Remembering The Road to Serfdom: Collectivism and Morality

By: Gary Galles

In addition to providing crucial insights into the cleavages between social organization based on freedom and social organization based on coercion, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom provided many other insights. Many of them dealt with the morality of collectivism. In honor of the books 75th anniversary this year, please consider Part 2 of our considerations— Collectivism and Morality. (See Part I here.)

  • Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwillingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?
  • It seems almost as if we did not want to understand the development which has produced totalitarianism because such an understanding might destroy some of the dearest illusions to which we are determined to cling.
  • Democratic socialism…is not only unachievable, but…produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences.
  • [Beyond] the power to make general rules…delegation means that some authority is given power to make…arbitrary decisions.
  • Any policy aiming directly at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the Rule of Law.
  • The question raised by economic planning is…whether it shall be we who decide what is more, and what is less, important, or whether this is to be decided by the planner.
  • The kind of state action which really would increase opportunity is almost precisely the opposite of the “planning” which is now generally advocated and practiced.
  • Although the professed aim of planning would be that man should cease to be a mere means, in fact—since it would be impossible to take account in the plan of individual likes and dislikes—the individual would more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the “social welfare” or the “good of the community.”
  • Planning…consists essentially in depriving us of choice, in order to give us whatever fits best into the plan.
  • It soon becomes the one burning question which of the different sets of ideals shall be imposed upon all by making the whole resources of the country serve it.
  • The more we try to provide full security by interfering with the market system, the greater the insecurity becomes; and…the greater becomes the contrast between the security of those to whom it is granted as a privilege and the ever increasing insecurity of the under-privileged.
  • The democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans.
  • The ethics produced by collectivism will be altogether different from the moral ideals that lead to the demand for collectivism.
  • Socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove.
  • The practice of socialism is everywhere totalitarian.
  • The principle that the end justifies the means in individualist ethics is regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule.
  • Once you admit that the individual is merely a means to serve the ends of the higher entity called society or the nation…the pursuit of the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual.
  • Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own…no ideas about right or wrong which might interfere with the intentions of the leader.
  • Even the striving for equality by means of a directed economy can result only in an officially enforced inequality—an authoritarian determination of the status of each individual in the new hierarchical order.
  • Morals are of necessity a phenomenon of individual conduct…they can exist only in the sphere in which the individual is free to decide for himself…Only where we ourselves are responsible for our own interests…has our decision moral value.
  • In this sphere of individual conduct, the effect of collectivism has been almost entirely destructive.
  • A movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideals to which it owes its birth.
  • Injustices inflicted on individuals by government action in the interest of a group are disregarded with an indifference hardly distinguishable from callousness…the grossest violations of the most elementary rights of the individual…more and more often are countenanced.
  • Almost all the traditions and institutions in which democratic moral genius has found its most characteristic expression…are those which the progress of collectivism and its inherently centralistic tendencies are progressively destroying.
  • Neither good intentions nor efficiency of organization can preserve decency in a system in which personal freedom and individual responsibility are destroyed.
  • To imagine that the economic life of a vast area…can be directed or planned by democratic procedure betrays a complete lack of awareness of the problems such planning would raise…To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values is to assume responsibilities which commit one to the use of force; it is to assume a position where the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way which to some of those affected must appear highly immoral.
  • We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power.

The Road to Serfdom made a powerful case that collectivism, by its nature, produced moral decline, and that it remains true even for collectivism supported out of desires for moral improvement. Since the direction that a system of social organization actually changes our morality is far more important than the direction one might hope it would lead, Hayek’s insights into the dystopian results of utopian collectivist thinking still merit careful consideration, three-quarters of a century later, at a time when support for socialist government interventions is again on an upswing.

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