The road to serfdom


I just discovered that a long-lost friend is a Marxist.

We agree that we are engaged in a fight for freedom, and so we return to the point on which the debate still turns: should we have a big state and trust the few or a small state and trust the many? State control or free competition?

This debate is an old one, but few actually participate, never mind after researching both sides.

For example, Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” is both readable and balanced: he emphasizes that a basic safety net is a responsibility for a wealthy, modern society, but he is perfectly clear that the state is not to be trusted with great power.

Wikipedia to the rescue with a precis:

Hayek’s central thesis is that all forms of collectivism lead logically and inevitably to tyranny, and he used the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as examples of countries which had gone down “the road to serfdom” and reached tyranny. Hayek argued that within a centrally planned economic system, the distribution and allocation of all resources and goods would devolve onto a small group, which would be incapable of processing all the information pertinent to the appropriate distribution of the resources and goods at the central planners’ disposal. Disagreement about the practical implementation of any economic plan combined with the inadequacy of the central planners’ resource management would invariably necessitate coercion in order for anything to be achieved. Hayek further argued that the failure of central planning would be perceived by the public as an absence of sufficient power by the state to implement an otherwise good idea. Such a perception would lead the public to vote more power to the state, and would assist the rise to power of a “strong man” perceived to be capable of “getting the job done”. After these developments Hayek argued that a country would be ineluctably driven into outright totalitarianism. For Hayek “the road to serfdom” inadvertently set upon by central planning, with its dismantling of the free market system, ends in the destruction of all individual economic and personal freedom.

The Principles of Communism have appealed to millions for good reason. Consider this:

so long as big industry remains on its present footing, it can be maintained only at the cost of general chaos every seven years, each time threatening the whole of civilization and not only plunging the proletarians into misery but also ruining large sections of the bourgeoisie;

The problem is that the big state does not and cannot deliver freedom and plenty. It never will.

Now the fact is that Marxism is dead. It’s been tried, maybe it was corrupted, and it failed. So now we have the “third way” of social democracy/democratic socialism. We return to Hayek: a big state prepared to use coercion for the common good cannot get people to agree on what that good is, in detail, nor how to get there. The left can’t even agree whether they wish to see social democracy or democratic socialism.

“If only we had more information!” they cry. “If only we had more power!” Yet we find the information is too complex and prolific to be useful and power is misdirected. They blunder around getting it wrong, only widening the circle of damage as the state grows. Witness today’s flood of capital and subsidy into foodstuffs, pricing the poor out of eating: the excess credit and subsidy both derive from the big, centrally-planned state.

I admire my old friend’s warm intentions but, today, as face another cyclic crisis, let us remember that good intentions are not enough. The road to serfdom is well-defined and we are on it. Freedom takes a different path.

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Comments & Responses

2 Responses so far.

  1. grahaminn says:

    I was never a Marxist, but I did used to be what you might call ‘old labour’.
    It’s seductive because you genuinely believe that you’re helping the disadvantaged.

    The cure? Consider the difference between these two statements:-

    “I think pensioners in the UK should be able to afford food and domestic heating”

    or

    “I think we ought to increase taxes to further fund a central government government department which is so deeply mired in bureacracy that changing a lightbulb requires a health and safety assessment and several paper forms to be filled in, in order to dispurse payments towards food and domestic heating”.

  2. sjb says:

    I should add that Graham wasn’t the one I had in mind when I posted!