Remembering The Road to Serfdom: Individualism and Markets
While much of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom focused on correcting erroneous ideas and sloppy thinking that misled (and still mislead) many to support socialistic expansions of government power, that is not all it did. It also reiterated the case for individualism and its economic manifestation—free markets. Since convincing careful thinkers requires such an affirmative case as well as defensive debunking, the book’s diamond 75th anniversary is a propitious time for Americans to remember what only individualism provides, so that we will not continue to follow a path of “replacing what works with what sounds good,” as Thomas Sowell described it.
- The essential features of…individualism…are the respect for the individual man qua man…the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.
- The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.
- The holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully.
- The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic life.
- Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not…planning which is to be substituted for competition.
- It is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about.
- Nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals…coordination can clearly be effective only by… arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others…This is precisely what the price system does under competition and what no other system even promises to accomplish.
- The economist…His plea is for a method which effects such co-ordination without the need for an omniscient dictator.
- The various kinds of collectivism…[refuse] to recognize autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individuals are supreme.
- Recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends…that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.
- What are called “social ends” are…merely identical ends of many individuals…to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute…Common action is thus limited to the fields where people agree on common ends.
- The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires.
- The more the state “plans,” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.
- The important question is whether the individual can foresee the action of the state…that the individual knows precisely how far he will be protected against interference from others, or whether the state is in a position to frustrate individual efforts.
- In a planned society the Rule of Law cannot hold…the use of the government’s coercive powers will no longer be limited and determined by pre-established rules.
- Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life…it is the control of the means for all our ends.
- To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.
- The power which a multiple millionaire…has over me is very much less than that which the smallest fonctionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state on…whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work.
- Contrast…two types of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and absolute security, which…if it is provided for some, it becomes a privilege at the expense of others.
- Individualism is thus an attitude of humility…the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.
- It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that…has made possible the growth of a civilization without which 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.
- If the democracies themselves abandon the supreme ideal of the freedom and the happiness of the individual…they implicitly admit that their civilization is not worth preserving.
- It is more important to clear away the obstacles with which human folly has encumbered our path and to release the creative energy of individuals than to devise further machinery for “guiding” and “directing” them—to create conditions favorable to progress rather than to “plan progress.”
Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom defended the individual—the only ultimate locus of choice, responsibility and morality—as the appropriate focus of efforts toward human improvement, at a time when failing to keep that focus threatened the entire world. That is a lesson we need to remember now as well, when many do not remember the horrors that can lead to, and so support constantly expanding government powers over its citizens, which is in precisely the opposite direction of what once created America as a unique beacon of hope for the world.