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Hayek's anti-conservatism

F. A. Hayek’s 1960 discussion of “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is a useful statement of the arguments in favor of classical liberalism over conservatism. Naturally, I think there are serious problems with them, mostly having to do with Hayek’s agnosticism, which I don’t think works to ground a free social order:

  • Hayek describes [classical] liberalism as “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.” A problem is that life, growth and evolution can’t be final standards. All they say by themselves is that it’s good when things change, and that the new situation shouldn’t be judged by prior standards but by its own. As such it’s a philosophy of power, like fascism or the philosophy of John Dewey. There are distinctions, of course: Hayek’s vitalism is individual and contractual, the fascists’ hierarchical and collective, and Dewey’s perhaps a mixture of the two. All forms of vitalism are unsatisfactory, however. Men like to know what they’re about, and they need some conception of standards to attain integrity. The coming-into-being of I-know-not-what doesn’t do the job.
  • So Hayek does try to tie things down a bit. He also refers to liberals as “defenders of liberty” (meaning individual liberty), which seems a bit more stable. There’s a question though how liberalism as steady defense of a single principle fits together with liberalism as openness to unpredictable growth. If spontaneous evolution is good, why shouldn’t individual freedom spontaneously evolve into something else? Isn’t that what happened historically, with the transition from classical to welfare-state liberalism and then to the current regime of managerially defined and enforced multicultural sensitivity? If that’s the way things seem to be going, why isn’t letting them go that way an instance of freedom?
  • It seems therefore that Hayek’s position needs some dogmas about the nature of individual dignity or whatever that could help anchor “liberty” to some definite conception, but it’s not clear where he can get them when, as he says, “in some [ultimate] respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic” who “will never regard himself as entitled to impose [beliefs on ultimate issues] on others.” If on the most basic things he’s a tolerant skeptic, why does he think classical liberalism should be forced on others who have come to reject it? He says, after all, that he doesn’t “regard majority rule as an end but merely as a means,” so he can’t have any real objection to compelling people against their will.
  • While he deplores “rationalistic Continental liberalism,” and advocates some caution in social matters, he complains that

    “such [traditionalist conservative] figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Moeser, or Donoso Cortes … did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. 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.”

    The “spontaneously grown institutions” both Hayek and traditionalist conservatives praise didn’t arise among future-oriented vitalists who thought human choice (“freedom”) was the ultimate moral reality. They arose among men who were convinced that innovation was usually bad, and that life and human society have objective purposes that were knowable and in fact known. “Free growth” is never self-contained. It takes place in a setting, which in the case of human beings includes understandings of what the world is like that condition and orient further growth. Further, evolution won’t work as advertised if mutations are welcomed rather than treated on the whole rather rudely. If Hayek likes evolution, he should like it even more if there’s lots of natural selection, so that most changes get nipped in the bud and only those that really do seem enduringly to advance our basic interests survive.

I agree with Hayek’s view that conservatism as simple opposition to change is too unprincipled to do much. However, I think that in addition to classical liberalism, which is based on appreciation of the extensive and beneficial role of free agreement in human affairs—together with implicit pre-conditions like a certain understanding of human dignity—there can be a conservatism that is based on appreciation of the extensive, beneficial and necessary role of tradition in affairs—together with pre-conditions like a certain understanding of revelation and what makes a tradition legitimate and authoritative. I’ve given a short account of that kind of conservatism here at Turnabout and a much lengthier treatment in my “theory of everything” essay.

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