The condensation [of The Road to Serfdom] published in the Reader’s Digest was less an abridgment than a re-creation. Although the final product was widely attributed to Max Eastman, the magazine’s founding editor, DeWitt Wallace, spent hours reworking it himself. Both were drawn to the text in part for ideological reasons: Eastman was a recent convert from socialism and one of Stalinist Russia’s most prominent critics, while Wallace was a staunch anticommunist who had recently guided his magazine, as the sympathetic editor of the Saturday Review of Literature observed, on “a conspicuous list to the extreme Right.” In their reworking of The Road to Serfdom Hayek’s style was simplified and dramatized, his observations were reordered and reconnected, and new sentences were written to impart an appearance of seamlessness to disconnected snippets. As a result, many of Hayek’s qualifications were lost. As one critic observed, the text itself had become an enactment of readers’ tendencies to take sentences out of context in order to support their own point of view…
Conservative politicians, journalists, and business leaders were quick to appropriate the Reader’s Digest version as a useful aid in their efforts to roll back the New Deal state. Citing the fact that it was undoubtedly “one of the most important and significant articles in recent years,” the Digest in a sidebar to the article had advertised reprints made available by the Book-of-the-Month Club, offering steep discounts for bulk orders. Over a million orders for the reprint version were placed, many by corporations and their advocacy groups, dwarfing the 40,000 copies of the original version that had been sold.
Employees of companies including General Motors and New Jersey Power and Light received copies courtesy of their managers. Look published a cartoon version, which was reprinted shortly thereafter in the General Electric Company’s magazine. The National Association of Manufacturers, eager to expand its public relations activities as the war approached a close, mailed free copies to all of its 14,000 members. Editorials in the conservative Hearst newspapers urged “every free-acting, free-thinking, free-writing American” to read “every line,” and its syndicate King Features distributed the condensed version shortly after Hayek’s arrival in the country. In order to exploit this publicity, Hayek’s lecture agency built his tour around presentations before chambers of commerce and bankers’ associations. Meanwhile, moderate business organizations like the Committee for Economic Development chose to keep their distance because Hayek had developed a reputation as— in the words of one observer—“a made-to-order hand grenade for conservatives to hurl at planners.”
The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression