Campaigners against justice cuts should claim Margaret Thatcher’s guru as an ally.
In this busy year for anniversaries, there's a danger one intellectual landmark may be overlooked. This month (10 March to be exact), it is 70 years since the exiled Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom (Routledge Classics).
Despite an initial UK print run of only 2,000, Serfdom ranks among the most influential books of the 20th century. In 1944 its attack on state planning and collectivism was highly unfashionable, but it has since become a free market bible. Margaret Thatcher said of encountering it at Oxford: 'It left a permanent mark on my own political character, making me a long-term optimist for free enterprise and liberty and sustaining me through the bleak years of Socialist supremacy in the 1960s and '70s.'
As Serfdom is one of those books that many people feel qualified to dismiss without reading, I should clear up a couple of myths. Nowhere in it does Hayek say all state activity is inherently evil. 'In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing.' He concedes, for example, that to deal with sickness and accidents 'the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong'.
More to the point, he is unequivocal about the need for economic freedom to be underpinned by 'an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted legal framework'. I shall come back to that in a moment.
Where Hayek's critics have a point on is the glaring fact that his gloomy prediction of a slippery slope from any central planning to totalitarianism has proved wrong. After decades of government meddling in economic activity we are manifestly not living under a Nazi or Communist dictatorship. True disciples will no doubt riposte that the transition to serfdom is just a matter of time, but that is an argument for another place.
Re-reading The Road to Serfdom last weekend, what struck me was the power of Hayek's polemic on two particular topics. One, in the splendid chapter entitled The Totalitarians in Our Midst, is the weakness of mainstream intellectuals for economic systems under which they would never themselves want to live.
For example: 'It is pathetic, but characteristic of the muddle into which many of our intellectuals have been led by the conflicting ideals in which they believe, that a leading advocate of the most comprehensive planning like Mr HG Wells should at the same time write an ardent defence of the Rights of Man. The individual rights which Mr Wells hopes to preserve would inevitably obstruct the planning which he desires.'
It is amusing to wonder whom Hayek would slate in such terms today.
However as far as Gazette readers are concerned, what really shines down the decades is Hayek's commitment to the rule of law. 'Stripped of all technicalities this means that government… is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use coercive powers in given circumstances.'
In a premonition of the age of quangocracy, he vividly distinguishes the rule of law from a system in which 'the broadest powers are conferred on new authorities which, without being bound by fixed principles, have almost unlimited discretion in regulating this or that activity of the people'.
And because 'complete independence is of paramount importance', judges unlike almost anyone else should enjoy 'absolute security of employment'.
I don't know if that is enough material with which to challenge the current government's plans on matters such as the right to judicial review, profit-making courts and the ownership of Land Registry – much less legal aid. But, when arguing with a Conservative lord chancellor, The Road to Serfdom is going to be a vastly more useful text than Socialist Worker.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor