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The Road Once Traveled

To Hayek, it was quite ironic that the academics that had overwhelmingly embraced socialism were discarding the very thing that explained their existence, the idea of “western” civilization.

 

This the second of a series of articles on FA Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.  This book is part of the "Old Friends" series.

Back in the mid-80’s a book was written by Dr. Scott Peck titled The Road Less Traveled, which was a spin-off the classic poem by Robert Frost The Road Not Taken. FA Hayek seems to also have a fondness for roads titling his book The Road to Serfdom, and opening his treatise with The Road Abandoned. In all four instances, these works of literature emphasize that life is a journey. Within this sojourn we are forced to make decisions, and these decisions have consequences.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

 

Peck’s book would address the angst produced by modern society, the constant drive to succeed or appear successful, and the importance of not blindly going down that road. The consequences are that at some point along the way, you will stop, and realize what you lost was of more value. We found his book attractive because we were seeing about us a narcissistic culture and he challenged us to rethink how we went about our daily lives.

 

So Hayek comes along to remind us that our civilization once traveled down a different road. Somewhere along the line, different societies have decided to travel down a path that tragically leads to societal stagnation or totalitarianism. Whereas The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, it was derived from a lecture he gave to the London School of Economics in 1933. He had just arrived from his native country of Austria with serious reservations about where Germany was heading. He was endeavoring to answer the question of “How did Germany get here?” It is fascinating that he was asking that question in 1933, before the purges, Krystallnacht, and the concentration camps. It was quite obvious to him where naziism was heading. But at the time he first presented his theories behind the rise of naziism, hardly another economist of his time saw things his way. Hayek then was traveling down the road less traveled, a road that, ironically, Western civilization had seemingly abandoned.

 

As he stated in a kindly manner:

 

We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected.1

Alexis de Tocqueville Alexis de Tocqueville

It’s not that we have not been warned. Concerns regarding socialism were raised early in the 19th century, the tendency of the collective to lead toward slavery. He refers to De Tocqueville and Acton. As Bernard Bailyn would note in regards to the revolutionaries in America, to know them is to understand their sources, the philosophers they turned to for guidance. Hayek presents a list of sources that he believes defined the Western heritage he inherited: Cobden, Bright, Adam Smith, Hume, Locke, Milton, Erasmus, Montaigne, Cicero, Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides.2 It was Hayek’s assertion that what was being abandoned was the individual. It was the Renaissance ideal that the best man was a free man, that the best ideas emerged in an atmosphere of inquiry and speculation, a life we associate with “freedom” and “liberty.” It had a name: liberalism. It was not just a recent thought of the 19th century, but the culmination, if not a yearning, of centuries.

 

The principle most tragically abandoned is “tolerance”. He would state that it was tolerance “which during the whole of this period was in the ascendant and which only in recent times has again been in decline, to disappear completely with the rise of the totalitarian state.” He was making an observation of his fellow academics, and it was not just in Germany but in Britain as well. Prophetically, he would be describing the American university of today.

 

Sad, isn’t it. The word itself, “tolerance,” has been hijacked by people who despise it. Even the word “liberal” has had its meaning warped, assigned to people who are the least liberal.

 

Hayek pointed out what we all take for granted. We look at all the advancements we benefit from and fail to reflect from where they evolved. Much of what we see today is the result of an explosion of ideas, commerce, invention and science. And it evolved from man’s pursuit of liberty.

 

The gradual transformation of a rigidly organized hierarchic system into one where men could at least attempt to shape their own life, where man gained the opportunity of knowing and choosing between different forms of life, is closely associated with the growth of commerce.3

 

Subsequent to the advancement of commerce was the emergence of science.

 

Only since industrial freedom opened the path to the free use of new knowledge, only since everything could be tried – if somebody could be found to back it at his own risk – and, it should be added, as often as not from outside the authorities officially entrusted with the cultivation of learning, has since made the great strides which in the last hundred and fifty years have changed the face of the world.4

 

For many in the West, by the end of the 19th century, the result of this dynamic emergence of individualism, commerce, science and the consciousness of freedom, was a life beyond the wildest dreams of the working man in 1800.

 

Yet to many, it was not enough.

 

What had been an inspiring promise seemed no longer enough, the rate of progress far too slow; and the principles which had made this progress possible in the past came to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away, than as the conditions for the preservation and development of what had already been achieved.5

 

Abandoned would be liberalism.

 

There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed; there are no hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications.6

 

In today’s dialog, the term “liberalism” has lost its way. Probably what is best to review is what Hayek considered liberalism. From his comments above, it can be inferred that liberalism focused on the individual and what an individual, free from coercion or unnecessary restrictions, could accomplish. For our current time, we often hear of “liberals” as being “left-of-center.” In reality, a liberal person is probably right-of-center, more prone to rationalism rather than polemics. In regard to the intervention of the state, Hayek would consider a liberal opposed for the most part. For our current time, such a person would be called “libertarian” or “conservative.”

 

For purposes of this discussion, we will stick to Hayek’s use of the term. Liberalism created the wealth that transformed society at every level. That is fact. For the 18th and 19th centuries, there is no evidence that any state created wealth, advanced spontaneous innovation or directed wealth to generate more wealth. Science did not emerge in an authoritarian state. Economic innovations did not appear because a king or a dictator said so.

 

Yet Hayek would admit there were exceptions. The flaw of liberalism is the assumption that there are rules. And the one rule Hayek would point out is the fallacy embracing laissez-faire (a free and open market). His insight was instructive. Jacques Ellul, a contemporary of Hayek who was French, would also point out the tendency to supplant an end (the prosperity of the individual) with a means (laissez-faire). While a free marketplace is essential, it is not always beneficial. Government has a role. The handling of the monetary system. The control or prevention of monopoly. The emergence of protective regulations. For a liberal, all of these have one fundamental assumption, that “we should some day be able to use these powers successfully.”7

Laissez-faire had a psychological element. It implied that a society could live with unpredictability. It was evident that Western society could not deal with uncertainty.

 

We have substituted that which produces unforeseen results, that which is impersonal and anonymous, in essence the free market, with a collective and the “’conscious’ direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals,” and so-called “planned freedom.”8

 

For Hayek, this change in direction, this abandonment of individualism, was an intellectual heritage he would inherit from his fellow Germans. Socialism was largely a product of German thought, beginning with Hegel. The Germany he warned against in 1933 was the culmination of an evolution of socialist thought and policy that emerged in the last half of the 19th century, well before England would experiment with socialism.

 

To Hayek, it was quite ironic that the academics that had overwhelmingly embraced socialism were discarding the very thing that explained their existence, the idea of “western” civilization. One thing that was peculiar about the evolution of socialism in Germany was their understanding of “western.” By the time of World War One, “western” meant “west of the Rhine.” The ideals of liberalism were outmoded ideas advanced by America and England, that the free market was only to guarantee the dominance of the British.9

 

Abandoned was the foundations of liberalism. Abandoned was their identity of being a western civilization.

 

The Significance of The Road Abandoned

 

Hayek brings into the discussion more questions than answers for most people. Even students who study economics or western history fail to take time and reflect on what emerged in the 18th and 19th century, the building blocks of the modern society we enjoy today. What is the idea of liberty? What is freedom? When did men suddenly have the right to break the bonds of a society where each man had his place? How is it that anything was invented? How is it that wealth was suddenly generated in the 19th century? And why is it those questions are not being asked when advocates today embrace socialism or a highly regulated marketplace?

 

These sort of questions are important to address because what is lost in the pursuit of security and stability is liberty and freedom. It is an ongoing tension, not because one is good or evil, but because both are necessary. In every society, the government has a role and the debate is to what degree that role is allowed to intrude into the marketplace and into the life of the individual.

 

 

Resources

 

The Road Not Taken”, by Robert Frost

 

 

1The Road to Serfdom, FA Hayek, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 66,67

2Hayek, pp. 67,68

3Hayek, p. 69

4Hayek, p. 70

5Hayek, p. 71

6Hayek, p. 71

7Hayek, p. 72

8Hayek, p. 73

9Hayek, p. 75

 

By Eric Niewoehner

© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner.

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