The Road to Serfdom: Authoritarians on the Left, Authoritarians on the Right, No Road Too Long When

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

... We Meet in the Middle. “We gain a lot of ground ‘cause we both give a little. …ain’t no road too long when we meet in the middle” (Country artist Diamond Rio. Meet in the Middle).

A recent edited book on Authoritarianism in America, by well-known behavioral economist Sunstein (2018), especially due to being part of Thaler and Sunstein (2008), includes a chapter by Kuran (2018). The chapter is titled Another Road to Serfdom, a play on Hayek (1944; see the edited volume by Caldwell, 2007).

Hayek (1944) was concerned about the left, the collectivists, especially a small group of the authoritarians with communist or socialist framing, taking over the means of production: It would lead the economy on a path to serfdom. Creativity arising out of a person being able to invent, be entrepreneurial, arising in a kind of spontaneous order, would be lost as the socialist authoritarians in charge pushed things into collective processes to decide on production. Kuran (2018) makes the case the road to serfdom is also paved from the other end of the authoritarian spectrum: The concern with with the right, the individualists, with said individualists thinking to narrowly, narrowing the group (the favored few, everyone else is suppressed) of individuals who will do the thinking through authoritarian control, as represented in the authoritarians with fascist framing. The fascist authoritarians would suppress diversity, and thus the creativity and entrepreneurship associated with that diversity: It would lead the economy down the path to serfdom. Meet me in the middle, please.

A humane liberalism --- liberal in the old sense of the word, as Adam Smith envisioned the primal driver in capitalism, no authoritarianism, please, and humane in the sense of Adam Smith’s sentiments --- in contrast, sees some merit in both extremes, but only in the sense of seeking balance in individualist&collectivist strengths. Like a colleague (Chris Andrew, while we were on the faculty together at the University of Florida several decades ago) characterized it, after a lengthy conversation about what would eventually evolve into Metaeconomics and Dual Interest Theory, viability came from recognizing that “the Me needs a We to Be, but without a Me there is no We.” Yes, I said, you got it. In the spirit of Thaler and Sunstein (2008), the way to strike this balance is through some gentle nudging, with some regulation and control when it fails, as in their libertarian paternalism frame of reference. We nudge and control away from the extremes of authoritarian socialism and authoritarian fascism, both extremes, and both having a tendency to reappear ---like Zombie ideas (after Krugman, 2020) that never seem to completely die --- every time capitalism goes awry. We avoid both paths to serfdom in a synergistic, sum-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts place in the middle of the road. Temper and bound the authoritarians, please.

The main concern to Kuran (2018) is the authoritarian fascism that is playing in the US, and several other western democracies (see Applebaum, 2020), on the right, right now. It has turned into a verbal, and sometimes physically violent, battle between the identitarians, who tend to be more on the left, and the nativists, who tend to be more on the right. It is being driven by the nativists, who have the authoritarian fascist tendencies, as demonstrated in quite a number of US political leaders: Ironically, while our fathers and grandfathers fought WWII against such authoritarian fascists on the right, many Americans are voting them into office. Intriguingly, too, the authoritarian fascists on the right claim there is huge uparising of authoritarian socialists on the left against which they are railing, albeit there seems to be virtually no empirical evidence of such reality in America at this time. A few, perhaps, as illustrated by some quite ferocious vandalism by a few people during the Black Lives Matter protests, but so few as to wonder why it is such a huge deal on the right. So, why is that the case?

In a word: Diversity. An authoritarian with fascist tendencies, who tend to be on the right, cannot tolerate diversity. So, there is deep concern over the identitarian coalition, which tends to be on the left side of the road, a coalition that “…loosely connects groups that define themselves according to some form of identity, mostly gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation (Kuran, 2018, p. 239).” Stenner (2005) characterizes it as intolerance of racial, political, and moral diversity, with an underlying disposition favoring a critical parent – adaptive (obedient) child way of interacting with the world. Moral outrage stirs the critical parent to action: Said outrage in authoritarianism on the right can easily lead to an extreme form of authoritarian fascism as the end state, as experienced in Germany in the 1930s.

Yet, there are two sides to every story: The identitarians, who tend to be more cosmopolitan, are also rather intolerant of those on the right side of the road, as represented in the nativist coalition, which “… encompasses groups suspicious of economic globalization, technological innovation, cultural change, and cross-border labor mobility (Kuran, 2018, p. 239).” It is all taking stage on a kind of cosmopolitan – nationalism continuum, with the traditional barbarism – civilization continuum of the conservatives and the traditional oppressor – oppression continuum of the progressives lost in the bustle of the struggle between the identitarians and the nativists.

So, intolerance runs rampant on both sides, threatening the very foundation of a humane liberalism based capitalism&democracy, market&government, which depends on diversity. As Kuran (2018, p. 239) characterizes it: “For identitarians, identity-based matters are more central to the quality of life, and nativists say the same about cultural continuity and the scope of economic freedoms… (and it comes down to) whether one of the two intolerant communities might wipe out the other.” Such wiping out, resulting in submission by either group, ensures serfdom. Unfortunately, right now in the US, the current Administration and enablers in Congress seem to be favoring the wiping out of the identitarians in favor of the nativists: cosmopolitans, too, are to be favored over the nationalists. So, Can it Happen Here?

Kuran (2018) is concerned, but also holds out hope that the balance in capitalism&democracy that historically helped keep America away from the path to serfdom will prevail. Concerns, though, are real when

“ … citizens … entrust leaders with extensive powers to direct the “right” messages. To block ostensibly harmful acts and expressions, such efforts at control limit the free exchange of ideas. One consequence of their vigilance is the distortion of knowledge in the public domain. Another is the curtailment of social experimentation, which depends on the sharing of thoughts. Limits on expression also impoverish people’s understandings of social processes. Politicians exploit the resulting combustion of hostility, panic, and ignorance through policies that may seem responsive to grievances but are ultimately counterproductive. By pandering to intolerant constituents and stoking fear and anger, they enable the rise of a leader with autocratic ambitions.”

We might also add disparaging democratic processes like making it easier to vote using mail in ballots: Sounds a bit like an authoritarian with fascist plans? Taking America onto the path to serfdom: Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, perhaps it is a duck?

Kuran (2018, p. 269 ) concludes (and, I encourage you to go read the Chapter, and the other Chapters in Sunstein, 2018, by other known thoughtful writers, researchers: Much more to ponder than covered herein), holds out hope for a “… movement of moderates … (requiring a) sustained collective action by citizens willing to speak for moderation and confront rival forms of intolerance… (yet) forming a large and sustainable tolerant community is no easy task in a society seething with intolerance. Many stars must line up for a return to politics based on mutual respect and willingness to seek common ground.”

Hopefully, the stars will provide light in the middle of the road. The authoritarian extremes in play guarantee serfdom. Adam Smith would not be happy, as we ignore the need for balance in self&other-interest, market&government. It is about encouraging the making of wealth but in such a way that everyone can go along with the outcome, avoiding the path to serfdom.


Applebaum, A. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism. New York: Double Day, 2020.

Caldwell, B. (Editor). The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, 2007.

Krugman, P. Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and Fighting for a Better Future. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2020

Kuran, T. "Another Road to Serfdom: Cascading Intolerance." In Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, edited by C. Sunstein. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2018.

Stenner, K. The Authoritarian Dynamic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Sunstein, C. (Editor). Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., Kindle Edition, 2018.

Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, Massachusetts: Yale University Press, 2008.

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