Christmas is always a good time to give someone a book. A book makes a great present as it can perform so many useful functions; it helps the reader relax, have a laugh, discover how to make or mend something, challenge our preconceptions – and simply entertain. A book can also teach us important lessons about life and inspire us, and in making a recommendation for a book for Christmas I am going to offer a highly political choice. Political, but not party political, a book that gave a warning about how we might lose our freedom and gave inspiration to those that had already lost theirs.
A book that this year celebrated the 70th anniversary of its publication and is still relevant today as it was back in 1944. That book is The Road to Serfdom, written by Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian émigré who taught at the London School of economics. Ironically, he was to become world famous for being a sort of anti-economist economist – for he wrote and taught about the dangers of economics being used by governments and bureaucrats to plan our futures. For that way lies servitude or serfdom.
It may seem like a rather dry read, an austere academic subject to nominate for a Christmas stocking but it is undoubtedly one of the most important books of the 20th century – for it offered the intellectual (but accessible) antidote to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of the 19th century and to the frightening and despotic propaganda found in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book.
The book is both historical – drawing from the recent experiences of what had happened in communist Russia and Nazi Germany – and prophetic, as it warns how the conceit of man in believing he can plan to deliver social justice gradually eliminates vital freedoms so that we arrive unintentionally at fascism or communism. Many countries were to flirt with such self-deception in the Sixties and Seventies – and many politicians still do.
It is for that reason that The Road to Serfdom remains such a vital read for anyone wishing to enter into politics or single issue campaigning. Be careful what you wish for and be aware of the unintended consequences are tow of the lessons easily drawn from what Hayek argues.
His book was dedicated “to the socialists of all parties” – a highly acute observation that would apply as much now to the Camerons-types in the Tory Party as it would to the Sturgeons and Milibands of the parties of the left. Hayek struggled to find a publisher but the University of Chicago Press offered a limited run but it was Readers Digest that made it famous by publishing 20-page condensed version and selling over a million reprints of The Road to Serfdom. It has since been published in over 20 languages and, as recently as 2010, became a number one Amazon.com bestseller, while the National Review magazine ranked it fourth in its tribute to the best non-fiction books of the 20th century.
Not only did the book give a waning for people living in free countries – it also provided an intellectual template for those living in tyrannical states and became a highly influential (and obviously illegal) book in communist Eastern Europe, giving hope and succour to those wishing for peaceful change.
If you are stuck for a present for someone interested in economics, politics or debate, The Road to Serfdom is a book that once read is never forgotten.
Obama’s Cuba puzzle
Thinking of tyrannical states, I was initially pleased to hear that President Obama has acted to bring about a partial change to the United States approach to its relationships with Cuba by establishing diplomatic relations. This must be a good thing, for it is absurd that relationships can exist with other still-communist countries such as China, and many of the most despotic Arab states, and yet not with Cuba.
The Caribbean island is in a mess; its economy is ravaged by its failed central planning (as per Hayek’s predictions) and its people although well-educated mostly live in appalling impoverishment. Over the fences from the tourist resorts Cuba is not an idyll or paradise. If you are not in the Communist Party your future is bleak. So restrictive is the economy that only a few years ago did Raul Castro allow hairdressers to work for themselves by renting a chair at the local barbers.
The US trade embargo does not help, of course, and it is the wrong policy, for there is no doubt in my mind that if we were all trading freely with Cuba its communist system would have collapsed like so many others decades ago. Propped up by the Soviets buying sugar at ridiculous prices and then by Venezuela selling oil at huge subsidy Cuba is now confronted by an oil price that has fallen through the floor to below $60 a barrel (note to Scottish nationalists).
This economic reality gives Obama an opportunity, but I somehow doubt he will grasp it. The United States could now use its economic power to liberate the Cuban people, rather than the Cuban politicians, delivering a welcome Christmas present that would make Friedrich Hayek smile.