… is the opening paragraph of Hayek’s profound 1945 lecture “Individualism: True and False,” which appears as chapter 1 of Hayek’s 1948 collection, Individualism and Economic Order:
To advocate any clear-cut principles of social order is today an almost certain way to incur the stigma of being an unpractical doctrinaire. It has come to be regarded as the sign of the judicious mind that in social matters one does not adhere to fixed principles but decides each question “on its merits”; that one is generally guided by expediency and is ready to compromise between opposed views. Principles, however, have a way of asserting themselves even if they are not explicitly recognized but are only implied in particular decisions, or if they are present only as vague ideas of what is or is not being done. Thus has it come about that under the sign of “neither individualism nor socialism” we are in fact rapidly moving from a society of free individuals toward one of a completely collectivist character.
More and more I regard this essay to be Hayek’s finest, at least among those essays that are not devoted to pure economic theory. If I could persuade intelligent people to read one and only one of Hayek’s shorter pieces of scholarship, the piece I would choose would be “Individualism: True and False.” (It’s available on-line here; see chapter 1.) Every page of that essay is full of great wisdom, much learning, careful reasoning, and deeply important insights into the nature of human beings and society. And its concluding paragraph is spectacular.