Josh Smith

The Road to Serf City by Mary Chism
Drawing done for the February book club meeting by former SMI intern Mary Chism

Last night was obviously Snowmaggedon, and I hope everyone is staying safe out there as some of the roads are still nasty. The previous night, Wednesday, we hosted the second Show-Me Institute Saint Louis Book Club meeting of the year. We discussed the classic The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek. The central theme of the book is that fascism is a natural outgrowth of socialist central planning. Hayek's desperate wish was to warn the western nations, especially England and the U.S., not to pursue the path of central planning. Hayek believed that a descent into fascism was more likely than it seemed to his audience: the citizens of non-fascist western nations in 1944.

But all that just makes the book sound like a dated warning against something no one really advocates anymore, right? Well, the book has staying power because of two timeless features which are perhaps separate sides of the same coin: Hayek explains why the price system not only works, but is the best system possible for maximizing individual welfare while also making a strong case for individual liberty and limited government, which Hayek calls (using the connotation of his time), liberalism.

It was a wonderful meeting and a rousing discussion. Book club meetings start at 7 p.m. and usually wrap up about 8:30 or 9 p.m. But Wednesday's meeting did not end until shortly after 9:30 p.m. — we all had so much to discuss. Here are some of the topics and ideas we discussed:

  • Whether a person's concept of what is possible constrains their action.

  • The important distinction between freedom and power: what it is and why it is important that they not be confused.

  • This wonderful quote from Adam Smith (introduced roughly by Hayek): "[the regimentation of economic life puts governments in a position where] to support themselves they are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical."

  • Where Hayek drew the line on the proper role of government and how that might undermine his overall message of liberty.

  • Whether market competition is inherently violent (hint: it is not).

  • Whether a legal system is necessary for competition, and David Friedman's "the discipline of constant dealings."

  • The contradiction and ugliness of "competitive socialism."

  • An extended interlude about "Little House on the Prairie."

The reading for next month is The Machinery of Freedom, by David Friedman, another classic. Friedman is an economics and law professor with a Ph.D. in physics, and the son of free-market titan Milton Friedman. From the Amazon description: "This book argues the case for a society organized by private property, individual rights, and voluntary co-operation, with little or no government." I am looking forward to some excellent discussion on this one at our March meeting, so please join us if you can (date of meeting to be announced, check here).

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