December 18, 2021 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Recently I was drawn to reread Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Passages I previously overlooked leaped from the pages as if in bold print, signaling imminent danger to human progress. Hayek’s message never seemed more prescient and timeless: The descent into totalitarianism can happen anywhere.

Astonishing progress has been made in the past few centuries. A rich extended order has evolved, allowing human cooperation to lift billions out of dire poverty and bring a standard of living to the West that couldn’t have been imagined mere generations ago. Jonah Goldberg calls it “the Miracle of modernity,” yet few understand that the bounty we enjoy does not flow from politicians’ plans. Today, totalitarians are actively working to destroy the engine of human cooperation. 

Let’s be clear: What Hayek saw as dangerous, what you see as dangerous, millions are now cheering for in the name of societal advancement. 

Since 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has kept a Doomsday Clock as a metaphor for “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies.” At the risk of mixing metaphors, surely the Road to Serfdom clock may be approaching midnight. 

The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944, and naturally, Germany was on Hayek’s mind. Hayek clarifies that Nazism is not a function of “a peculiar wickedness” in the character of Germans, and false beliefs the Germans had taken on were not limited to Germany. At that time, Hayek observed in England, “There are few single features [of totalitarianism] which have not yet been advised by somebody.” 

Of human nature, Hayek observed we are unwilling to look at our problems as they are rather than how we mentally made them up. “When,” he wrote, “the course of civilization takes an unexpected turn—when, instead of the continuous progress which we have come to expect, we find ourselves threatened by evils associated by us with past ages of barbarism—we naturally blame anything but ourselves.”

With Covid policies, civilization has traveled farther on the road to serfdom. We want to believe we can conquer Covid and return to normal. Beware. Politicians exploit our economic ignorance and our desire to find scapegoats. Consider this relatively mundane example: the Federal Trade Commission recently said “it is ordering Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, other large wholesalers and suppliers including Procter & Gamble Co., Tyson Foods and Kraft Heinz Co. ‘to turn over information to help study causes of empty shelves and sky-high prices.’” The FTC wants to see if “anticompetitive practices” are at work. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of economics or possessing pre-Covid memory would scoff at the idea that anti-competitive practices are causing the empty shelves. 

Hayek points out how we trick ourselves with the fallacy of good intentions. Looking at our actions we think, “Have we not all striven according to our best lights, and have not many of our finest minds incessantly worked to make this a better world? Have not all our efforts and hopes been directed toward greater freedom, justice, and prosperity?” 

Believing our intentions are good, we conclude that bad results must mean we are victims. In Hayek’s words, “If the outcome is so different from our aims— if, instead of freedom and prosperity, bondage and misery stare us in the face—is it not clear that sinister forces must have foiled our intentions, that we are the victims of some evil power which must be conquered before we can resume the road to better things?” 

Magical thinking abounds in a crisis. Hayek writes, “We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected.” In short, as the famous Pogo cartoon relates, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Meta False Belief

Chapter 1 of The Road to Serfdom explains the meta mistaken idea. We no longer share a belief in this simple truth: “Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able to satisfy ever widening ranges of desire.”  

Instead of cherishing and preserving “the principles” that remove barriers to human flourishing, these principles come “to be regarded more as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away.” Hayek clearly states the “fundamental principle” for the ordering of human affairs is to “make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion.” Human progress in an “infinite variety of applications” follows from this principle.

Today, few understand and value this principle. We are fearful of the unknown, and tyrants exploit our fears:

According to the views now dominant, the question is no longer how we can make the best use of the spontaneous forces found in a free society. We have in effect undertaken to dispense with the forces which produced unforeseen results and to replace the impersonal and anonymous mechanism of the market by collective and “conscious” direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals. 

It is easy to apply Hayek to Covid policy. Tyrannical bureaucrats backed by their Big Tech enforcers suppress spontaneous forces generating effective treatments in favor of the blunt instrument of one-size-fits-all policies. Who would have suspected, for example, that the anti-depressant drug fluvoxamine may prevent Covid from progressing to the severe stage? Despite censorship, ridicule, and suppression, heroic medical researchers continue to develop treatment protocols. Those seeking treatment face barriers to finding and receiving treatment. 

Redefining Freedom

What do you think freedom means? It may surprise you to learn that you don’t share a common understanding with family, friends, your professor, or the media. Hayek clarifies two types of “freedom”—freedom from coercion and freedom from necessity.

Classical liberalism is anchored on the principle of freedom from coercion. Hayek writes, “To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached.”

Freedom from necessity means something very different. Remember Hayek was writing The Road to Serfdom over 70 years ago. Already the word freedom was being redefined as socialists promised a “new freedom.”

The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the “despotism of physical want” had to be broken, the “restraints of the economic system” relaxed.

The liberalism that Hayek championed is being destroyed and, as Paul Kingsnorth wrote, in its place is being built a “technocratic state-corporate hybrid; a China-style social credit society, centralised, monitored, powered by algorithms, emphatically unnatural and unfree.” 

Call it fascism, call it communism, the shackles of different flavors of totalitarianism differ slightly, but their essential characteristics are the same.

Hayek is clear, believing the idea that these two types of “freedom”—freedom from coercion and freedom from necessity—can be combined is delusional.

When we think of socialism, we may think of a salutary quest for greater equality. When we think of the excesses of totalitarianism, we think of the starving millions in Stalin’s Ukraine or today’s North Korea. We think of Nazi concentration camps or the killing fields of Cambodia. All genocides are fueled by accepting the idea that individuals don’t have the inherent right to be free from coercion. Principles, not good intentions, are the only safeguard of liberty. 

There is No Common Good

Hayek explains, “The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc., differ among themselves in the nature of the goal toward which they want to direct the efforts of society.” Yet here is where all these systems are the same. “They all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organize the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end and in refusing to recognize autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individuals are supreme.”

The delusion of collectivists is that their coercive plans will benefit all. Hayek observes that even well-meaning people ask, “If it be necessary to achieve important ends,” why shouldn’t the system “be run by decent people for the good of the community as a whole?”

In one of his most famous passages, Hayek succinctly explains why there is no such thing as the common good upon: 

The “social goal,” or “common purpose,” for which society is to be organized is usually vaguely described as the “common good,” the “general welfare,” or the “general interest.” It does not need much reflection to see that these terms have no sufficiently definite meaning to determine a particular course of action. The welfare and the happiness of millions cannot be measured on a single scale of less and more. The welfare of a people, like the happiness of a man, depends on a great many things that can be provided in an infinite variety of combinations. It cannot be adequately expressed as a single end, but only as a hierarchy of ends, a comprehensive scale of values in which every need of every person is given its place. To direct all our activities according to a single plan presupposes that every one of our needs is given its rank in an order of values which must be complete enough to make it possible to decide among all the different courses which the planner has to choose. It presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place. [emphasis added]

Politicians invoke the common good to hide that they have no justification for imposing their values on others; their deception is effective. Well-meaning people adopt the belief that only an evil person would oppose the common good. To give a common example, the mayor or governor who insists that the new taxpayer-financed baseball stadium benefits all is hiding that the team’s owners, hotels near the stadium, and some fans benefit at the expense of those who pay taxes but have no interest in baseball. 

Murray Gunn, an observer of interest rates recently wrote about the junk bond market: “The Fed has used its historic money counterfeiting scheme to effectively underwrite indebted corporates that would, under normal circumstances, have gone out of business.” Like all Fed interventions, those who drink from the punch bowl first are well-satiated, and the rest of us will pay for the cleanup.

We are told we are all in this together to fight Covid. Big Media censorship demands we deny harm from vaccines, thereby skewing decision-making. Medical professor Vinay Prasad warns of catastrophic harm from Covid vaccination programs aimed at teens. A professor recently told me he has never experienced so many students with mental health issues and students suffering from suicidal ideation. And now the Biden administration is recklessly considering joining China, Cuba, Argentina, and Venezuela as the only countries in the world to administer Covid vaccines to children under 5.

Weighing the subjective costs and benefits from vaccines does not mean you deny the menace of Covid. You may well benefit from your personal decision to receive the vaccine, but the data is clear: Since you can still transmit Covid your decision provides no benefits to others. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a common good that is achieved by lockdowns and mandates. Lost jobs, lost lives via suicide, lost livelihoods due to vaccine injuries, growing mental health issues, and lives saved cannot be weighed on “a single scale of less and more.” 

In short, as professor of psychiatry Dr. Aaron Kheriaty writes, “Citizens are no longer viewed as persons with inherent dignity, but as fungible elements of an undifferentiated ‘mass’ to be shaped by supposedly benevolent health and safety experts.”

Consider how proud President Biden is of his son, Hunter. While Hunter was smoking crack and trading his family name for millions of dollars from foreign entities, millions of Americans were building real careers and raising families. Hunter will undoubtedly get all the boosters the CDC recommends while the President berates, demonizes, and imposes mandates that deprive others of their livelihood. Many of us do not share President Biden’s values. I deny the President’s power to impose his values on others. 

There is no one “ethical code” we all share, yet politicians and bureaucrats use the coercive power of government to force compliance with their plans.

In the second part of this essay, I will explore how embracing the lowest common dominator leads us deep down the road to serfdom. In the meantime, let us remember that Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom to warn that the descent into totalitarianism can happen anywhere. 

Before destructive ideas that lead to totalitarianism can command widespread acceptance, tyrants must unite the population around a common us vs. them enemy. You can make a stand against this tactic today. As you go about your day, strive to see the common humanity in all. With liberty, everyone is a potential friend. Today, make no friend an enemy. 

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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