Speaking Volumes: The Road to Serfdom

May 3, 1996

John Blundell on Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom .

I stumbled on to Hayek's book by accident. I saw a reference to it by George Orwell: "This book should be read by everybody" he commanded. I did so dutifully. I had hitherto thought of myself as an interventionist. It was a muddled sort of thing. I was on my way to the LSE where I thought such views went with the job. Surely planning the use of resources to mitigate poverty was simply sensible.

I have never recovered from reading The Road To Serfdom. My life is now absorbed finding converts as I run the Institute of Economic Affairs, the liberal educational and research charity. Set up by the late Sir Antony Fisher, an entrepreneur who had been moved to action by the Reader's Digest condensed version of Hayek's book, the IEA has now been cloned over 100 times in 76 countries.

Hayek enjoyed a moment of notoriety when Winston Churchill invoked him as a witness to the notion that Clement Atlee was the SS reborn. The analogy never worked and Hayek was pigeon-holed as a marginal figure until he received the Nobel prize, the Companion of Honour and the Presidential Medal of Freedom - a unique collection of honours, I believe.

The Road to Serfdom is unlike any other of Hayek's publications. It is openly a political polemic. He told me he drafted it on the roof of the chapel of King's College, Cambridge when firewatching as National Socialist bombers flew overhead.

I learned that markets are subtle devices that transmit information. People who will never meet or know of each other's existence cooperate through price signals. Interventionism, washed of its kindly gloss, is nothing but a metaphor for state power.

Hayek argues compellingly that enlightened intentions are no guide to results. I think few people then had any notion of how easily power decays into waste and tyranny. Fifty years after its first edition his book has lost none of its appeal. Almost all other books written at that time seem quaint or deluded.

I learned more but not through Hayek's overt design. I came to appreciate that good manners and grace in argument are more effective than wit or abuse.

The text is little more than a large monograph at 175 pages but it is still a bestseller despite featuring on few syllabi. Hayek was an Austrian who fled to London before the Anschluss, but there is barely a hint of personal loss or grievance in his writing.

His theme was that the principles of the old liberal order were barely understood in a world in which even crusty old Tories agreed that the state must be more active. The virtues of liberalism (nothing to do with the Liberal party, alas) were independent of need or purpose. He emphasised the rule of law, an enduring idea which had never occurred to me before. I had taken it to mean no more than a posh cousin of law and order but its canons are impartiality and predictability. In my naive acceptance of an active state I had been blind to the notion that a referee cannot be a player.

I learnt other things as a disciple of Hayek. Girls, at least early 1970s LSE girls, were not interested in free-market ideas. Fortunately for me I knew a young lady at Royal Holloway College who thought differently.

There is a streak of pessimism in Hayek's writings of the 1940s, but there are also the clues, the blueprint for the great worldwide revival of liberal ideas. Today liberal Hayekian notions are infectious as they ripple around the world.

John Blundell is general director, Institute of Economic Affairs.

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