Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to Kick Off the Year

A short reflection on time spent last month

Lately I’ve been wondering what self-directed learning means to me. I wondered what subjects or topics interest me deeply. How would I design my own learning path and select resources? What would my curriculum look like? Also, what I could learn over a longer period of time. I feel like I have been shopping around all of these wonderful learning resources out there in the wild.

Last month, a highly intelligent friend of mine (whom I’ll call the dolphin) recently invited me to engage with the dolphin’s new year’s first “Classics Reading Challenge”. The challenge was to read F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in about two weeks. The book was mainly about Hayek’s warning against the dangers of government control. I accepted it immediately and was quite excited about it. It meant reading outside of my comfort zone.

Before reading it, I was looking forward to it. Was doing a little bit of internet search here and there, trying to develop a general sense of the book, to be acquainted with some of its messages. Wanted to gather some background information so that I’d give myself a better chance of making this reading experience successful. Unfortunately I had been ill in mid towards late January, which happened to be the time for this particular challenge. For at least a week, I was coughing a lot and had a really bad sore throat and everything. It was a rather inconvenient time to be ill. Everything was closed due to the lunar new year public holidays. My strategy was to try to drink a lot of fluids and try to keep my throat moist. What do you do when you’re all on your own and feeling unwell? Staying inside a small apartment all the time with no one to talk to didn’t sound appealing.

I went out and had a long walk along the river bank. Watched the first three lectures of “​​MIT 6.006 Introduction to Algorithms, Spring 2020” YouTube playlist – I found it quite relaxing watching all of these American university professors running around in the room, busied themselves with solving problem sets and drawing arrays on blackboard with chalk.

I watched a few lecture videos by Professor Tim Roughgarden, Foundations of Blockchains Lecture 1.2: Overview of Lecture Series (video link: https://youtu.be/8n_KrwS3pAQ), was one of them. Did a short stretching session with an instructor from Hong Kong (it was a youtube video). Spent two days with my parents and siblings hanging out at the Shanlinxi Forest Recreation Area, which was a forest in Nantou County, Taiwan. The other day, my sister, my brother and I watched Japanese animated sports film The First Slam Dunk (スラムダンク) at a cinema theatre.

Read a short story “La Place” by Annie Ernaux. Read a few pages of Ernaux’s Les Années. Read a few chapters of Talent: how to identify energizers, creatives, and winners around the world, a new book by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross. During week days, I attended a few classes of Japanese basic grammar class in central Taipei. Read the some 30 pages of The Quiet American, a novel by English author Graham Greene. I drifted a lot and didn’t get to it (the challenge!), not until Friday morning (February 3) and its next day.

2023 Classics Reading Challange #1: Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom

I ended up reading several chapters of The Road to Serfdom: Preface, Introduction, Chapter 1 The Abandoned Road, Chapter 6 Planning and the Rule of Law, Chapter 8 Who, Whom?, Chapter 10 Why the Worst Get on Top. I’m glad I read those chapters; I found them interesting, inspiring even.

Initially my impression was, after spending a few hours reading Preface and Introduction, Hayek’s writings were hard to read. Maybe because this short book itself was a serious political academic book intended to be read by British academics at the time. Maybe because his native language is German, which I heard is hard. Further, his language, for some reason, reminds me of “The American Scholar” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His way of describing the world makes me think of this other new book which I saw on Twitter the other day “The Network State: How To Start a New Country” by Balaji Srinivasan.

Later as I read more of it, I thought perhaps Hayek wanted to quickly put out a short book that would challenge the view among British academics, asking politicians to stop and reconsider. It read like a serious warning trying to cautioning politicians not to go on the path of central planning.

The idea is that government’s central planning would lead to totalitarianism. The Road to Serfdom is basically suggesting that government control of economics activities through central planning is bad for society. The idea that comprehensive government central planning (such as not having a price system) could build a better society is false.

A collection of the ideas that I felt compelled by in this book include: concern over “entire abandonment of the individualist tradition which has created Western civilization”(Chapter 1), concept of a centrally planned economy wouldn’t be able to produce the kind of prosperity of an competitive market economy, the idea that central economic planning is actually incompatible with the rule of law.

One of the the most interesting chapter was Chapter 10 on a discussion about why the worst get on top. I have always wondered about that. Some arguments turned our to be quite intriguing.

The Road to Serfdom reading notes:

Chapter 1 The abandoned road
P20 The change amounts to a complete reversal of the trend we have sketched, an entire abandonment of the individualist tradition which has created Western civilisation.

Chapter 6 Planning and the rule of law
P77 When the government has to decide how many pigs are to be reared or how many buses are to be run, which coal mines are to operate, or at what prices boots are to be sold, these decisions cannot be deduced from formal principles, or settled for long periods in advance. They depend inevitably on the circumstances of the moment, and in making such decisions it will always be necessary to balance one against the other the interests of various persons and groups.

Chapter 6 Planning and the rule of law
The state should confine itself to establishing rules applying to general types of situations, and should allow the individuals freedom in everything which depends on the circumstances of time and place, because only the individuals concerned in each instance can fully know these circumstances and adapt their actions to them.

Chapter 8 Who, whom?
I believe it was Lenin himself who introduced to Russia the famous phrase “who, whom?”—during the early years of Soviet rule the byword in which the people summed up the universal problem of a socialist society. Who plans whom, who directs and dominates whom, who assigns to other people their station in life, and who is to have his due allotted by others? These become necessarily the central issues to be decided solely by the supreme power.

More recently an American student of politics has enlarged upon Lenin’s phrase and asserted that the problem of all government is “who gets what, when, and how?” In a way this is not untrue. That all government affects the relative position of different people and that there is under any system scarcely an aspect of our lives which may not be affected by government action, its action will always have some effect on “who gets what, when, and how”.

Chapter 10 Why the worst get on top
There are three main reasons why such a numerous and strong group with fairly homogeneous views is not likely to be formed by the best but rather by the worst elements of any society. By our standards the principles on which such a group would be selected will be almost entirely negative.

In the first instance, it is probably true that in general the higher the education and intelligence of individuals becomes, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values. It is a corollary of this that if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and “common” instincts and tastes prevail.

This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards. It is, as it were, the lowest common denominator which unites the largest number of people.

If a numerous group is needed, strong enough to impose their views on the values of life on all the rest, it will never be those with highly differentiated and developed tastes—it will be those who form the “mass” in the derogatory sense of the term, the least original and independent, who will be able to put the weight of their numbers behind their particular ideals.

Chapter 10 Why the worst get on top
It is in connection with the deliberate effort of the skilful demagogue to weld together a closely coherent and homogeneous body of supporters that the third and perhaps most important negative element of selection enters. It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programme, on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off, than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they”, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.

I am really glad that I read this book; it helps me understand the world a little bit better than before. I’m very much looking forward to the dolphin’s next Classics Reading Challenge. It is going to be a fun one——One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel-prize laureate Gabriel García Márquez.