Autonomy or Autocracy?

By Gabriel Blanchard

The economic and the political spheres are inextricably intertwined; what happens in either will always affect the other.

Friedrich Hayek was born in Vienna in 1899. Like Wittgenstein (who was in fact his second cousin), he served in the First World War and emigrated to Great Britain after its end; unwilling to return to Austria following the Anschluß, he and his family became British citizens in 1938. He taught at the London School of Economics for nearly twenty years, and spent the 1950s as a professor at the University of Chicago. He returned to Europe in 1962, teaching in West Germany and his native Austria. After penning dozens of books and articles on his field and its relation to politics, and receiving several signal honors (including the Nobel Prize), Hayek passed away in 1992. His most celebrated book, The Road to Serfdom, is widely considered a classic of modern conservative political theory, and has earned admirers from many whose views are otherwise opposed to his.

Economics is not a subject most of us know a great deal about—and, once the pertinent maths make their appearance, not a subject most of us feel enthusiastic affection for, either. This is a little unfortunate, because the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (following on Adam Smith’s 1776 classic Wealth of Nations) saw the flowering of economics as a distinct discipline; many of the most important economic theorists to date, such as Karl Marx, Ludwig von Mises, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes, lived during this period. Hitherto, while there were certainly plenty of people who thought about economics, it tended to come in as incidental material for fields like moral theology or politics. Economics does remain tied to these other fields, in both its subject matter and its implications—which is natural, since economics is, on some level, the study of human choice as such.

Economic theories can be classified into a few major groups, which tend to align with the groupings of political theories: those that emphasize the importance and needs of workers tend to be left-wing, those that place autonomy (and therefore freedom of trade) as the highest value tend to have libertarian sympathies, and so forth. Hayek was a member of the Austrian school, a minority group among modern economists, who lay primary stress upon individual motives and choices as the drivers of broader social phenomena. This contrasts sharply with “orthodox” economic theory, which shares many terms and ideas with the Austrian school but tends to view the behavior of groups en masse as an overriding force in most contexts. We need not and indeed cannot pause for a description of economic orthodoxy or heterodoxy (either of which would last “world without end”), but this concern with the individual did drive much of Hayek’s work, and particularly his aforementioned magnum opus.

The reasons why the adoption of a system of central planning necessarily produces a totalitarian system are fairly simple. Whoever controls the means must decide which ends they are to serve.

The Road to Serfdom (first published in 1944) was inspired in part by the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, and also by Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State. Conventional wisdom at the time was that fascism, as exampled in Italy, Spain, and Germany, represented a last, desperate attempt by the propertied classes to maintain their power over the working class; Hayek disagreed, and wrote Serfdom chiefly as a rebuttal. The thesis of the book is that centralized economic planning by its very nature, regardless of the ideological affiliations of its executors, leads to totalitarianism. This is because such planning requires the will of a minority, namely the planners, to be imposed on the populace at large. Regardless of the pretexts advanced for it or the æsthetics that might attend it, all collectivism was ultimately a road to serfdom. This is not to say Hayek allowed the state no role in the economy: among other things, he did consider it the state’s duty to prevent fraud (or, where this is unsuccessful, to punish it), and even looked positively on the welfare state. What he opposed was the generalized control of the economy by the state, with effects like fixing prices, eliminating market competition, and depriving the individual of their power to freely enter or leave a given line of work.

Over the almost eight decades of its existence, The Road to Serfdom has drawn both praise and criticism, from philosophical foes and allies alike; not many books earn such oddly variegated responses! Hayek described the collectivist systems of control that he denounced as “socialism”—a usage that remains common on the American right—much to the irritation of many actual socialists like George Orwell, who agreed with his opposition to collectivism but not with his broader economic or political theory. Some modern commentators have pointed out that empirical evidence does not consistently line up with Hayek’s predictions about where or when totalitarian governments would develop, and the contemporary sociologist Barbara Wootton dismissed his whole thesis as irrelevant to the civic liberties most individuals actually care about. Past philosophers and theologians, so many of them concerned with issues like just wages and prices, would probably have been a little surprised by Hayek’s claim that the market is a kind of game in which “there is no point in calling the outcome just or unjust,” and we ourselves may be equally surprised that he worked so hard to ensure we had the right kind of market if he felt that way about it. Yet, on the other hand, it was not only fellow right-leaning figures like Milton Friedman (a statistician and fellow Nobel-winning economist, who called The Road to Serfdom “one of the great books of our time”) or Margaret Thatcher that spoke highly of Hayek’s work. Orwell, despite his critiques, also wrote with fervent approval of its identification of collectivism as inherently hostile to all forms of liberty, and John Maynard Keynes—who was the principal architect of that orthodox theory of economics from which Hayek was dissenting in the first place—said that “Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it.”

It is the greatest of follies to judge a book without reading it. We can therefore suggest nothing to our readers save what we would suggest about almost any book: pick up a copy and try to draw your own conclusions.


Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle of seven nephews, a freelance writer, and CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might like some of our other profiles of the great writers from our Author Bank, which serves as the source list for the majority of our exam passages. You might also enjoy our series on the history of ideas, covering a wide range of topics such as change, good and evil, medicine, punishment, and truth.

Published on 26th September, 2022. Page image of the University of Chicago.

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