Hayek was not a conservative. Here’s why.

This post originally appeared on 22 April, 2016 at (Mostly) Free.

Hayek’s essay ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative‘ is often misremembered as a defensive claim that says conservatives are invested in traditions while liberals want to move forward, and since Hayek considers himself a liberal (in the original sense of the word), he does not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Because Hayek was an advocate of emergent orders who argued against remaking them wholesale, this argument would set him up to fail. But it’s not his argument.

‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as they’re used colloquially don’t fit Hayek’s definitions. As political identifiers, both are increasingly vacuous. These terms need to be defined, not because one is good and the other is bad, but because both are useful. The essay isn’t mounting a defence, it’s setting out definitions.

If you could say to Hayek, “But you aren’t describing what conservatives believe now!” I think he might respond, “Of course not. That’s why I wrote the essay.” Conservatism has real meaning, but it doesn’t imply a timeless set of concrete policy proposals.

From the text:

“… conservatives have been guided by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes – with the result that they have shifted their position every time a more extreme movement appeared on either wing.

The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies.” (520)*

Hayek doesn’t think conservatism is a bad thing. He says that “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” (519) But conservatism’s alliance with liberalism in opposition to socialism was coincidental, a result of “the direction of existing tendencies.” Again from the text:

“Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement.” (520)

 Liberalism, though, is distinct, pursuing a specific policy environment – one meant to accomodate unpredictable ends:

Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy.” (521)

Don’t mistake this for Hayek claiming that conservatives merely want to stand still or go backwards, as is often claimed. He lays out a pretty clear (for Hayek) and robust definition:

“This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since [conservatism] distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks.” (522, emphasis mine)

Let’s unpack this, since Hayek presents it a bit backwards (as was his way, alas). He claims conservatives can be identified by:

  • their reliance on proof by experience rather than theory, and
  • their focus on specific outcomes as political goals

and because of this foundation, from a liberal perspective conservatives tend to: 

  • be over-skeptical of economic theory and open-ended change, and 
  • be under-skeptical of authority and the use of government power. 

He also makes an offhand comment about conservatism not possessing a basis for formulating principles. I’ll explain this last. First, look at how Hayek expands on his definition.

On proof by experience and a corresponding distrust of theory: 

“Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, 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.” (526, emphasis mine)

Conservatives’ respect for proven success explains why they try to replicate by design what were originally emergent processes when they believe those processes led to desirable outcomes. They believe that designing such a plan and having a vision to work toward is necessary to direct change, because they don’t trust change to be a positive force without oversight. There’s nothing overtly objectionable, insulting, or outdated or unrealistic about this description.

Returning to the text:

On requiring specific, outcome-based goals, rather than a framework of disinterested rules to govern change: 

“I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.” (526, emphasis mine)

On distrust of open-ended change: 

“But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.” (522)

~

On acceptance of authority: 

“In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others.” (524)

On the use of authority to direct change: 

“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.” (523, emphasis mine)

Hayek seems to unfairly claim that conservatives have no guiding principles on several occasions. But he’s just being persnickety with language. See here:

“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. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.” (523-4, emphasis mine)

Conservatives can be pragmatic and choose to compromise, but it’s compatibility of ends, not a single, cosmopolitan political principle, that allow them to work with those who have different goals. If conservative goals are incompatible with liberalism’s open-ended growth, we shouldn’t expect an alliance to hold. Conservatives can and do act consistently according to the principles of their individual or shared beliefs, but they are individual or shared, not political or general, and the people who hold them have specific ends in mind, not a principle meant to accommodate the disparate goals of as many people as possible.

To summarize and lay to rest the claim that Hayek oversimplifies the issue (and admits his own conservatism in the process):

“There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension… There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”” (522)

Defining ‘conservative’ this way breaks it free of the left/right distinction, just as liberalism defies it when it pursues ‘right-wing’ goals like liberalizing trade and ‘left-wing’ goals like liberalizing drug policy.

Conservatism on the left tries to direct economic change by following a mid-20th century economic model that supported relatively high security and pay even for low-skilled workers. Conservatism on the right pursues social stability by trying to enshrine social institutions like the nuclear, heterosexual family or replicate western political success with foreign intervention. This spectrum-straddling conservatism explains skepticism of the modern food supply, global trade, GMOs, and modern medicine on both the left and right.

So it’s true. The language in the essay is not always contemporary – but Hayek wrote this essay because he knew the language would not remain contemporary! The essay is more relevant, not less, because terms like ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ have devolved to pejorative and because most modern use of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ refers to policies that self-identified liberals and conservatives like or dislike, rather than any specific set of policy goals or principles.

We should push back against vacuous and pejorative terms so we can stop talking past each other. We can use ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ to talk about similarities across established political lines – acknowledging there is both skepticism and openness to change on both ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ in public discourse. If we can, we might be able to break down some of the hostility across those lines and improve the quality of the public debate that forms the backbone of successful democracy.

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*All page references from Hayek, F.A. 2011 [1960]. The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Immigration and unicorn thinking

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There is a popular myth among some libertarians and many conservatives that restricting immigration is something that’s consistent with the ideals of small government. Immigration policy, they say, is about policing of the border and regulating foreigners, not about infringing on the property and individual rights of citizens. To the chagrin of some, I concede that this is a consistent belief for a libertarian to hold.

But it’s a belief based on “unicorn” policy, not reality. It’s akin to our friends on the left who believe in helping low-income people by raising the minimum wage. Consistent, but based on how they imagine it should work rather than on what both theory and experience suggest. The simple fact is that you can’t control immigration without controlling the citizens of a country. Read more

Bernier’s bad bet

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Maxime Bernier is taking a gamble. He believes that there is a large, disenfranchised voting bloc in Canada on which he can capitalise to form a new party that, he says, will focus on smaller, constitutional government that respects taxpayers and opposes economic favouritism—though he’s spent more time in the news for culture warring.

His gamble seems to be that the anti-immigration and anti-political correctness crowds to whom he’s been throwing bones will (a) make up a part, but not the basis, of his political coalition, and (b) be willing to make concessions on these issues to support a core mission of smaller, constitutionally restrained government.

Unfortunately for Bernier, if he’s sincere that this is his goal he’s made his gamble based on an out-of-date understanding of politics in Western countries. The political climate in which this was likely to succeed—the one in which Bernier has spent his political career—is changing.
Read more

The wrong kind of anti-democratic

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has announced that it will cut the size of Toronto’s city council almost in half.

This odd decision (mid-election, it’s an expensive one) creates an opportunity to address an interesting quirk about Ontario’s right-of-centre party. Sometimes people will say something along the lines of, “LOL!! Progressive Conservative? Sounds like an oxymoron to me!”

A better understanding of early 20th-century politics, progressivism, and conservatism can show us why it’s not. It also helps us explore why the Ontario PCs might support smaller municipal councils and why doing so might be a mistake.  Read more

In Fostering Free Speech, Communication Is Key

The campus free speech debate is an important one, but it has unfortunately been hijacked by two opposing sides that hold two polarizing positions. On one side, there are the people who firmly believe speech can cause harm, and anything perceived to be hate speech must be shut down by any means necessary, including sometimes by violence. On the other side, there are people who firmly believe there is a free-speech crisis on campus led by post-modern neo-Marxists with the goal of shutting down only the speech they deem offensive.

Yet it’s wrong to see the free-speech debate as only containing two arguments. There is an alternative view. That view posits that there simply isn’t enough communication between those who take issue with offensive speech and prefer to shut it down, and those who believe “social justice warriors” are bringing about the destruction of free speech. Instead of actually speaking to one another, they shout, they break things, and they call each other names. They even accuse each other of contributing to the destruction of modern civilization, among other overly-dramatic claims.

Read more

Ayn Rand, Donald Trump, and Lex Luthor Walk into a Bar…

What does the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have in common with a couple of garden-variety supervillains like Donald Trump and Lex Luthor? Well, if you haven’t actually read anything she wrote and are going solely by hearsay and conjecture, it’s easy enough to blame Ayn Rand for all the ills of the world. The truth of the matter, though, is that she was extremely concerned about morality, and gave the subject a great deal of thought. Critics may disagree with her conclusions, of course. But only if they have an accurate understanding of what they are in the first place.

Lex Luthor, for example, is not a Randian hero. He thinks he’s better than the rest of humanity and wants to rule the world as a consequence. He doesn’t much care whom he destroys as he claws his way to the top, either. And he has a particular hate on for that uppity alien, Superman.

In contrast, an Ayn Rand hero, while supremely confident in his or her abilities, simply wants to get value for value, exchanging goods and services for money in voluntary transactions, and has no interest in ruling anyone. A trader with a benevolent sense of life, he or she explicitly rejects the master-slave dichotomy, intent on meeting others as equals before the law. Rand furthermore wrote a scathing essay condemning racism as the lowest form of collectivism, and she would no more judge a person by the indestructibility of his skin than by its colour.

Donald Trump, for his part, despite having surely done some good through deregulation and tax cuts, has also done plenty of bad. To take just one issue, he could not be more wrong on international trade. Whether with your neighbour across the street or a stranger on the other side of the planet, unfettered trade is a positive-sum affair, with both parties generally coming out ahead. Open commerce furthermore spurs people to be more productive and innovative. Make it more difficult or expensive to trade—say, with a tariff—and everyone but the specific beneficiary loses.

Rand understood this perfectly, and in fact expertly dramatized the issue in Atlas Shrugged. That book’s protagonists are fighting for the freedom to engage in unfettered trade, while its villains are pleading for special favours and restrictions on their competitors, messing with the steel market specifically, in fact.

You don’t have to like Ayn Rand’s work. A lot of people find enormous value in it, myself included, but it’s not for everybody. Still, to make a useful contribution to humanity, as opposed to just parading one’s ignorance around for all to see, at least a passing familiarity with the object of one’s criticism is required. Anything less is just a joke.

The “unruly” women who fought for Canadian liberty

Canadian women who care about liberty often look to our cousins in the United States for women who have contributed to the liberal tradition. Among libertarians it’s common to look to Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, and Isabel Paterson, the “founding mothers” of libertarianism.

Elinor Ostrom, still the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, advocated grassroots community management of common-pool resources rather than centralized government control. Like Ostrom, Jane Jacobs’ work on urban development showed how decentralized governance and “humble people [solving] humble problems” are superior to top-down solutions. These, and many others, are remarkable women whom we ought always to look to for inspiration.

Although Isabel Paterson and Jane Jacobs were also Canadian, too many Canadian champions of liberty are often overlooked. It should be no surprise that Canadian women helped make our country freer. Learning more about them, we can draw inspiration from their achievements.

This International Women’s Day, we’d like to take a closer look at four incredible and overlooked Canadian women who worked relentlessly for the cause of freedom: Chloe Cooley, Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, Mary-Ann Shadd, and Viola Desmond. Read more

Getting So Much Better All the Time

In my previous post, I cited some facts from Johan Norberg’s recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, showing that in many ways, life on Earth is better than ever. On average, we humans have more food to eat, better access to clean water, and better sanitation. We live much longer lives, and there is a lot less extreme poverty in the world than there used to be, despite there being many more of us around. But what about violence, the environment, and inequality? It turns out there is good news on these fronts as well.

It’s true that we can all easily call to mind ample evidence of violence depicted on the nightly news or social media. This ease is one of the reasons we think we live in violent times. But there’s a strong bias for sharing bad news: If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. It just isn’t newsworthy to point out that most people were not murdered last night, or that most parts of the world are not war zones.

Yet the numbers are clear. Read more

Diversity in social movements

The diversity of movements and organisations shapes them.

This might sound trite, but it also creates a barrier to more diverse movements. This 2011 Daily Kos article is one of my favourite things on the Internet. (I know. The headline. Persevere.) It’s a consultant’s story about trying to help feminist groups become more racially diverse.

This isn’t necessarily about racism or sexism or classism or anythingelseism. It’s more about a kind of Hayekian concept of privilege. We don’t know what’s in other peoples’ heads, so we miss stuff when we don’t interact with or listen to each other.

Treating the Daily Kos article as a case study gives some insight into the barriers to diversity and shows us why diversifying can lead to pushback. Read more