Like many people, I first read F.A. Hayek in college, and it has been a while since I read through “Serfdom” from cover to cover. As with any controversial book, it is sometimes hard to read it for only what it says, rather than what it means. However, having studied it again, I am reminded once more of why it is such an important work.
We live in a time when the state seems to have been granted powers that were unimaginable even a few decades ago. Populations that once used to define themselves as “free” and bristled at the idea that government had a role in their private lives, have — out of fear, economic insecurity or both — surrendered their birthright of freedom to the state. In the U.S., a people whose fundamental self-image/mythos was one of anti-government rebels and self-reliant pioneers, have passively allowed their government to listen to their every word and to take from them those liberties for which so many patriots fought and died. I bring this point up because that scenario, more political than economic, is, I think, what Hayek was really warning us about. As he himself says, “Serfdom” is a “political” book, and it is a political — equal and yet distinct from economic — serfdom that he fears.
The book itself has too many lines that would be apropos today, but some spring to mind because of the specific circumstances of our time and place:
“…what we know as Western civilization — are the respect for the individual man qua man, that is, the recognition of his own views and tastes as superior in his own sphere, however narrowly that may be circumscribed, and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents” (p.68).
“While it is true, of course, that inventions have given us tremendous power, it is absurd to to suggest that we must use this power to destroy our most precious inheritance: liberty” (p.97).
“While people submit to suffering which may hit anyone, they will not so easily submit to suffering which is the result of the decision of authority. It may be bad just to be a cog in an impersonal machine; but it is infinitely worse if we can lo longer leave it, if we are tied to our place and to the superiors who have been chosen for us” (p. 128)
“Individualism is thus an attitude of humility before this social process and of tolerance to other opinions and is the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process” (p.180).
It’s this last thought that most caught my attention in this re-reading: that a collectivist outlook is an arrogant one and that it fails to pay respect to the power of the individual person’s abilities to order his life as he sees fit. It seems that today too many of us, tired of war and fearful of unknown enemies, find it easy to give up liberty to a state that promises to take our freedoms in return for our welfare. That seems a fair trade to many, I guess, but perhaps another read through Hayek would remind us all that the road to serfdom starts willingly, trading autonomy for security. That is an easy road to take. It is the return voyage from serfdom that is almost impossible to make.