Volume 2, Number 3, July, 1984


Hayek, Orwell, and The Road to Serfdom

by Dr. Kurt Leube


It is 1984, and lest we forget, we have the media's incessant barrage of features on George Orwell's 1984 to remind us. Yet, in the fury, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the fortieth publication anniversary of Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek's classic The Road to Serfdom, a book which markedly influenced Orwell's writing.

The Road to Serfdom was reviewed by Orwell for a leading British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, shortly after the book's publication in 1944. While not in total agreement with Hayek's thesis, which details the dangers of collectivism, Orwell described it as "an eloquent defense of laissez-faire capitalism."

Later in the review he adds "…collectivism is not inherently democratic but, to the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of"

Though it would be false to claim that Professor Hayek's work was entirely responsible for inspiring Orwell to seclude himself in Scotland to write 1984, his influence, not only on Orwell but on the entire intellectual and political community, was immense.

Much to Hayek's surprise, The Road to Serfdom was an instant hit both in America and England What was originally intended solely as "a warning to the socialist intelligentsia of England" became the first condensed book to appear on page one of Reader's Digest magazine, subsequently selling out the off-prints, a rare occurrence. Within two years of publication, Hayek's message had reached millions.

It has since been translated into sixteen languages including, recently, Russian and Polish. Most important Hayek's book has profoundly influenced many of the world's leaders, including those who have shaped the economic policy of the few Lesser Developed Countries to emerge from poverty, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It is clearly a book which, in 1984, deserves careful attention.

At the time of publication, and continuing today, The Road to Serfdom sparked fierce discussions between advocates of a planned economy and those who favor a free society. Hayek offers extensive warnings against the dangers of central planning—planning with the goal of replacing market solutions and results.

Hayek argues that in a collectivist society the individual becomes little more than a means to "higher" ends. As Orwell echoed shortly after reviewing Hayek's book, it is a common, even dangerous, fallacy that "under a dictatorial government you can be free inside." Rather, the government sometimes subtly, sometimes brutally, coerces the individual to alter his wants and desires to accord with those of the ruling body, thus offering merely the illusion of freedom.

The most important change occurring through extensive government control is not economic, or even political, but psychological; what Hayek calls "an alteration in the character of the people." Slowly they give up their individuality until they are just a part of the collectivist mass.

It becomes clear that the political ideals of a population and its attitude toward authority are as much an effect as a cause of political institutions. Even a strong political tradition offers no safeguard against new institutions and policies which work to undermine, and therefore destroy, the spirit of liberty.

Hayek claims that no variety of socialism, no matter its name or however modified by adjectives. can posit any adequate provision for the preservation of political and economic freedom. In fact, he strongly believes that a socialist state inevitably leads to a totalitarian regime.

The Road to Serfdom was significantly dedicated "to the socialists of all parties." Though it aimed to explain the evolution of the Nazi government in Germany, it served as a general denunciation of the inherent power of the collectivist state. And in light of the evidence of the last forty years, Hayek's thesis seems to maintain its validity.

But Hayek's book is more than a political treatise. Professor Hayek has never been bound by any single discipline. And here he offers keen economic analysis showing that the central problem of economics is how the spontaneous interaction of a number of people, each possessing only limited knowledge, creates an overall order that could seemingly occur only through someone possessing the combined knowledge of all those individuals.

It is a problem that boggles the mind, yet Hayek demonstrates that the price system is the only mechanism capable of communicating such information. That system functions as a network of signals that allows us to adapt to unfamiliar conditions under imperfect circumstances.

As Eamonn Butler writes in his excellent introductory work on Hayek: "The market order is not something that has been designed and invented by conscious planning, it is the result. the pattern, of many millions of individuals pursuing their own purposes, co-operating with others to the extent that they find it mutually beneficial."

Where Orwell's novel was a work of fiction, The Road to Serfdom was what the author described as "a genuine search for truth". In perhaps a more subtle way than Orwell's, Hayek's work and influence have enlightened us to the realities of the collectivist state.

Who came closer to the truth, Orwell or Hayek, is impossible to say. But we do know that Hayek's search has made ours a little easier. His is a talent that, in 1984, continues to offer insight and illumination. On its fortieth anniversary The Road to Serfdom should be well remembered and re-read.


Dr. Kurt Leube is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Humane Studies, Menlo Park, California.

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