be divested of its assets for offering them too much value, and for why they are now better off having to pay higher prices for the same goods and services. To the contrary: the achievement of the kind of superlative efficiency that defines free market monopolies, from which the customers and general population gain as surely as the company itself, should not be condemned but praised.

More than this, the proper defense of free market monopolies is based in the property rights of the owners of the company—be they the operators themselves, or shareholders of a publicly traded company. No matter the extent to which their operations do or do not conform to economists’ notions of which market forms are to be favored, neither they nor policymakers nor the general public have the right to take from them that which is rightfully theirs in the name of creating a more efficient allocation of resources.

In today’s debates, a derivative line of thinking from the technology argument usually takes the form, ‘If one company gains such a technological advantage as to offer its goods and services at a price and quality with which no other company can compete, shouldn’t the government intervene?’ Faced with such a question, any defender of liberalism—that is, anyone who value’s man’s life and individual rights above subservience to some ill-defined collective ‘good’—should offer a resounding “Absolutely not!” As in his earlier chapters, though, Hayek makes no mention of rights here and is thus unable to offer this kind of principled defense—or, for that matter, any defense.

Argument II: Societal Complexity

The second argument for the inevitability of planning addressed by Hayek is loosely related to the first, with an added macroeconomic dimension. He writes,

“The assertion that modern technological progress makes planning inevitable can also be interpreted in a different manner. It may mean that the complexity of our modern industrial civilisation creates new problems with which we cannot hope to deal effectively except by central planning” (35) [Emphasis mine].

This argument should be strikingly familiar to those in modern America, ringing from both right and left as both sides of the political spectrum apologize for our massive regulatory system with vague, arbitrary claims to the effect that there exists some unnamed, undefined essential quality to today’s economy that so fundamentally differentiates it from that of earlier periods as to require the forcible regulation of trade. What is this fundamental difference? How and at what point did it emerge? What about the complexity of the economy negates the organizational virtues of the price system? Blank out. The apologists have no causal explanation, only inherited and unchallenged bromides.

“What they generally suggest is that the increasing difficulty of obtaining a coherent picture of the complete economic process makes it indispensable that things should be coordinated by some central agency if social life is not to dissolve in chaos” (36).

Such unsubstantiated conjectures and baseless arguments never require much to be toppled, but fortunately Hayek provides a more than adequate shove, making the case that greater complexity in an economy is not an argument in favor of central planning, but rather an argument against it. The more complex an economic system, the more valuable it becomes that each party, knowing their own costs and values, conducts their own planning, achieving order through the natural coordination of prices, each communicating information as to the supply and demand of resources in an open economy.

Argument III: The Need for Coercive Monopoly

The last argument in favor of planning somewhat reverses the trend of the first two, justifying planning as a means of imposing monopolies rather than preventing them, and revealing the crux of the statists’ argument to be not the protection of competition throughout the economy, but the socialist planner’s ability to pick and choose when and in what sectors competition will prevail.

“There is yet another theory which connects the growth of monopolies with technological progress, and which uses arguments almost opposite to those we have just considered; though not often clearly stated, it has also exercised considerable influence. It contends, not that modern technique destroys competition, but that, on the contrary, it will be impossible to make use of many of the new technological possibilities unless protection against competition is granted, i.e., a monopoly is conferred” (37).

This particular argument for government planning is less common, as its applications are less frequent throughout economies. The most notable circumstance in which this argument is presented is with respect to so-called ‘natural monopolies’ (a term used by economists that ambiguates other kinds of natural monopolies produced in a free market, as we described earlier) in the utilities sectors of modern economies. Large-scale enterprises such as electric companies that require heavy, permanent or semi-permanent installations of infrastructure such as power grids are described by those who teach this model of the ‘natural monopoly’ as incapable of making such investments without a guarantee from the local government that all competition will be prohibited within the municipality.

The history of the electric power industry in the Unites States, however, shows a different story—one in which the major driver of the ‘natural monopoly’ model was not the inefficiency of competitive markets, but rather the political collusion between state legislatures and early power industry executives who were, in many cases, given no choice but to keep legislators happy with rewards and employment or face losing the investments they had already made.

Intriguingly, however, Hayek makes only a passing mention of this obvious and most frequent application of the ‘natural monopoly’ argument. He opts instead to dismiss most instances of its application (rightfully) as “a form of special pleading by interested parties” (37), then to proceed into a bizarre hypothetical about England allowing only one make of automobile if it meant lower prices on all automobiles. He presents this as a potentially valid application of the idea, arguing only that such cases are “certainly not instances where it could be legitimately claimed that technological progress makes central direction inevitable. They would merely make it necessary to choose between gaining a particular advantage by compulsion and not obtaining it—or, in most instances, obtaining it a little later, when further technical advance has overcome the particular difficulties” (38).

Hayek the economist seems to consider such an interventionist policy at least plausible, if debatably desirable. But what of Hayek the liberal political theorist? Under what conditions would he find such a policy acceptable? Would the strict prohibition of initiating force, so frequently invoked among libertarians, be the standard? Not quite. “[I]t must be admitted,” Hayek writes, “that it is possible that by compulsory standardisation or the prohibition of variety beyond a certain degree, abundance might be increased in some fields more than sufficiently to compensate for the restriction of the choice of the consumer” (38) [Emphasis mine.].

Let us ask: what level of abundance would you require to surrender your right to choose how you wish to dispose of your income? What is the exchange rate between degrees of efficiency and the right to trade freely? And for producers: how compensated will you feel at the knowledge your automobile is less expensive when your business is being shut down by the government for offering customers too much diversity in the marketplace? Many who read this in today’s mixed economy will likely have similarly mixed feelings and mixed premises in their responses to these questions. Thus, let us reframe the issue to put it in stark relief.

Imagine that you live in a society that enacts such a policy of homogenizing the nation’s automobiles. The government is left to decide who will remain in the automobile business in the ways it usually decides such matters. The last businessmen to grovel will be the first to go. There is no more choice in make or model. Competition in quality and unique features is gone. You, however, are left with a less expensive automobile, your neighbors are left with less expensive automobiles, and the supply of them to the general public skyrockets. (This is a fantasy, remember, so you’ll forgive me if I pretend a government program is successful even if only in the short term.)

Now imagine that instead of automobiles, the product is healthcare.

How much are you willing to trade of your rights for greater efficiency? What is your price? And how strong a defender of economic freedom is Mr. Hayek? The answer is clear and tragic.

Hayek establishes here firmly and conclusively that he is not, in fact, much of a political theorist. He is ultimately a dryly calculating economist plotting your rights on a utility curve.  Though many of Hayek’s admirers will no doubt reject this assessment, it is difficult to argue with his own words as he lays out his fundamental basis for liberalism as such. “[T]he argument for freedom,” according to Hayek, “is precisely that we ought to leave room for the unforeseeable free growth” (38).

To anyone who values man’s fundamental rights; who believes that those rights are derived from his nature and not subject to popular will; who thinks that freedom is rightfully his; who rejects force as a necessary or proper ingredient in human social relationships; who recognizes that the history of human innovation and progress has rested on the freedom of man’s mind to study and master the world around him; who claims the prerogative to pursue his own self-interest; who retains his self-esteem; who holds his own happiness as the purpose of his life: the only proper answer, the only moral answer is “Absolutely not!”

The argument for freedom, Mr. Hayek, is the assertion of man’s right to his own life, a life that is its own justification. Nothing else is required and nothing else will do.

Hayek’s fourth chapter, “The ‘Inevitability’ of Planning”, thus leaves us back at the low-point of Chapter I. It is impossible, based on the philosophical framework established in the introduction and first four chapters, that Hayek could at this point offer a proper defense of liberalism. Though I hesitated to make the comparison earlier, hoping he might redeem himself, it is fair to say now that Hayek is scarcely better than many of the pragmatist politicians today who argue for capitalism as a practical benefit, make no mention of its moral values, and ultimately treat principles as loosely-held guiding ideas with little more substance than campaign slogans. He may be much farther toward the liberal end of the spectrum than many of them; it would be inaccurate to say otherwise. Ultimately, though, half-hearted, half-formed defenses of freedom by advocates who lack the tenacity to defend their professed values only facilitate their destruction.

The real Road to Serfdom is paved with incomplete defenses of liberty, and once one has allowed them to serve as the foundation for the defense of a free society, matters of degree are only matters of time.

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