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Published onMay 26, 2020

There’s a lot to like about F. A. Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek celebrates the rule of law, the state giving everyone notice of what the rules are and administering them impartially. He urges that central planners would face insoluble problems. (Elsewhere he offered a crisper account of how markets assemble far-flung local information that no planner, however diligent, could get his hands on.)1 He is wary of those who would trample on individual freedom to achieve lofty social goals. So far, so great.

Though he is terse about it, ambivalent, even self-contradictory, Hayek’s title suggests another view, and that’s the one I’m out to expose as a mistake. It’s the view that even well-intentioned efforts to use the government to solve social problems, to move beyond the confines of classical liberalism’s limited government, will propel a society into totalitarianism. Think of it as a special case of a slippery-slope argument. Or, perhaps, a ratchet: easy to make the government bigger, next to impossible to shrink it.

Hayek does sometimes write that way. From his preface to the 1956 edition: “The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning”—and his conception of socialist planning is capacious—“create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” In that same preface he said people could act on his warning, although, summoning up Tocqueville’s nightmare, he also fretted that they would be “unlikely to.” But in his preface to the 1976 edition, he denied that he had “contended that any movement in the direction of socialism is bound to lead to totalitarianism.” The original introduction talks about “probability”: “though the road be long, it is one on which it becomes more difficult to turn back as one advances.”2 But I’m not interested here in being fussy about how best to interpret Hayek’s book. I’m interested in showing that the view we’ve hung on his title, rightly or wrongly, is a mistake. So let’s switch gears.

Ronald Reagan’s 1961 recording against Medicare offers a breathless and breathtaking example of the mistake I have in mind. It zips from socialized medicine to the government’s controlling where doctors can live to its controlling the “working methods” of everyone. Moments later, he slaloms into warning darkly, “from here it's a short step to all the rest of socialism—to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.”3 If you’re fretting that Medicare is about to turn your son’s spine into timorous jelly, or if you’re surprised it’s taking so long, you are definitely in the clutches of the mistake I have in mind. If you’re bristling at my lampooning Reagan, which anyway I’m not doing, you might be.

Reagan is not alone, and though I’ll spend more time on it, neither is health care. This mistake pops up everywhere. Here’s Chief Justice Burger, sounding ominous tones about what some thought were perfectly benign ways for government to support parochial schools: “A certain momentum develops in constitutional theory and it can be a ‘downhill thrust’ easily set in motion but difficult to retard or stop.”4

Nor is this mistake limited to right-wing circles. There’s a familiar left-wing parallel to—or funhouse mirror-image of—the road to serfdom. It’s the worry about what’s sometimes called universal commodification, a society in which the market swallows more and more of social life, so that we increasingly think of more or less everything in terms of property, buying and selling, cash value, and the like. (When “neoliberalism” isn’t a vague epithet, it means the politics of championing pretty much the same thing.) And we don’t just think that way, we act that way. Diagnosing alienation, the young Karl Marx offered an apocalyptic account of how everyday cash exchange confuses us. If you’re ugly, he says, but you can buy a beautiful woman, you’re not ugly. If you’re lame, but can buy twenty-four feet—he’s just quoted Goethe’s verse, “Six stallions, say, I can afford, / Is not their strength my property?”—then you’re not lame.5 Here the worry is not the state overrunning the market. It’s the market overrunning everything else.

A narrower version of the same fear surfaces in debates about privatization. Should the government run prisons or hire private corporations to do it? What about supplying public utilities? Or an internet backbone? In 1997, Congress was debating closing military bases, always a politically fraught act. For some bases, one possible scheme was “privatizing in place”: Continue the same sort of operations on those bases, but pay private firms to manage them. Listen to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK): “No one is going to exceed my efforts for the past thirty years for privatization in place. I can remember when I was mayor of the city of Tulsa, I was privatizing everything that would not move. I remember our trash system—we privatized it in place. Of course, people do not like change. I can remember they ended up dumping in my front yard. However, now it is the greatest system we could have had—privatization in place.”

Back to health care. Filibustering against Obamacare in 2013, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) warned, “Socialized medicine is—and has been everywhere it has been implemented in the world—a disaster. Obamacare—its intended purpose is to lead us unavoidably down that path.” Now the road to serfdom doesn’t require malicious or clueless intention. It could be a dynamic that no one intends or even notices. Cruz makes it sound more nefarious, more conspiratorial, than it needs to. Cruz went on to regale his audience with tweets, including this one: “Unless Obamacare is repealed and replaced, America will be on the ‘road to serfdom’ and there will be no off-ramp. We will be headed for a single-payer, Medicare for all system such as exists in Canada. Americans will face long waiting lists for care, rationed care, and a lack of access to the latest treatments and procedures.”

Unavoidably down the path to socialized medicine, the road to serfdom with no off-ramp: That’s the mistake in its most rigid form. Cruz shifted effortlessly to a softer claim: “We don’t want our care rationed, we don’t want government bureaucrats deciding who gets health care when, we don’t want waiting periods, and we don’t want low-quality health care, which is what happens at the end of this road if we continue down it.”6 But our political lives are shot through with contingencies large and small, with crazed detours, abrupt swerves in the road, feints and reversals. So those invoking the road to serfdom need to supply a causal theory, to explain how this next step is likely to send us careening into socialism or totalitarianism.

Recall Reagan’s 1961 denunciation of Medicare. It would be a cheap shot to point out that more recently the GOP has posed as the defender of Medicare against the Democrats. It would be irrelevant to wonder what’s so great about having a private insurer, not a government bureaucrat, deny you care. Instead, ask this: Which slippery slope does Medicare lead down? Reagan summoned up the specter of the government telling people where to work, even what occupation to enter. But why exactly is that the direction we’ll slip in? Why not more efforts to ensure that Americans can get health care? Why not more efforts to provide other essentials—housing, say—for poor people? Why not endlessly cascading denunciations of Medicare? Why not more and more televised political speeches from Ronald Reagan? Why not a further flood of legislation beginning with the letter M?

“Come on, be serious. Taxes always go up. Everyone knows that.” Even if that were true, I’d still want a causal mechanism. But—facts are stubborn things—it isn’t true. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the federal government’s tax take maxed out in 1945 at just under 20%; it came very close to that again in 2000; for decades, it’s bounced around between 15% and 20%, with a recent low of not quite 14.5% in 2010.7 (Right, under President Obama.) That metric seems more relevant here than the top marginal tax rate, but that too is a good deal less than half the whopping 94% it used to be.8

Or maybe you’re worried about deficits, too, and you think that we should focus on federal spending, whether supported by taxes or not. (Some of us fret that the alternative to tax-and-spend Democrats is don’t-tax-and-spend-anyway Republicans.) Over the last decades, as a percentage of GDP, that number has indeed crawled up and down, but, let’s face it, overall up—almost three percentage points since Reagan’s 1961 premonition.9 Again, I’d still want a persuasive story about why the change represents a more or less inexorable causal mechanism, not just the usual give and take of politics and budgets. In the meantime, I can’t see any reason to sound alarmist about less than three percentage points over six decades. I am a serious guy, straight-faced, unflappable, but I will erupt in frantic giggles if you extrapolate and declare that it will go up thirty percent over six centuries and that we must not sentence our remote descendants to such a grim fate. If you’d rather I struggled to maintain my decorum, I will merely raise my eyebrows. Either way, though, I won’t believe you.

Earlier, I touched on the level of some European tax rates. What about change over time in Scandinavia, infamous as the land of creeping—or cantering—socialism? As a percentage of GDP, Sweden’s rate is lower than it was forty years ago and it has mostly drifted down over the last thirty years. Denmark’s rate hasn’t bounced around much in thirty years. Finland’s has drifted a bit more, I suppose, but is up a trivial few percentage points in the same period. Norway’s is the lowest it’s been in some forty years, and that’s not a blip. Iceland’s did spike at over 51% in 2016, but that has everything to do with the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of all three of the country’s big private banks, and taxes promptly returned to pretty much where they’d been.10 Stare at these figures as long as you like and you will not find a shred of evidence for the claim that the state grabs more and more national income over time. So we needn’t cast around for a causal theory to explain the inexorable growth of state spending. There’s nothing to explain.

Take another issue. The Trump administration drafted rules to protect religious freedom in health care; the Democratic House responded with an appropriations measure with a section denying the administration funds to “finalize, implement, or enforce the rule.”11 There are thorny policy questions here. Should a doctor or a nurse be permitted to refuse to perform an abortion or to care for an abortion patient? Should a pharmacist with conscientious objections be permitted to refuse to fill a prescription for contraceptives?

Representative Kevin Hern (R-OK) was in no mood to draw lines. Swinging for the fences, he denounced “a dangerous poison pill in the appropriations bill that would block the free exercise of rights for the American people.” “Congress has long supported robust protections for rights of conscience. The right to follow your conscience on deeply held religious and moral beliefs is a foundational value of our country. In a free society like ours, adherence to one’s convictions should not be just tolerated but encouraged. Our forefathers fought like hell to liberate our country from a monarchy that mandated what to believe and how to behave.”12 Well, you may honestly believe that the biblical injunction to stone adulterers to death13 is literally right, but the government will charge you with murder if you try that stunt, and you will get nowhere with appeals to religious freedom, and though I’ve never met him I am willing to bet that Representative Kern would not for an instant dream of defending you with the road-to-serfdom gambit that he promptly deployed in proposing an amendment to strip the Democrats’ ban on funding the rule from the bill: “It happens in small increments, with small, minor changes here and there, but they grow larger and more invasive. Someday you will find yourself back under the yoke, with an oppressive government telling you what to believe and how to behave.” Hern’s amendment failed on an almost straight party-line vote.14 Whatever you make of the Trump administration’s rule, it just can’t be true that blocking it would lead to totalitarianism.

So the road to serfdom looks like a rhetorical blunderbuss, not an incisive bit of political analysis. At best, it’s a promissory note, and its champions owe us answers to some pressing questions. Just which dreadful road will this next controversial step send us hurtling down? Just what causal mechanism will propel us? Why won’t we be able to stop, or why will we be unlikely to stop? I suppose that on occasion, the champions might be able to cash in the promissory note, though I can’t think of a single instance. Meanwhile, adults shouldn’t be scared of blustering promissory notes. Totalitarianism is scary, for sure. But how scary is the unsupported insinuation that some ostensibly well-intentioned political proposal paves the way to that sordid hell?

There’s another way to construe the road to serfdom, and maybe it’s more promising. (Plot spoiler: It’s not.) If you take the road to serfdom as a causal model, the claim is that some political proposal launches some nefarious process with momentum. But if you take the road to serfdom as a reminder of the logic of principles, the claim is that the justification of some political proposal must be faulty, because that justification would license grotesque intrusions on liberty.

To see the difference, consider a congressional hearing on the Obamacare mandate that even employers with religious objections had to pay for contraception. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the Judiciary Committee, was lobbing friendly questions at Asma Uddin, lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “If the mandate stands as it is,” asked Smith, “what are the implications for the religious liberties of all Americans? In other words, what else could the Federal Government impose on religious organizations?” These maneuvers are so familiar that Uddin’s response might as well have been on automatic pilot: “We have to remember that religious liberty is a bedrock principle of our Constitution and of our society. It is precisely the same principle that has justified exemptions for a number of different religious groups, whether it be Quakers being exempt from going to war or a prison guard being exempt from having to partake in the death penalty because of their beliefs. And ultimately, once you open the gates for this sort of trampling on religious liberty, it is a slippery slope to a much broader violation.” It’s sort of what Smith wanted to hear, but it’s too general to dramatize the stakes.

Seeking more alarming detail, Smith coaxes her: “But what are other examples, what else could the government force religious organizations to provide if this mandate were to remain in effect, as is, unchanged?” Somehow Uddin flubs her lines.

Well, I mean, this mandate has been justified on the basis of the fact that there are health benefits to providing contraceptives, but the issue of health benefits is not the point. If the government mandates everything that has positive health benefits, it could possibly mandate that everyone drink red wine for heart health, even though it violates the religious beliefs of Muslims and Mormons; and it could mandate that everyone eat shellfish, even though that violates the religious beliefs of Jews; and it could mandate gym memberships because it is widely accepted that exercise is beneficial.15

Smith wanted a parade of horribles about government incursions on religious freedom. But Uddin slid down a different slippery slope, drove on another road to serfdom, and told him all the awful things the government might mandate to promote health. While she was invoking wine and shellfish, you might have thought she was in sync with the chair. By the time she got to gym memberships, though, the free exercise of religion was nowhere in sight.

Did I sound facetious when I wondered whether the passage of Medicare would lead to torrents of legislation beginning with the letter M? Well, Uddin demonstrates that the problem afflicting the road to serfdom is real: Which way are we sliding? But let that go. Instead, notice that the exchange isn’t about the causal version of the road to serfdom. Uddin doesn’t say that if the government requires contraception, over time we’ll find the government acting more and more oppressively. Instead, Uddin identifies the implicit principle supposed to justify the Obamacare mandate: that the government may compel people to do things that will promote health. Under that principle, she says, the government could make you drink red wine, eat shellfish, and join a gym. The argument is what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum: This principle must be defective, because it also justifies ridiculous acts. In that same spirit, conservative constitutional lawyers demanded, could the federal government make you buy broccoli? That demand was supposed to show that it was absurd to read the Constitution’s commerce clause as authorizing Congress to mandate the purchase of healthcare. It was not supposed to show that if the mandate stood, a grim future inexorably beckoned where the government would actually order us to buy broccoli.

But this version of the road to serfdom isn’t any better than the causal one. If you think two things are different, distinguishing them is the easiest game in town. Recall the left-wing funhouse version of the road to serfdom, the macabre fantasy that if we pursue efficiency and turn to market mechanisms, we’ll end up buying and selling everything. Remember Senator Inhofe, ecstatic about privatizing everything that could move? As soon as he concluded that rhapsody, Inhofe wheeled about: “There is a big difference between privatizing a trash system and privatizing a core responsibility of the military. So here we are trying to defend America and putting ourselves in a posture where, if we follow all the way through with the privatization argument and privatize everything in the military, then we would not have a core capability within the public sector to defend America.” Core responsibilities of the military, he agreed, are different. So all you have to do is identify the difference(s)—I’ll leave that trivial task to you—and shrug off the accusation that you really are committed to privatizing everything in sight. Trash collection is one thing, core military responsibilities another; your principle is properly limited to the former. Bingo! no universal commodification.

Or again: Remember Chief Justice Burger, anxious about the “downhill thrust” and “momentum” that takes over in constitutional law? Years later, in another case about the establishment clause, he shrugged off such arguments. The challenge was to Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s Christmas display, which included a crèche. Horrified at where that would lead or what it already exemplified? Not Burger: “We are unable to perceive the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Rome, or other powerful religious leaders behind every public acknowledgment of the religious heritage long officially recognized by the three constitutional branches of government. Any notion that these symbols pose a real danger of establishment of a state church is farfetched indeed.”16 Inhofe and Burger both understood that no slippery magic greases the road to serfdom.

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek embraced the very policies that his champions now revile in his name. “There can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve heath and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody,” he declared. And he embraced public insurance programs for “sickness and accident”: “The case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.”17 None of that struck him as incompatible with the rule of law, with the importance of markets, with individual freedom. None of that struck him as a tempting but fatal step to political perdition. Maybe Obamacare and other such schemes are bad policy. But if they are bad ideas, it is emphatically not because around the corner, even around some distant corner, we will walk headlong into the arms of leering totalitarian government. Conjuring up inexorability, momentum, and roads to serfdom with no off-ramps doesn’t illuminate the actual choices confronting us. It obscures them.


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