‘The interpretation of developments in Germany and Italy as given in this book differs greatly from that of most foreign observers’. With this warning to his readers, Friedrich Hayek hit the nail on the head. While everyone attributed the rise of Nazism and Fascism to the chaos after World War I, he pointed out The road to serfdom (1944) – now first translated into Dutch and published in the Athenaeum’s Paradigma series of ‘influential non-fiction from the last century’ – a very different culprit: socialism. It had been the precursor to the totalitarian dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini, and it was the real danger.
Hayek expected that the majority of his readers would not believe it because of “the prevailing socialist attitudes at the moment.” But the English had to be careful, because most of the German refugees they accepted were also socialists who had been “active in the development of ideas leading to National Socialism”. England could also become a Nazi state. It was already headed for slavery.
The road to serfdom was an instant bestseller. But that was only the beginning. It became the bible of conservatives in the 1980s. Then they had the chance to translate Hayek’s ideas into political practice. The cover was huge. What was right before is now wrong.
The beginning of the end
Hayek believed that any government intervention in the economy was the beginning of the end. Any form of state aid, any law that hindered entrepreneurs, inevitably led to a planned economy (‘socialism’), and a planned economy works best under a dictator (according to Hayek), so that too became inevitable. To quote Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” Using such mantras (Margaret Thatcher: ‘Society does not exist’) the demolition of the welfare state was started from 1980 onwards.
Hayek’s bizarre vision of socialism and fascism had deep European conservative roots. The planned economy was not a socialist idea; she was a child of the First World War. The German government in particular understood that the enormous war effort necessitated major interventions in the economy. The mining industry, the steel industry, even the most powerful industrialists were simply dictated what to do, what to pay and what to keep as ‘profit’.
And the socialists agreed. With clenched teeth, conservative thinkers like Oswald Spengler concluded that there was no longer any difference between Prussianism and vulgar socialism. From 1918 this system collapsed, but the Social Democrats from then on adopted the ‘planned economy’ as a middle ground between unrestrained capitalism and the communist state economy.
In fertile soil
Hayek (1899-1992), who came from the lower Bohemian nobility, lived until 1931 in poor Vienna, ruled by socialists. In 1931 he got a job at the London School of Economics and in the early 1950s he emigrated (now a controversial public intellectual) to USA. Was there too The road to serfdom fallen into fertile soil.
By the way, he deceived his readers with that title, because Hayek did not care which political system prevailed. He thought of ‘freedom’ purely in economic terms: the freedom to make your own economic decisions. Hayek once remarked that he could live under a dictator as long as he could do what he wanted economically. In this respect, too, he was a typical product of 1900s European conservatism, where politics was seen as a seedy, inferior activity for demagogues. True thinkers engaged in science, art and culture.
The road to serfdom was already very outdated by 1980. But that didn’t matter; it was about the message. Hayek brought order to the conservative worldview. Socialism, regulation of the market, the welfare state: it was one pot wet. And the smallest step in that direction was the beginning of the end. Reagan and Thatcher ran away with him. Frits Bolkestein called Hayek ‘perhaps the most important liberal political philosopher of the 20th century’. Now, after forty years of demolition, the consequences of this vision are all too visible.
Friedrich Hayek: The Road to Slavery. Translated from English by Huub Stegeman. Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep; 272 pages; €24.99.