On the Road Again

Brad DeLong says I was right the first time about The Road to Serfdom and that the 1976 preface’s disavowal of the claim that postwar western Europe was on a slippery slope to totalitarianism is a post hoc revision. He observes that the 1956 preface certainly seemed to be arguing that Britain was, yes, on the road to serfdom. Which would, of course, be a logical thing for a book titled The Road to Serfdom to argue:

Of course, six years of socialist governmnet in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points; that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people. This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations. The important point is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude towar authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives. This means among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit. The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time and the people not only throw out the party which has been leading them further and further in the dangerous direction but also recognize the nature of the danger and resolutely change their course. There is not yet much ground to believe that the latter has happened in England.

Of course I suppose Hayek would say that Britain was on the road to serfdom from the mid-1940s through to the end of the 1970s and that the election of Margaret Thatcher then represented the resolute change of course necessary to prevent the UK from becoming a totalitarian dictatorship. But even that seems pretty slipshod and absurd. I think it’s fair to say that the UK, like most countries, was experiencing some serious economic problems by the end of the seventies and that Britain’s were perhaps more severe than usual. But the country was pretty clear not on the verge of becoming a Stalinesque totalitarian dictatorship on the eve of Thatcher’s election. Nor has a country like France that never really followed the US and UK down the neoliberal path become a totalitarian dictatorship.

Interpretive issues aside, clearly Hayek’s general critique of central planning as economics was essentially right and has proven extremely influential over the decades. His political views, on the other hand, look to me to have been pretty alarmist and off-base.