Posted on 10 July 2010 but originally written on 8 May 2004
Reading this book in the 21st century provides a fascinating perspective on recent British history. Written in 1959, it could almost be read as the blueprint for the Conservative government of the 1980s. Hayek achieved that through his intellectual influence upon Sir Keith Joseph, who was in turn one of the ideological mentors of Margaret Thatcher.
Step-by-step Hayek builds the case for personal freedom as the bedrock of the other achievements of Western civilisation, and its great cultural and material accomplishments. Hayek defines freedom very precisely as freedom from external coercion. You are free when you decide for yourself what you want to do, what career you want to follow, what religion you want to practise, how you want to educate your children etc. You are un-free if other people can make you do these things the way they consider appropriate, as in communist societies.
Along the way, he demolishes arguments for equality of outcomes and rewards, which in their extreme form say that if everyone cannot have X, then nobody should have X. Instead Hayek demonstrates that a society in which the wealthy few can enjoy X first is the one which will eventually progress sufficiently that most people can also have X. The 20th century demonstrated by trial and error how the command economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe failed to progress until they collapsed once everyone could see their complete failure. When Hayek was writing, many intellectuals in the West still believed that communism was the way of the future, and that the USSR would bury the West through faster economic progress!
Having demonstrated the bedrock importance of personal freedom, Hayek then analyses how the law should be organised to protect it. His explanation of the concept of "the rule of law" should be read by everyone. Hayek explains how fundamentally it differs from simply having to obey any law which legislators choose to enact. Americans will be familiar from their constitution with the idea that some laws are prohibited by a higher rule. Until recently the same concept could rely in the UK upon an unwritten consensus in society, which appears to be breaking down.
Hayek then considers how the welfare state impinges on freedom, and the difficult balancing act of avoiding either a society where people starve to death on the street while also avoiding creating a society like the former USSR.
This book will help everyone who cares about our society to think more clearly about the key values of a free society. It is as fresh today as when Hayek wrote it over 40 years ago.