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Is Serfdom Humanity’s Default?


In the mid-20th century, the economist Friedrich von Hayek warned that the rise of centrally-planned economies—whether in the form of socialism/communism or fascism, which he argued have common roots—was leading us all (back) down “the road to serfdom.”

The term “serfdom,” of course, alludes to the feudal system that, in one form or another, dominated human civilization for thousands of years. The common people, the “serfs,” did most of the work that kept society functioning, then handed over much of the fruits of their labors to a strong central government, usually represented by a “nobleman” (i.e., a member of the elite class) in return for relative peace and security.

That system was eventually displaced by the rise of liberal democracy during the Age of Enlightenment—an experiment that has now lasted 300 years and brought to the West, and other parts of the world where it has been embraced, a freedom and prosperity never before seen in human history.

But does this fairly recent development mean, as President George W. Bush opined in a speech before the US Chamber of Commerce in 2003, that “liberty is the design of nature…the direction of history?”? Is it true that, in the popular phrase, “every heart yearns to be free?” 

I used to believe that. Now, I’m not so sure.

We can certainly point to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States and its allies have attempted to “liberate” the people, only to have them return to centuries-old power struggles and warlord tribalism—essentially, a form of serfdom—as soon as the Western powers pull out. Do those people really yearn for freedom, for democracy? Why don’t they have it, then?

But the problem actually strikes much closer to home. I’m convinced that a large and growing minority of people in this country, especially among young people, don’t really want freedom—certainly not for others, but ultimately not even for themselves. Witness the recent Buckley Institute poll in which 51 percent of college students supported campus speech codes, while 45 percent agreed that violence was justified to prevent people from expressing “hate speech.” 

Or consider how many people vote almost exclusively for the politicians who promise them the most free stuff, with no apparent thought to the strings attached or concerns about what their “free stuff” might cost others—and even themselves, in the long run.

Then think about how people in this country and elsewhere have behaved for the last three-plus years—but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll come back to that point in a moment.

I first observed this apparent willingness to trade freedom for relative ease and security, on a micro level, about 22 years ago. At that time, my academic unit was led by a dean with more or less absolute authority. At the very least, he had the final word regarding everything that went on in the unit, from textbooks to teaching schedules to curriculum.

The faculty, predictably, claimed to despise this arrangement. They constantly decried the “top-down structure” and complained that they had no say in anything. They demanded to be heard, under the principle of “shared governance.” 

So the upper administration gave them what they wanted. The dean was transferred to another position, and in his place was put a committee of elected faculty members whose job it was, collectively, to make all the decisions the dean had previously been making. 

Can you guess what happened next? Within a year, the faculty were grumbling about the new system. They complained that they felt adrift. There was no one they could go to who was empowered to make quick decisions. And the work of making those decisions collectively—serving on committees and subcommittees—was tedious, thankless, and time-consuming.

The bottom line is that—with apologies to The Amazing Spiderman—with great freedom comes great responsibility. Self-reliance is hard work. You must be willing to fail, and to take the blame for your failure, and then to pick yourself up and start over again. That is mentally and emotionally taxing. It’s much easier just to let others make decisions for you. Just do what you’re told, with the assurance that everything will be fine.    

Which brings us back to the last three-plus years, when people in Western democracies, accustomed to an unprecedented level of civil liberty, willingly surrendered it. They docilely stayed at home, covered their faces, avoided friends and neighbors, gave up vacations, cancelled celebrations, and lined up for their next “booster”—all in return for a promise that, if they did so, they would be safe from a highly infectious respiratory virus.

The fact that, even with all these “interventions,” they still weren’t safe from a mostly mild illness that practically everyone contracted is really beside the point. It’s not that their fears were completely unfounded. In this fallen world, the dangers are undoubtedly real enough. 

The questions are, 1) can we actually mitigate those dangers by giving up our liberties, and 2) even if we can, is it worth it? Count me among the increasingly few who declare that the answer to the latter question, at least, is “No.” The government’s main job is to protect us from foreign incursions and domestic crime. Beyond that, I am happy to assume any risks associated with living as a free person, and that includes making my own decisions, medical and otherwise. 

Yet it seems that a large and growing number of my fellow Americans no longer feel the same. They don’t want the responsibility associated with that degree of freedom; they would much rather have the promise of security. They are quite likely, as Benjamin Franklin reminded us more than 200 years ago, to end up with neither.  

But that is not the worst of it. The real problem is that, as they wind their way blithely down the road to serfdom, they are taking the rest of us with them. Because we cannot have a country in which some are allowed to live freely, according to their own lights, assuming the concomitant risks, while others are “guaranteed” a life free only from such decisions and responsibilities.

To (slightly) paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, from his pivotal “House Divided” speech (1858), the nation cannot permanently endure half serf and half free. Ultimately, it will become all one thing or all the other. 

And whither, we might ask—again echoing the Great Emancipator—are we tending?

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  • Rob Jenkins

    Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University – Perimeter College and a Higher Education Fellow at Campus Reform. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Think Better, Write Better, Welcome to My Classroom, and The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders. In addition to Brownstone and Campus Reform, he has written for Townhall, The Daily Wire, American Thinker, PJ Media, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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