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Yes, Ramesh Ponnuru, You Are Mistaken

Ramesh Ponnuru:

Re: The Serfdom Scare: It has been a long time since I read The Road to Serfdom, John, but I remember it to have argued that central planning was incompatible with a free society, not that “regulatory intervention” per se was. (I may well be mistaken.) In any case, Tyler Cowen goes after that same review with unaccustomed irritation.

And--surprise!--Ramesh Ponnuru is wrong. Hayek thought his thesis was that regulatory intervention was in the long run incompatible with a free society.

Friedrich Hayek, 1956 Preface to The Road to Serfdom, on the effects of the 1945-1951 Clement Attlee government on the United Kingdom:

[S]ix years of socialist government in England have not produced anything resembling a totalitarian state. But those who argue that this has disproved the thesis of The Road to Serfdom have really missed one of its main points: that the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people. This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations…. [E]ven a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit…. [T]he change undergone by the character of the British people, not merely under its Labour government but in the course of the much longer period during which it has been enjoying the blessings of a paternalistic welfare state, can hardly be mistaken. These changes are not easily demonstrated but are clearly felt if one lives in the country….

I explicitly stress that "socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove" and even add that in this "the old socialist parties were inhibited by their democratic ideals" and that "they did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task." I am afraid the impression one gained under the Labour government was that these inhibitions were if anything weaker among the British socialists than they had been among their German fellow-socialists twenty-five years earlier. Certainly German Social Democrats, in the comparable period of the 1920's, under equally or more difficult economic conditions, never approached as closely to totalitarian planning as the British Labour government has done….

The most serious development is the growth of a measure of arbitrary administrative coercion and the progressive destruction of the cherished foundation of British liberty, the Rule of Law, for exactly the reasons here discussed in chapter 6. This process had of course started long before the last Labour government came into power and had been accentuated by the war. But the attempts at economic planning under the Labour government carried it to a point which makes it doubtful whether it can be said that the Rule of Law still prevails in Britain…

Ponnuru could--and probably will--argue that Hayek did not understand the thesis of his own book. But I think we should leave things where they are.

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