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Hayek: Can Conservatives Really Claim Him?

January 12, 2012

by J. Andrew Zalucky

All political factions have their idols, or ‘godfathers’ as people like to say. For movement conservatives, you have your Barry Goldwaters and Ronald Reagans of course, but there are a few more dubious figures as well. Take economist Friedrich Hayek for example. As author of The Road to Serfdom and renowned contributor to the “Austrian School” of political economy, his work once prompted Margaret Thatcher to boldly pronounce at the Conservative party conference “THIS is what we believe”. In the context of the anti-Keynesian backlash of the 1980′s, Hayek’s relatively non-interventionist attitude to economics is seen as a model for the “small government” ideas championed by modern conservatives. From this there has emerged a tendency among conservatives to say,

“Oh, Hayek? He’s one of us!”

But is this really a fair representation of Hayek and his ideas?
Think of it this way:

Person A: “So you disagree with Keynes that government intervention through deficit spending can stimulate enough demand to help alleviate the problems arising from a recession.”

Person B: “In most circumstances, yes I do. I’m uncomfortable with the distortions it creates in the marketplace and in the risk of creating an even larger debt burden.”

Person A: “Oh ok! That means you’re conservative!”

Person B: “Wait…what?”

I don’t think this makes a whole lot of sense, and when you actually take the time to read him, it’s clear that Hayek didn’t think so either. In 1960, Hayek published the Constitution of Liberty. In a chapter entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, Hayek outlines what he sees as conservatism’s weaknesses as a political position. I must say that his words are pretty damning to the conservative mindset. His message struck a very loud note for me, as many of his reasons for not being a conservative tend to match my own:

1. Conservatism’s place in modern politics

For Hayek, conservatism was one point on the triangle of modern political thought. Over the course of events, conservatism points backwards, as the triangle is tugged forward on one side by Liberalism, and on the other by the Socialist movement. In other words, in its desire to maintain the status-quo, conservatism itself must change according where the other two forces have pulled it. (bold text in quotes below are my own selection):

It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments.

Not convinced? Look at the language used by modern conservative parties in Europe and the US. Look at the last Republican presidential debate and observe how Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney did their best to assure the audience that their respective brands of conservatism harbored no hostility to homosexuals, aside from denying them marriage vows. 20 years ago, the question would not have even come up at a Republican debate (perhaps not at the Democratic one either). But because of cultural changes and the move to more liberal/libertarian values, conservatives have no choice but to give this ground, lest they embarrass themselves by seeming out of touch:

…from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality.

You could even look at their attitudes to the social safety net. While they have certainly won the practical arguments for limiting the welfare state, they still have to make concessions to the basic tenets of compassion and social  justice. These concessions often result in an uncomfortable discussion about the deserving and non-deserving poor and of private charity vs. public subsidy, but I will tackle those issues at another time.

2. Conservatism’s attachment to authority

This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

3. On conservatism’s lack of principle (in respect to procedural politics)

It’s important to remember here that the old conservative parties in Europe all had ties to their former monarchical masters and therefore cared little about the openness and debate implicit in Liberal Democracy. For them, it was a tragedy that democracy even arrived in the first place! They only ceded ground and took democracy up as one of their values once they realized they had to (American conservatism is a bit of an anomaly here, as it is predisposed to favor representative government):

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.


4. On the enforcement of moral and religious ideas by coercion

You know the old cliche’, the radical leftist who, after becoming disillusioned with his Marxist convictions, swings to the complete other end of the spectrum. Well, Hayek has an answer to that as well:

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion. This may also explain why it seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal.

5. On it’s implicit nationalism and isolationism:

Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries. But refusal to acquaint one’s self with new ideas merely deprives one of the power of effectively countering them when necessary. The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Conservatives often make grand pronouncements about freedom, prosperity, and human rights as if they were only American values. But how are they not human values? After all, our founding principles have their roots in centuries of British and continental European thought. More to the point, our values are not tied to a nationality or ethnicity, but in ideas contained within a series of written documents.

Ideas have no borders.

So what was Hayek exactly?

Now, we should point out that by 1960, there was already a perceived divergence between classical and modern liberalism. Hayek was very aware of this and was also conscious of the term also commonly attributed to him today: Libertarian. It is also important to point out because of the Libertarian strain that runs through American conservatism which is not found in other conservative parties.

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the sense in which I have used it, the term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.

In the end, Hayek gives up and opts for the term “Wiggian” to associate himself with the old Whig party in Britain and the US. For obvious reasons, this term has yet to catch on with a wider audience, but in his attempt to find a decent term for his beliefs, Hayek makes a valuable point. Since reaching adulthood, I have struggled with how to reconcile my Libertarian instincts with some of my more Liberal (classical and modern) convictions. Some friends like to use the word “Liberaltarian”, but even this strikes me as a way to duck the challenge of creating a new term.

To be fair, if conservatives have found points within Hayek’s economic philosophy that fit with their agenda, then they have every right to cite him as source of thought and wisdom for their movement. I do think it’s clear however, that in light of his own words, Hayek does not fall into their ideological camp.

Not that I’ve helped matters much, as I did purchase this stylish mug for my Mom this Christmas.

Now if you’ll excuse me…I have to go make sure I’m still in the will.

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