Hayek and Conservatism

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Jonah Goldberg, an editor at National Review, very strangely refers to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as "the books…which form the core of modern conservative philosophy" in a piece entitled "Goldberg’s Conservative Canon."

Russell Kirk belongs in that group. Kirk was a self-described conservative, and he appears to have described himself correctly (not everyone does).

Friedrich Hayek, on the other hand, is not a conservative.

The best evidence for this claim is the postscript to Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, tellingly titled "Why I Am Not a Conservative."

In that postscript, Hayek observes that conservatism is only as good as what is conserves. In Europe, conservatism tends toward the conservation of the aristocratic order. In the United States, conservatism tends toward the conservation of institutions which happen to be fundamentally liberal institutions. (By "liberal," Hayek means oriented toward human liberty).

To avoid this confusion, Hayek refers to himself as "an Old Whig," along the lines of Edmund Burke. Hayek disdains the term "liberal" as confusing, because it has been taken over by illiberal socialists. He similarly disdains "classical liberal" and "libertarian" as cumbersome. (Ignore, for the moment, that "Old Whig" is not exactly a clear label.)

Hayek’s work, he explains, is not about "conserving" anything, but about re-stating the principles of the philosophy of freedom to a generation which has nearly lost the very concept of freedom. Hayek observes in The Constitution of Liberty that the West was fighting a Cold War against Communism, but that most people living in the West had no idea what about the West was worth defending. Hayek, then, also disdains the label "conservative" because it does not imply that he is actively working for human freedom.

When Goldberg writes that "Hayek is distrusted by some pure libertarians because…he had a go-with-what-works approach," it should be noted that Goldberg does not reference any particular work of Hayek on this point.

The reason for this is that Hayek himself criticizes the very "pragmatism" which Goldberg champions.

Consider the following passage from page 57 of Rules and Order, volume one of Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty:

That freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages was fully understood by the leading liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century, one of whom [Benjamin Constant] even described liberalism as u2018the system of principles’. Such is the chief burden of their warnings concerning u2018What is seen and what is not seen in political economy’ [Frederic Bastiat] and about the u2018pragmatism that contrary to the intentions of its representatives inexorably leads to socialism’. [Carl Menger]

That we should foreswear all principles or u2018isms’ in order to achieve greater mastery over our fate is even now proclaimed as the new wisdom of our age. Applying to each task the u2018social techniques’ most appropriate to its solution, unfettered by any dogmatic belief, seems to some the only manner of proceeding worthy of a rational and scientific age.

How the foregoing passage puts Hayek at the "core of modern conservative philosophy" is not clear.

To be fair, it does not appear that Goldberg has read Law, Legislation and Liberty. He recommends The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit as exemplary works by Hayek.

It should be noted, as Hayek explains in the introduction to the book, that The Road to Serfdom was published in England 1944 in an effort to get English socialists to see that they were on the same path that brought the National Socialists (the "Nazis") to power in Germany and the Communists to power in Russia. The Road to Serfdom, then, is not Hayek’s fully-developed case for freedom.

Hayek’s philosophy of freedom is ultimately developed in four books. First, Hayek describes the foundations of the free society in The Constitution of Liberty, published in 1962. (Hayek uses the term "constitution" in the sense of a man’s health or his physical make-up).

Even that book, however, was found lacking by Hayek himself, and so he wrote the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty, which were published in the 1970s.

(With respect to The Fatal Conceit, it should be noted that some scholars dispute whether Hayek or his editor wrote the book.)

Conceding the fact that Hayek’s works are a masterful exposition of the philosophy of freedom, it is inexcusable for Goldberg to simply brush Mises aside as irrelevant.

It was, after all, Ludwig von Mises who turned the young Hayek away from socialism after the First World War. It was Mises who gave Hayek a job with the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (an official branch of the government, not a civic group as in the United States today).

It was Mises who not only demolished socialism in his 1923 book Socialism, but who also developed a positive account of liberal political philosophy in his 1927 book Liberalism.

(For those in search of a canon, start with those two books. You can read them both online for free at the Mises Institute web site.)

Despite the greatness of Hayek, he was not as great a systematic thinker as Mises.

In The Constitution of Liberty, for example, Hayek claims that, so long as it is making general rules (i.e., not legislating for the particular advantage of any one group), the government can perform certain services in competition with private companies, or when no private company does the job. Most Austrian economists, Mises included, would argue that the government ought not compete in the marketplace, and that if no private entrepreneur can do something for a profit, that is precisely the reason why government ought not to do it: it is a waste of resources.

Perhaps this is what Goldberg is getting at by his reference to Hayek’s "pragmatism."

If so, it should be noted that Hayek does not view his own acceptance of occasional market interventions as a "pragmatic" compromise of laissez-faire principles. Instead, Hayek maintains that the government must be careful not to intervene in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. The "Great Society" as Hayek refers to the free society, cannot survive if freedom is pushed aside in favor of rationally determined planning of society. This is why Hayek quotes Carl Menger’s criticism of "pragmatism" and at the same time advocates aspects of the welfare state. (This is also why some Austrian economists refer to Hayek as a "pinko.")

Is Goldberg advocating the welfare state in advocating Hayek’s alleged "go-with-what-works approach"? One is forced to wonder.

Memo to Jonah Goldberg and National Review: free means free. Regulation means regulation, whether it is Robert Reich or Jack Kemp who write the regulations.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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