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The Road to Serfdom is a book written by Friedrich von Hayek (recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1974) which transformed the landscape of political thought in the 20th century, shifting the terms of debate for millions of people across the political spectrum. The Road to Serfdom is among the most influential and popular expositions of classical liberalism and libertarianism.

The book was originally published by Routledge Press in March 1944 in the UKmarker and then by the University of Chicago Press in September 1944. A condensed version of the book written by Max Eastman was then published as the lead article in the April issue of Reader's Digest, with a press run of several million copies. This condensed version was then offered as a Book of the Month selection with a press run of over 600,000 copies. In February 1945 a picture-book version was published in Look Magazine, later made into a pamphlet and distributed by General Motors. The book has been translated into approximately 20 languages and is dedicated to "The socialists of all parties". The introduction to the 50th anniversary edition is written by Milton Friedman (another recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics 1976). In 2007, the University of Chicago Press put out a "Definitive Edition". In total the book has sold over two million copies.

Main thesis and arguments

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. Hayek’s central thesis is that all forms of collectivism tend towards tyranny, and he used the Soviet Unionmarker and Nazi Germany as examples of countries which had gone down “the road to serfdom” and reached tyranny. Hayek first argued that democratic legislatures move too slowly to manage a modern industrial economy. Management of socialism would therefore lead to bureaucrats gaining discretionary powers. Disagreement about the practical implementation of any economic plan 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 the worst get on top of socialist bureaucracies. Those who are good at acquiring and exercising discretionary powers in government are usually the most ruthless and corrupt individuals.

Hayek argued that countries such as the Soviet Unionmarker and Nazi Germany had already gone down the "road to serfdom", and that various democratic nations are being led down the same road. In The Road to Serfdom he wrote: "The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule."

Contemporary Commentary

John Maynard Keynes read The Road to Serfdom and said of it: "In my opinion it is a grand book...Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement". Having said that, Keynes did not think Hayek's philosophy was of practical use; this was explained later in the same letter, through the following comment and prophecy: "What we need therefore, in my opinion, is not a change in our economic programmes, which would only lead in practice to disillusion with the results of your philosophy; but perhaps even the contrary, namely, an enlargement of them. Your greatest danger is the probable practical failure of the application of your philosophy in the United States."

Sir Winston Churchill was, according to Harold Macmillan, "fortified in his apprehensions [of a Labour government] by reading Professor Hayek's The Road to Serfdom" when he warned in an election broadcast in 1945 that a socialist system would "have to fall back on some form of Gestapomarker". The Labour leader Clement Attlee responded in his election broadcast by claiming that what Churchill had said was the "second-hand version of the academic views of an Austrian professor, Friedrich August von Hayek". The Conservative Central Officemarker sacrificed 1.5 tons of their precious paper ration allocated for the 1945 election so that more copies of The Road to Serfdom could be printed.

George Orwell responded to the book with both praise and criticism, stating, "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often — at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough — that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of". Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

The Road to Serfdom was placed fourth on the list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the twentieth century compiled by National Review magazine. It also made #16 in reader selections of the hundred best non-fiction book of the twentieth century administered by Modern Library.

The Road to Serfdom appears on Martin Seymour-Smith's list of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, whilst it made #1 on Human Events: Top Ten Books Every Republican Congressman Should Read in 2006.

The book continues to sell in the 10s of thousands of copies each year.


The Road To Serfdom has been criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. The main empirical criticism of Hayek is that, although the Labour Party program he opposed was implemented after World War II and the central elements remained in place for decades thereafter, Britain did not in fact move quickly towards dictatorship; the lack of a formation of a totalitarian state apparatus throughout the 1950s and 60s demonstrates that state planning does not lead, deterministically, towards the constraint of social and political freedom.

Socialist economist Karl Polanyi made a case diametrically opposed to Hayek, arguing that unfettered markets had undermined the social order and that economic breakdown had paved the way for the emergence of dictatorship .

Herman Finer, a Fabian socialist, published a rebuttal in his The Road to Reaction in 1946. Hayek called Finer's book "a specimen of abuse and invective which is probably unique in contemporary academic discussion".

Barbara Wootton wrote Freedom under Planning after reading an early copy of The Road to Serfdom and claimed "Much of what I have written is devoted to criticism of the views put forward by Professor Hayek in this and other books." Frank Knight, founder of the Chicago School of Economics, wrote in a scholarly review of the Wootton book: "Let me repeat that the Wootton book is in no logical sense an answer to The Road to Serfdom, whatever may be thought of the cogency of Hayek's argument, or the soundness of his position."

Hayek argues in The Road to Serfdom that central planning must of necessity be (or become) tightly coupled, but others dispute this premise. In his review (collected in The Present as History, 1953) economist Paul Sweezy joked that Hayek would have you believe that if there was an over-production of baby carriages, the central planners would then order the population to have more babies instead of simply warehousing the temporary excess of carriages and decreasing production for next year. The cybernetic arguments of Stafford Beer in his 1974 CBC Massey Lectures, Designing Freedom -- that intelligent adaptive planning can increase freedom -- are of interest in this regard, as is the technical work of Herbert Simon and Albert Ando on the dynamics of hierarchical nearly decomposable systems in economics -- namely, that everything in such a system is not tightly coupled to everything else.

A criticism of the book's ideas by Jeffrey Sachs was published in the Scientific American in October 2006, with a rebuttal by William Easterly and a re-rebuttal by Sachs.

Libertarian critics

The libertarian economist Walter Block has observed critically that while the The Road to Serfdom makes a strong case against centrally-planned economies, it appears only lukewarm in its support of pure laissez-faire capitalism, with Hayek even going so far as to say that "probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire capitalism". In the book, Hayek writes that the government has a role to play in the economy through the monetary system (a view that he later withdrew), work-hours regulation, social welfare, and institutions for the flow of proper information.

Gordon Tullock has argued Hayek's analysis predicted totalitarian governments in much of Europe in the late 20th century. He uses Sweden, in which the government at that time controlled 63 percent of GNP, as an example to support his argument that the basic problem with The Road to Serfdom is "that it offered predictions which turned out to be false. The steady advance of government in places such as Sweden has not led to any loss of non-economic freedoms." While criticizing Hayek, Tullock still praises the classical liberal notion of economic freedom, saying, "Arguments for political freedom are strong, as are the arguments for economic freedom. We needn’t make one set of arguments depend on the other." However, according to Robert Skidelsky, Hayek "safeguarded himself from such retrospective refutation." Skidelsky argues that Hayek's argument was contingent, and that, "By the 1970s there was some evidence of the slippery slope…and then there was Thatcher. Hayek's warning played a critical part in her determination to 'roll back the state.'" Though there was no Thatcher equivalent in Sweden so Gordon Tullock's argument is still valid.

List of chapters

  1. The Abandoned Road
  2. The Great Utopia
  3. Individualism and Collectivism
  4. The "Inevitability" of Planning
  5. Planning and Democracy
  6. Planning and the Rule of Law
  7. Economic Control and Totalitarianism
  8. Who, Whom?
  9. Security and Freedom
  10. Why the Worst Get on Top
  11. The End of Truth
  12. The Socialist Roots of Nazism
  13. The Totalitarians in Our Midst
  14. Material Conditions and Ideal Ends
  15. The Prospects of International Order
  16. Conclusion

See also


  1. Reason Magazine - The Road from Serfdom
  2. Hoover, Kenneth R. Economics as Ideology. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers(2008) p. 152 ISBN 0742531139
  3. Harold Macmillan, Tides of Fortune, 1945-1955 (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 32.
  4. David Willetts and Richard Forsdyke, After the Landslide: Learning the Lessons of 1906 and 1945 (Centre for Policy Studies, 1999), p. 59.
  5. "Review of the Road to Serfdom by F.A.Hayek, etc" As I Please, 1943-1945: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, Vol 3
  6. 100 list of the 100 best non-fiction books by Modern Library
  7. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
  9. Barbara Wootton, Freedom under Planning, p. 5.
  10. The Social Welfare State, beyond Ideology, by Jeffrey Sachs, Scientific American, October 2006
  11. Dismal Science, by William Easterly, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2006
  12. Why Hayek Was Wrong: Sachs Responds to Easterly, by Jeffrey Sachs, published to Wall Street Journal and re-produced by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, November 27, 2006
  13. Hayek, Friedrich August von; The Denationalization of Money.
  14. Block W. (1996). Hayek's Road to Serfdom. Journal of Libertarian Studies.
  15. See page 61


  • The Road to Serfdom, 50th anniversary edition, University of Chicago Press, 1994 ISBN 0-226-32061-8
  • The Road to Serfdom, 2001 edition in Routledge Classics, ISBN 0-415-25389-6
  • The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents— The Definitive Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN 0-226-32054-5, ISBN 0-226-32055-3

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