Truly great books are difficult to classify. If that's the only standard, F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is a great book. Is it philosophy? economics? political theory? history? cultural investigation? literary prophecy?
In the end we can only answer "Yes" to all those questions. Today Hayek is best remembered as a libertarian economist of the Austrian School, trained by the eminent Ludwig von Mises and, despite a Nobel Prize in 1974, strangely unheeded in most of the West.
Until recently, of course. After many of his predictions (made during World War II) began coming true there was a resurgence of interest in his work, especially in the United States where some optimistic souls believe it might not be too late to implement his ideas and save the U.S. from otherwise certain doom.
Because Fascist regimes tended to persecute leftists, a lot of theorists in the first half of the 20th century assumed movements like German Nazism were rooted in the ideology of the Right and capitalism. The assumption persists, and so socialism has been allowed a foothold as a safeguard against Fascism. Hayek argued that Fascism was in fact rooted in the same ideologies that had produced socialist thinking, and that if nations could embrace that truth they would also embrace free enterprise and a dedication to the individual liberties of citizens.
His warnings went unheeded. Some listened (Winston Churchill was notably influenced by The Road to Serfdom), but most devoted themselves to the ideas of thinkers like John Maynard Keynes, an economist and political thinker whose idea of capitalism was interventionist and highly regulated. Hayek, though recognized as a brilliant thinker, was largely ignored.
This book is nonetheless one of the greatest works of social and political theory written in the last 150 years. Building on the long-espoused idea that loss of freedom rarely (if ever) happens overnight and is instead the result of citizens gradually abdicating their freedoms and responsibilities, Hayek shows with chilling accuracy the march of the Western democracies toward political, economic and intellectual bondage to the State.
Hayek was a "classical liberal," an epithet that clearly demonstrates the transitory nature of terms. Classical liberals upheld the ideals now associated with the conservative Right, like personal liberty, freedom of the press and religion, free market economics that are self-regulating and beneficial to the greatest number of people over the greatest length of time, and the promotion of virtue.
All these ideals inform The Road to Serfdom, a book which, despite its author's clarity of expression, is sometimes difficult. Many readers, even those who agree with Hayek, will react against his pronouncements or think he's going too far. Which is another mark of a great book. There are few who would deny the greatness of Hayek's most famous work, or admit it to the canon of Western intellectual thought.
The Road to Serfdom must be read by anyone who understands the danger America is in but can't see the way out, and all those even the slightest bit curious about conservative and libertarian political thought and its application.