Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Serfdom and the State

David Brooks had another column today that made me think.  Not so much about the column itself but of the increasingly common usage today of the phrase "road to serfdom" in American politics.  Apparently a strong state is somehow going to create serfdom through expansion of government programs.

While I can understand why people don't like the idea of a strong state and that a strong state has the potential to lead to a relation of the individual to the state that many people wouldn't desire, calling this serfdom is silly.  From a historical perspective, it's the strong, centralized states that succeeded in abolishing serfdom.  Powerful, centralized monarchies such as England were the first to succeed in taming the individually powerful nobility and replacing systems based on personal bonds between individuals, which is ultimately what serfdom is a part of, with an independent yeomanry bound to and protected by the institutions of the state, not private individuals.  As other states emerged from more primitive forms of early government they succeeded in abolishing serfdom as well.

It was the weak states dependent on the good will of privately powerful individuals that were unable to abolish serfdom.  Weak monarchies such as those in Poland, Germany, and Austria-Hungary went through second serfdoms because the political institutions were unable to centralize into a state and remained earlier forms of semi-feudatory governments that were highly decentralized.  While serfdom covers a wide range of actual institutions, a common theme is that the serf is dependent on another individual rather than having a full range of independent rights guaranteed by centralized political institutions. 

So, while it is perfectly sensible to not like the form of social organization that requires a highly centralized state it is just plain incorrect to relate this state to the earlier feudal state of serfdom.  The distinction between social relations dependent on bonds between man and man are far too different from social relations between man and institutions to make the usage of this term sensible.  Talking about serfdom in the context of centralized political institutions is just nonsense.


  1. I think there's poetic license available to call the relationship of individuals to a strong state serfdom. The criteria of coercion and high expropriation are both present.

    But I would agree that the phrase is all too common nowadays.

  2. Doug,

    If it were confined to poetic license I wouldn't have a problem with it. The reason I take issue with the term is that it mistakes social relations for economic relations, which are related but different. You don't really get coercion until the state steps into social relations and I remain unconvinced that most of those using the term would even acknowledge that there's a difference.