If you have a rose-colored belief in the certainty of the progress of humanity, The Road to Serfdom is an unsettling read. In it, Friedrich Hayek offers guidance in recognizing and undoing our errors that enable tyranny. To undo our mistakes, we first must be aware of the error-filled road we are traveling. You can’t undo what you are not willing to see.
If we are willing, Hayek helps us undo our denial of the principles of freedom under which human beings flourish. Freedom from coercion puts the “power of choice” in the hands of individuals and is essential to human progress.
If we are to preserve freedom from coercion, individuals must bear the risk and responsibility of the choices they make. The “power of choice” must not be removed by the arbitrary acts of government. Hayek writes,
The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialists promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right.
“Nothing,” Hayek explains, “distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law.”
Individuals are free to pursue their personal goals when the coercive power of government is restricted under the Rule of Law. Hayek explains:
Stripped of all technicalities, this means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge. Though this ideal can never be perfectly achieved, since legislators as well as those to whom the administration of the law is entrusted are fallible men, the essential point, that the discretion left to the executive organs wielding coercive power should be reduced as much as possible, is clear enough. While every law restricts individual freedom to some extent by altering the means which people may use in the pursuit of their aims, under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action. Within the known rules of the game the individual is free to pursue his personal ends and desires, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts. [emphasis added]
Widespread respect for the Rule of Law among citizens is easier to strengthen and store during prosperous times. The metaphor of storing or eating our seed corn is applicable not only to physical assets and money, but also to ideas. During economic downturns or difficult times, the level of fear goes up. Demands for expedient responses put pressure on the Rule of Law; respect for this vital principle of a free and prosperous society dwindles. The frightened want what they claim they are entitled to, and some politicians are all too willing to pander those claims.
Of course, it doesn’t take too long until the Faustian bargain—trading the cultivation of long-term principles for short-term expediency—backfires.
Examples abound. Expediency meant banks in 2008-09 were made whole for their costly errors. During Covid, legal rules changed so tenants who did not pay their rent could not be evicted, depriving landlords and homeowners of their property. The Attorney General investigates parents for criticizing school boards. Abuse of the Rule of Law goes on and on. But it can get worse. Perhaps when the next bear market arrives, stockholders will eschew responsibility for their choices and demand to be made whole. We may hear cries of I thought stock prices could only go up; it’s unfair my stocks are worthless.
When you see what fear of Covid has driven the population to accept, you see a foreshadowing of what a major financial crisis will bring. Frightened people can be vicious.
Hayek explains, “There is always in the eyes of the collectivist a greater goal which these acts serve and which to him justifies them because the pursuit of the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual.”
Today, our stock of seed corn for respect for the Rule of Law is all but eaten. With the Rule of Law slowly crumbling over the past decades, government increasingly wields coercive power. We are on the road to serfdom.
The Lowest Common Denominator
If politicians today resemble totalitarian demagogues more than democratic statesmen, there is a good reason. Hayek explains why; the more central planning, the more the worst get on top.
Central planning of the economy or other human affairs can never work. When plans fail, politicians face a fork in the road and must change their course of action. Hayek writes, “[t]he democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans.”
It is rare to find a politician who acknowledges and abandons a failed plan. They will likely double down to unite the largest possible number of citizens around their plans. Hayek explains where mass agreement will be found:
We have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and “common” instincts and tastes prevail. This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards. It is, as it were, the lowest common denominator which unites the largest number of people. If a numerous group is needed, strong enough to impose their views on the values of life on all the rest, it will never be those with highly differentiated and developed tastes—it will be those who form the “mass” in the derogatory sense of the term, the least original and independent, who will be able to put the weight of their numbers behind their particular ideals. [emphasis added]
Substitute the word unvaccinated for “Jew” or “kulak” and Hayek seems to talk about today’s world:[The totalitarian leader] will be able to obtain the support of all the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party. It is in connection with the deliberate effort of the skillful demagogue to weld together a closely coherent and homogeneous body of supporters that the third and perhaps most important negative element of selection enters. It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program—on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off— than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they,” the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. From their point of view it has the great advantage of leaving them greater freedom of action than almost any positive program. The enemy, whether he be internal, like the “Jew” or the “kulak,” or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armory of a totalitarian leader. [emphasis added]
Mass movements depend on the adherence of individuals who do not want to take responsibility for the choices they make. Demonizing the unvaccinated is easy. In contrast, eating well and exercising require individuals to make decisions. Such decisions involve taking responsibility to learn, experiment, and make nuanced choices, choices that are not easily communicated in sound bites. Morbidly obese Chris Christie may have been joking when he said of Trump, “I gave him my undying loyalty… he definitely gave me COVID,” but Christie’s mindset is shared by many: You are responsible for the choices I make.
To those holding self-professed “noble” goals, the rights of individuals do not matter. To impose their values, the “worst” will take advantage of the fact that unreserved allegiance of huge masses can be more readily forged by stirring up primitive hatreds, focusing on the lowest common denominator.
Without mandates, compliance with their plans vanishes; individuals will take actions consistent with their unique hierarchy of values and needs. Individuals who patronize businesses employing or serving only the vaccinated will face a problem: Without mandates, such businesses will be few. Many prospective customers will not pledge allegiance to hate the unvaccinated. With vaccinated only policies, most companies would lose more than they would gain. Given the freedom by the courts, hospitals are reversing their vaccine mandates.
We are not yet irretrievably lost on the road to serfdom. Without our compliance, the “worst” will not be able to put the weight of numbers behind their arbitrary and coercive plans. There must be strict limits on the power of government, or government will find support in the lowest common denominator.
The End of Truth and Morality
You may be amazed by the number of your friends and family members supporting lockdowns and mandates, but Hayek wouldn’t be surprised. He observes, “If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian governments succeed to a high degree in making people think as they want them to.”
In short, totalitarian governments aim to have the population adopt the government’s ends as their own. Due to social pressure, many individuals hide their real preferences and beliefs.
Hayek, of course, was writing before Big Tech. Today, the government can claim the First Amendment is still intact while they appeal to Google and Facebook to censor “misinformation.” Misinformation is merely a euphemism for anything that challenges edicts of bureaucrats and their politicized “science.” Hayek writes,
If all the sources of current information are effectively under one single control, it is no longer a question of merely persuading the people of this or that. The skillful propagandist then has power to mold their minds in any direction he chooses, and even the most intelligent and independent people cannot entirely escape that influence if they are long isolated from all other sources of information.
All sources of information are not yet under Big Tech’s control. Those searching to find information can find alternative views challenging the official narrative. Yet, millions are not inclined to look beyond official media. Thus, they are unaware of vaccine injuries, and deaths, declining vaccine efficacy, the transmission of Covid by the vaccinated, questions about the wisdom of vaccinations for the younger age cohorts, and the crony nature of the pharmaceutical industry.
Without acknowledging multiple sides to Covid science and policy, individuals lose tolerance and respect for differences. True today is Hayek’s observation that among intellectuals, “[i]ntolerance…is openly extolled:”
Perhaps the most alarming fact is that contempt for intellectual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith and who are acclaimed as intellectual leaders even in countries still under a liberal regime.
Tyrants will exploit intolerance. Hayek couldn’t have imagined today’s caste system around vaccine status. Yet, he explained how a totalitarian society “can result only in an officially enforced inequality— an authoritarian determination of the status of each individual in the new hierarchical order—and that most of the humanitarian elements of our morals, the respect for human life, for the weak, and for the individual generally, will disappear.”
The willingness of many to discard respect for the individual is a terrifying sign of how far down the road to serfdom we have traveled. Hayek writes,
The moral consequences of totalitarian propaganda… are destructive of all morals because they undermine one of the foundations of all morals: the sense of and the respect for truth. From the nature of its task, totalitarian propaganda cannot confine itself to values, to questions of opinion and moral convictions in which the individual always will conform more or less to the views ruling his community, but must extend to questions of fact where human intelligence is involved in a different way. [emphasis added]
In short, “Where there is one common all-overriding end, there is no room for any general morals or rules.”
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” wrote Mark Twain. If you think scientists act as a bulwark against tyranny, you are wrong; for their livelihood, scientists often depend on government grants. Hayek observed in Nazi Germany; scientists were in the frontlines of the cheerleaders for totalitarianism:
The way in which, in the end, with few exceptions, her scholars and scientists put themselves readily at the service of the new rulers is one of the most depressing and shameful spectacles in the whole history of the rise of National Socialism. It is well known that particularly the scientists and engineers, who had so loudly claimed to be the leaders on the march to a new and better world, submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.
When we walk toward serfdom, Hayek explains, the search for the discovery of truth ends:
The word “truth” itself ceases to have its old meaning. It describes no longer something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief; it becomes something to be laid down by authority, something which has to be believed in the interest of the unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require it.
Hayek warns that “[d]ifferences of opinion in every branch of knowledge become political issues to be decided by authority.” Lost is “the spirit of independent inquiry and of the belief in the power of rational conviction.” Today, is the end of truth not a sign marking our location on the road to serfdom?
Submitting to What We Can’t Comprehend
A theme Hayek often returned to in later writings is how human progress cannot be under the control of anyone: “It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of a civilization which without this could not have developed; it is by thus submitting that we are every day helping to build something that is greater than any one of us can fully comprehend.”
Submitting to impersonal forces over which we have no control is frightening. Yet, without recognizing and respecting these mighty impersonal forces, Hayek explains, we are forced to submit to the arbitrary power of tyrants:
Unless this complex society is to be destroyed, the only alternative to submission to the impersonal and seemingly irrational forces of the market is submission to an equally uncontrollable and therefore arbitrary power of other men. In his anxiety to escape the irksome restraints which he now feels, man does not realize that the new authoritarian restraints which will have to be deliberately imposed in their stead will be even more painful.
To turn off the road to serfdom, Hayek challenges us to see how we have denied the truth: “The first need is to free ourselves of that worst form of contemporary obscurantism which tries to persuade us that what we have done in the recent past was all either wise or inevitable. We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.”
Hayek reminds us that classical liberals are the real progressives whose unreserved allegiance is to “the guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy.” He urges us to have the “courage to make a new start,” and that courage begins by seeing more clearly where we have gone wrong.