I wrote this essay for an Intercollegiate Studies Institute essay contest. I did not win, but putting it all together was a useful exercise. I have reproduced it here:
Since F. A. Hayek penned The Road to Serfdom, the world has witnessed a series of seemingly unequivocal affirmations of his central thesis: that central planning leads to economic decline, moral decay, and inexorably, the rise of a liberty-destroying total state. While Hayek lived to see the implosion of the Soviet Union – perhaps the most tangible sovereign manifestation of the statist impulse – he could have only imagined the incalculable benefits free trade and new technologies have brought to billions of individuals across the globe in the two decades that followed.
Yet every triumph of classical liberalism has been tempered by setbacks, and these setbacks only seem to be mounting as the 21st century progresses. States have spent far beyond their means, virtually guaranteeing that future generations will be held in debt-driven subservience. Personal dependence has become a virtue to be rewarded by a munificent, ever-growing welfare state. Regulations choke innovation while benefiting those willing to engage in political entrepreneurship and rent seeking.
Certainly, Hayek would not be pleased. He might also be a bit perplexed. For centuries, Hayek and other liberal intellectuals have diagnosed the cause of our most enduring troubles and prescribed a simple solution: increased personal and economic freedom. This solution has worked wonders to the extent that it has been attempted, but relapses are nevertheless frequent – and frustrating.
The liberal’s persistent frustration is explained by an error of perception, not understanding. The road to statism and the road to liberty are not the two possible trajectories that a given society might follow. Rather, statism is a threat that must be fended off constantly, even in societies that appear relatively free. As soon as one slackens in the Sisyphean task of defending liberty, the leviathan resumes its march. The road to serfdom is always and everywhere the path of least resistance.
Though it may be disheartening, that the loss of liberty is never more than a generation or two away explains the enduring relevance of liberal thought. The Road to Serfdom is as vital in America today as it was in 1944. The same can be said of the works of 16th century French protolibertarian Étienne de La Boétie, who lived and died centuries before America – let alone Hayek – existed.
Unlike the many strains of utopian collectivism, classical liberalism recognizes mankind’s limited capacity for fundamental change; rather than lamenting the fact that there can be no “New Liberal Man,” it incorporates its individualistic understanding of human nature into its worldview. Importantly, liberal thinkers acknowledge the central importance of self-interest as the motivation for man’s actions. At its best, self-interest reveals itself in the peaceful cooperation between Adam Smith’s butcher, brewer, and baker. In a different context, however, the same self-interest can transform men into cruel feudal lords – or Goldman Sachs executives. Read the rest of this entry »