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The Continuing Relevance of Hayek's Critique of Conservatism:

My recent post on the continuing relevance of F.A. Hayek's critique of socialism brings to mind his critique of conservatism, much of which also remains relevant. Most of Hayek's work was focused on criticizing socialism and related left-wing ideologies. During his heyday (roughly form the 1930s to the 1960s), conservatism was a fairly marginal force in the intellectual world, while many perceived socialism as the wave of the future. Nonetheless, Hayek wrote a famous 1960 essay entitled "Why I am not a Conservative," some of which has continuing relevance as a critique of conservatism even today. In reading the essay, it's important to keep in mind that Hayek used the word "liberal" to denote something like what "libertarian" or "classical liberal" mean today. It is also worth noting that Hayek believed there were some important commonalities of interest between libertarians and conservatives, at least in the United States. Nonetheless, he also believed that conservatism has major shortcomings.

The word "conservatism" is a vague term that covers a wide range of ideas. Hayek's criticisms don't necessarily apply to every version of conservative thought. A few of his arguments are totally dated, and some perhaps were invalid even back in 1960. But several apply to various forms of conservatism that remain influential today. In particular, Hayek's criticisms of conservative for their excessive aversion to change, their attachment to discretionary government power, their willingness to use state power to enforce "moral" values, and their tendency towards "strident nationalism" all retain considerable force.

Hayek suggested that conservatives emphasize aversion to change at the expense of developing a clear alternative to left-wing progressivism:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. 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. But, though there is a need for a "brake on the vehicle of progress," I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

This point does not apply to all forms of conservatism. For example, "religious right" conservatives clearly do have a theologically inspired "alternative to the direction we are moving." However, it does apply to the still-common "Burkean conservatism" which defines itself primarily by its support for tradition and opposition to rapid change. Hayek's claim that conservatives share important "basic conceptions" with socialists (or at least with statist liberals), also has great resonance in the age of "big government conservatism," a platform adopted by Republicans such as George W. Bush, and Mike Huckabee. By no means all conservatives fall into this category. But a good many do.

Hayek's claim that conservatives are excessively tolerant of discretionary authority in government is also relevant at a time when many conservatives have embraced the Bush Administration's assertion of virtually unlimited executive power:

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. 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. [emphasis added]

Like the previous one, this criticism does not extend to all conservatives. But it does apply to a significant number of highly influential ones.

It is also difficult to dispute that many modern conservatives remain vulnerable to Hayek's criticism that they are overly eager to use the power of the state to impose their preferred "moral" values:

[T]o 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.

As I argue in this article, many social conservatives fail to see that the same shortcomings they see in government intervention in the "economic" sphere also apply to government regulation of "morals" and culture.

Finally, Hayek was on point in noting the connection between conservatism and nationalism, which he (correctly, in my view) viewed as a generally pernicious force:

Connected with the conservative distrust if 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.

A great deal more might be said about the close connection between conservatism and nationalism . . . I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of "our" industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest [by the government].

This point has all sorts of applications to conservative positions on trade, immigration, and other policy debates in the US. Certainly, it is reflected in assertions by many conservatives that foreigners and immigrants must be prevented from competing with "our" industries, taking "our" jobs, using "our" resources, and so on.

Outside the US, the connection between conservative nationalism and xenophobia on the one hand, and statism on the other is even more evident. For example, the use of nationalism as a "bridge from conservatism to collectivism" was a central tenet of Nazi and Fascist ideology.

Not all conservatives are strident nationalists, just as not all are averse to change or enamored of broad executive power. Because the word "conservatism" applies to so many different movements and ideas, it would be wrong to assume that Hayek's criticisms are relevant to all conservatives. But they do still apply to a great many.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Today, it Really is F.A. Hayek's 110th Birthday!
  2. Happy 110th Birthday F.A Hayek!
  3. The Continuing Relevance of Hayek's Critique of Conservatism:
  4. Is Hayek Still Relevant?
JFred (mail):
Liberals also enforce their morality; Witness Lawrence vs Texas wherein sexual morality, and centuries of precedent, is thrown into the legal dustbin. Replaced by the new shibboleth, the medicalization of sexual morality.

Laws against "Corrupting the morals of a minor" are replaced with laws specifying the number of years between the ages of the sexual participants; All based on extremely shaky science. Virtually pseudo-science. If a couple of studies should someday "show" that a coupling between a 9-year-old and a kangaroo produces healthy sexuality in later years, possibly for the kangaroo, then it will be legalized. Or rather, found to be suddenly constitutional.

The canard that the elected representatives of the people of Texas lack the wisdom to enforce basic sexual morality was created to allow the State to enforce it's latest cultural fashion.
7.28.2008 3:07am
Randy R. (mail):
"Liberals also enforce their morality; Witness Lawrence vs Texas wherein sexual morality, and centuries of precedent, is thrown into the legal dustbin."

Since most states had repealed their sodomy laws by the time Lawrence was decided, you would have to conclude that the majority of Americans agreed it was time to throw centuries of precedent into the legal dustbin of history.

Of course, it wasn't centuries. Sodomy laws were only passed in most states in the 1890s. But who cares about facts when you have morality on your side, right?

"The canard that the elected representatives of the people of Texas lack the wisdom to enforce basic sexual morality was created to allow the State to enforce it's latest cultural fashion."

Canard it is, because the fact is that the State of Texas legislature actually did repeal it's sodomy law, only to have it vetoed by then Gov. GW Bush. One law in Texas was successfully repealed, however, and that was the law that prohibited beastiality. I guess the good citizens of Texas thought that screwing the cows was a good example of 'basic sexual morality," right?
7.28.2008 3:28am
Randy R. (mail):
My, how it must frost people like JFred to know that some people, somewhere, are having sex and enjoying it.....That is the true definition of a conservative!
7.28.2008 3:30am
Matt Tievsky (mail):
I agree that modern American "liberals" support the legal enforcement of certain moral beliefs they hold, notwithstanding their purported opposition to "legislating morality." But Lawrence is not an example of such; the decision was actually an example of the de-enforcement of sexual morality.
7.28.2008 3:55am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Of course, it wasn't centuries. Sodomy laws were only passed in most states in the 1890s. But who cares about facts when you have morality on your side, right?
I hate to sound all Clayton Cramer, but bullshit. Sodomy was illegal in the U.S. at the founding and continued to be so until the last quarter of the 20th century. (Perhaps you mean laws which focused specifically on homosexual sodomy? But that's an irrelevant claim in this context, obviously. A law which bans all sodomy bans homosexual sodomy.)
7.28.2008 4:00am
jim47:

This point does not apply to all forms of conservatism. However, it does apply to the still-common "Burkean conservatism" which defines itself primarily by its support for tradition and opposition to rapid change.


My understanding is that Hayek was quite fond of Burke, styling himself an "Old Whig" in allusion to Burke, and himself being one of the greatest interpreters of Burke in the twentieth century.

In fact, Hayek says in the very same essay:


So unproductive has conservatism been in producing a general conception of how a social order is maintained that its modern votaries, in trying to construct a theoretical foundation, invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal. Macaulay, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Lecky certainly considered themselves liberals, and with justice; and even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.


So Hayek would certainly criticize those conservatives who use Burke as a basis for simply opposing change, but I think it is a mistake to assume, as Ilya seems to, that all Burkeanism is primarily an embrace of tradition and a resistance to rapid change; rather, much of Burkeanism is primarily a theory of the origin, development and maintenance of social order.

Certainly the man who considers himself both a Hayekian and a Burkean conservative must cope with the fact that Hayek thought the conservative label an inapt one, but that seems like more of an issue of semantics and identification than a serious intellectual challenge.
7.28.2008 4:11am
Grover Gardner (mail):
Thanks Jfred, for providing living, breathing proof of the Continuing Relevance of Hayek's Critique of Conservatism.
7.28.2008 4:25am
PersonFromPorlock:
It's a characteristic of some conservatives and some liberals that they see a primary function of government as marching 'ordinary' people to virtue at bayonet's point. This is, in America, either a continuation or a development of Puritanism; it's no accident that Massachusetts (for instance) has gone so seamlessly from the one to the other - in a sense, it hasn't changed at all.

As for economic nationalism, there's a practical reason for it, as we'll learn when China takes over Taiwan, tells us to get stuffed and can make it stick because they've become our retail economy's main supplier. Economic internationalism and capitalists who will not only 'sell the rope with which to hang them' but move their rope factories to foreign countries reduce America to depending on the kindness of strangers.
7.28.2008 4:47am
Ricardo (mail):
As for economic nationalism, there's a practical reason for it, as we'll learn when China takes over Taiwan, tells us to get stuffed and can make it stick because they've become our retail economy's main supplier.

Aside from the question of just how difficult it would be to re-import Chinese products from other countries or find replacement suppliers in other countries this misses two other points.

First, forbidding exports to the U.S. would cause unemployment in China. If there's one thing China's government fears, it's widespread unemployment -- it's only as long as the economy is booming that China's rulers can claim to be enlightened rulers with the country's best interests at heart. China has just as much to lose as the U.S. does from severed trade links.

Second, if China wants to play economic warfare, the U.S. can counter by imposing capital controls on funds destined for mainland China. China holds over half a trillion dollars worth of Treasury securities and unknown quantities of other U.S.-based assets through sovereign wealth funds and other channels. The market value of all these would evaporate overnight probably causing a large-scale financial crisis in China. No, it would not be particularly smart of China to try to play this game.

Slightly off topic but I have to disagree with anyone who thinks economic nationalism is rational or practical.
7.28.2008 5:24am
Arkady:
Today's online WSJ Opinion page carries an article entitled:


"Civil Rights and the Conservative Movement
How the right got it wrong," by William Voegeli



(Reprinted from First Things)

Can Ilya give us some idea of what Hayek may have thought of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Or of the civil rights movement in general?
7.28.2008 8:26am
vassil petrov (mail):
Can Ilya give us some idea of what Hayek may have thought of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Or of the civil rights movement in general?

I don't know about Ilya, but I'm 99% sure that I,ve read somewhere in the Constitution of Liberty a critique of the so called "Right to Work" laws. But the Constitution of Liberty was written before 1964.
7.28.2008 9:50am
lochner:
Excellent post. Besides The Road to Serfdom, I believe one of Hayek's most significant contributions (which, for some reason, does not receive the attention it deserves) is his book The Mirage of Social Justice (Vol. 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty).

Ilya, are you familiar with this work? If so, do you have any thoughts on Hayek's primary thesis: that the term "social justice" is devoid of any meaning whatsoever in a free society. Specifically, that "social justice" could have meaning only within the context of a centrally planned society.
7.28.2008 9:50am
vassil petrov (mail):
I don't know about Ilya, but I'm 99% sure that I,ve read somewhere in the Constitution of Liberty a critique of the so called "Right to Work" laws. But the Constitution of Liberty was written before 1964.

EndNote 24/Ch. 18: "Such Legislation, to be consistent with our principles, should not go beyond declaring certain contracts invalid, which is sufficient for removing all pretext for action to obtain them. It should not, as the title of the "right-to-work" laws may suggest, give individuals a claim to a particular job, or even (as some of the laws in force in certain American states do) confer a right to damages for having been denied a particular job, when the denial is not illegal on other grounds. The objections against such provisions are the same as those which apply to "fair employment practices" laws."
7.28.2008 10:02am
Jay:
I thought "right to work" laws were about mandatory union membership, not giving anyone a claim to a particular job.
7.28.2008 10:07am
vassil petrov (mail):
I thought "right to work" laws were about mandatory union membership, not giving anyone a claim to a particular job.

Hayek's point was that in order to regain the rule of law in the realm of labor we do not need to resort to some discriminatory or oppressive laws against the unions etc., but only to declare certain practices and contracts null and void, thus denying them the sanction of the state. The countermeasure of mandatory union membership was not to give anyone harmned by it a claim to a particular job.
7.28.2008 10:13am
vassil petrov (mail):
Excellent post. Besides The Road to Serfdom, I believe one of Hayek's most significant contributions (which, for some reason, does not receive the attention it deserves) is his book The Mirage of Social Justice (Vol. 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty).

It does here in Bulgaria, at least among the people interested in the subject-areas of law and economics.
The first Hayek's book I read was Vol. 1 of the Law, Legislation and Liberty. It was included in the recommended reading list for our seminary classes on General Theory of Law in the first year at the law school. Thank God I had young, ambitious and interested in his work assistant professor.
7.28.2008 10:19am
Randy R. (mail):
David N>."I hate to sound all Clayton Cramer, but bullshit."

I stand corrected. I was confusing it with another issue (harsher penalities were instituted in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials), but you are correct. However, the rest of my post I believe is correct.

Don't worry about it -- few people sound like Clayton.
7.28.2008 10:39am
Daniel San:
The religious right may put the brakes on in different ways, but they have done little in pushing an alternative direction. If there is an alternative vision (except in very limited circles) it is a vague notion of "getting back to the way it used to be."

The religious right, in political terms, is best understood as conservativism with an element of populism. They do not differ very much from conservativism as Hayek critiqued it.
7.28.2008 11:43am
Rich B. (mail):
The problem isn't "Conservatism" as much as it is "People." People are afraid of change, and therefore open to the Conservative view, but more often than not the change is "Good" or "Neutral", and then the Conservatives can't get any traction to actually change things "back to the good old days."

It is easy to oppose in vitro fertilization or more lenient divorce laws or gay marriage, because they seem like a big change that can Completely Change Everything, but when it turns out that nothing much changed, it's really hard to get up the momentum to Change Things Back.
7.28.2008 12:09pm
Flash Gordon (mail):
The conservative principles that were advocated by William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan were the same as those Hayak refers to as liberal, i.e., classical liberalism. Those principles are being advocated on a daily basis by Rush Limbaugh.

Hayak was largely referring to Toryism in Britain and the isolationist conservatives in America in the 1930's and 40's. His chief complaint is that brand of conservatism has no impetus to stop and reverse the rise of socialism, only to see it imposed at a slower rate.

Hayak would probably say the same about today's Republicans who at one time stood for true conservatism but have recently lost their way and abandoned the principles that got them elected to office. G.W. Bush has to be the quintessential such conservative of this new lost generation of former conservatives.

Neocon is a word for former socialists who saw the light and embraced at least the main tenets of the free market. There is as yet not a word for former conservatives who have embraced the main concept Hayak detested, i.e., that big government is OK so long as the right people are in charge of it. Neither big government conservative nor national greatness conservative are sufficiently descriptive of the intellectual failure they represent. I suggest either chicken-hearted conservative or conservative socialists.
7.28.2008 12:42pm
Oren:
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.
When Limbaugh signs on to this Hayek-ism, I will eat my hat.
7.28.2008 1:46pm
karrde (mail) (www):
As an aside about the use of government to force certain moral behavior:

Some time ago, one member of the Volokh Conspiracy posted about a photographer who declined to do a wedding/committment ceremony involving two females as spouses, and a court later held that such a decline of business amounted to discrimination.

I cannot separate this sequence of events from "enforcing private morality"--that is, the couple involved in the ceremony used the power of the courts to enforce a private morality upon another person, the photographer.

Does this fit?
7.28.2008 2:07pm
Jay Myers:
The "conservatism" that Hayek was criticizing amounts to nothing more than being a reactionary. While a conservative would resist "fixin' what ain't broke", they would not be adverse to change per se. Modern liberals, on the other hand, sometimes seem to be in favor of change for change's sake.
7.28.2008 3:11pm
vassil petrov (mail):
The question is not whether one is for or against change, but whether one is for or against spontaneious change, change that is a product of free markets and free intercourse, and not govetnment directed change.
7.28.2008 3:37pm
a_j_1979:

It is easy to oppose in vitro fertilization or more lenient divorce laws or gay marriage, because they seem like a big change that can Completely Change Everything, but when it turns out that nothing much changed, it's really hard to get up the momentum to Change Things Back.

last week was the 30th anniversary of the birth of the firt in vitro baby. I remember how in those days many people decried it as an abomination. The end result: several thousand people are happier because they were able to conceive, several thousand babies are growing or are already productive adults, and nothing much happened to the other several billions of people. Quite sure the same will happen with gay marriage, a significant increase in happiness for a small percentage of people and basically nothing at all for those who are not gay.

i am unsure about no-fault divorce, though. That, I do think has been a negative change, and I would like to go back at least a little bit on it. Many countries still require a 2 year (or so) separation before divorce is final. I think that a cooling-off, limbo-kind period might be a useful tool in making people re-evaluate their marriage.
7.28.2008 3:40pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
Thanks very much for these posts. It is high time that liberalism was reclaimed from the collectivists and conservatives who would have it misunderstood for their own gain.

One minor clarification: Hayek's not against Burkean conservatism ("though there is a need for a "brake on the vehicle of progress"); he's just refusing to be himself defined that way.
7.28.2008 4:10pm
vassil petrov (mail):
No society has ever perished because of its sexual mores being relaxed, but quite a few - because of socialism and bad economic policies.
7.28.2008 4:27pm
David Warner:
Thank you Professor Somin for putting so much time and thought into these twin posts.

A problem when using the word "conservative" is that it means such different things depending upon one's own experience. To someone weaned on continental philosophy, as are so many thoughtful people, especially and ironically in America, "conservative" will carry not only connotations of the ancien regime of the marriage of altar and state, but also the associated connotations of a nationalism than nearly destroyed said continent.

America's experiences have been dramatically different, however. The vast majority of Americans wish to conserve the divorce of altar and state, not the marriage. The argument here is whether this is best done by limiting the power of the state or the altar. No old-time continental "conservatives" need apply. (note to the guy rushing to provide a link the Christian Reconstructionists or whatever - get back to me when they win a primary)

Likewise, an overriding concern for and allegiance to a nation founded (perhaps accidentally, but nonetheless founded) on liberal principles is an entirely different phenomenon to one arising from a shared passion for blood and soil. Even if we wanted to, what blood is there? Or rather, what isn't? Our soil was expropriated not so very long ago from those with a clearer claim to it. Not exactly a rallying point for world domination. Unless Foucault told you to search for your keys under the streetlamp, and you're really determined to find them.

Again, American conservatives largely see themselves as conserving those principles. Did I mention they're liberal ones? I haven't seen many syllabi of errors recently.

The reason I bring all this up is that Hayek was dead on in describing the personality type which resists change instead of offering constructive alternatives. The ultimate irony is that, by several successive historical accidents, this personality type is by far most prevalent among those in the American context who label themselves "liberal".

This is not a value judgment - brakes on change are necessary - just a wish for more accurate labels.
7.28.2008 7:44pm
srp (mail):
Every ideological type has something they wish to see conserved (possibly after an initial change). Maoists want to conserve a state of perpetual revolution. Classical liberals want to conserve an underlying framework of individual rights. Some people want to conserve a preferred income distribution, others the relative social position of some groups (e.g. intellectuals or proletarians) over others (e.g. capitalists or managers). There are groups that prioritize conservation of a particular set of ethnic or religious practices.

Because of this fact, all groups at times will appear to favor change and at others to oppose it. It all depends on what you're trying to conserve.
7.29.2008 4:52am
Stacy (mail) (www):
"Again, American conservatives largely see themselves as conserving those principles. Did I mention they're liberal ones? I haven't seen many syllabi of errors recently. "

Yes, US political labels have drifted to the point where their inaccuracy actually impedes thinking. "Conservatives" may be what we refer to as Classical Liberals, or they may just want to go back to less-enlightened old ways. These groups have little in common but the label, though even the second type generally supports democracy. The word "liberal" meanwhile is generally taken to mean a person who supports collectivism and high levels of government coercion - not the dictionary definition of liberalism.

So, you find liberals in both the "liberal" and "conservative" camps, with no easy way to pick them out from the sometimes-highly illiberal others. IMO this confusion is the primary culprit in the popular perception that there's no difference between the two major political parties.
7.29.2008 4:52pm
David Warner:
"IMO this confusion is the primary culprit in the popular perception that there's no difference between the two major political parties."

I hadn't thought of that, but I think you're exactly correct, as is, often, that perception, and unless the (true) liberal diaspora decides to reunite, such is likely to continue.

In the British case, the Labour party eventually sucked up too much of the Liberal/Whig political space for the latter to survive as a viable political force.

But America is a nation founded on liberal principles, and likewise both the labor movement and the ancien regime weaker. There should be room for a Liberal party, if we can recover from the hurricane winds of the 20th Century that dispersed us across the current political spectrum.
7.30.2008 1:06am