The Road to Serfdom is a book written by the Austrian-born economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992) between 1940–1943, in which he “[warns] of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.” He further argues that the abandonment of individualism and classical liberalism inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, the creation of an oppressive society, the tyranny of a dictator, and the serfdom of the individual. Significantly, Hayek challenged the general view among British academics that fascism (and National Socialism) was a capitalist reaction against socialism. He argued that fascism, National Socialism and socialism had common roots in central economic planning and empowering the state over the individual.
The Road to Serfdom was to be the popular edition of the second volume of Hayek’s treatise entitled “The Abuse and Decline of Reason”, and the title was inspired by the writings of the 19th century French classical liberal thinker Alexis de Tocqueville on the “road to servitude”. The book was first published in Britain by Routledge in March 1944, during World War II, and was quite popular, leading Hayek to call it “that unobtainable book”, also due in part to wartime paper rationing. It was published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press in September 1944 and achieved great popularity. At the arrangement of editor Max Eastman, the American magazine Reader’s Digest published an abridged version in April 1945, enabling The Road to Serfdom to reach a wider popular audience beyond academics.
The Road to Serfdom has had a significant impact on twentieth-century conservative and libertarian economic and political discourse, and is often cited today by commentators.
John Maynard Keynes 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.” However, Keynes did not think Hayek’s philosophy was of practical use; this was explained later in the same letter, commenting: “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.”
George Orwell responded 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.”