Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Week 6: Libertarianism—Revisiting Hayek

The libertarian icon respected tradition greatly—but only as a precondition of progress.

In the final segment of the first half of this semester’s course, we focus on a relatively more contemporary (if not current) libertarian author, F.A. Hayek. While best known for his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, we will instead be exploring a few chapters from what is arguably his most philosophically accomplished book, The Constitution of Liberty. In particular, I want to explore the interesting confluence and tension that exists in this work between Hayek as both a “traditional” and a “progressive” thinker.

In stark contrast to Mill—who we discussed last week as a key figure in the articulation of libertarianism—Hayek does not begin his analysis with a condemnation of the “tyranny” of tradition and custom. Rather, “tradition” receives strong praise from Hayek, who regards the vibrancy and strength of traditional practices to be essential to a healthy and functioning society. No society can long subsist without inherited moral frameworks. Only the prevalence of a great number of habits permit people to make long-term plans with the assumption of relative stability between present and future. “A successful free society will almost always be a tradition-bound society,” he argues.

Hayek contrasts two understandings of liberty, one of which leads him to endorse the role of tradition. One understanding of liberty comes down through the British and Scottish tradition, and includes thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Edmund Burke. The other is the French tradition inspired by the thought of Descartes, Rousseau, Condorcet, and Comte. The former accepts freedom bounded by the practices of tradition, but thereby is generative of healthy progress. The latter seeks to “make men free” through the imposition of revolutionary reform, and hence generates forms of political tyranny in the name of freedom.

According to Hayek, “British” freedom arose because of an embrace of organic and gradualist change that welled up from broadly-accepted changes amid the people. As developed in the British tradition, change and progress are generated through trial and error, adaptation, evolutionary and cumulative growth. “Tradition” is just another way of saying “practices that people and society develop over time,” the form that “spontaneous order” takes when it is allowed to develop organically and nonhierarchically.

By contrast, Hayek condemns “French” liberty that engages in deracinated, abstract “rationalism.” Such purported efforts to advance liberty are the result of prideful and overweening belief in the ability of a few people to “design” social reform, and to impose it upon a people in spite of their particular situation or native inclination for change.

In the British tradition, change arises organically out of established social patterns and the mores of a society, and thus, well up from “the bottom up.” In the French tradition, reform is conceived as a full-blown plan that is abstracted from the life and patterns of society, and hence is imposed from “the top down.” The two worldviews are motivated by radically different views of human nature. Hayek writes:

The rationalistic design theories were necessarily based on the individual man’s propensity for rational action and goodness. The evolutionary theory, on the contrary, showed how certain institutional arrangements would induce man to use his intelligence to the best effect and how institutions could be framed so that bad people could do the least harm. The anti-rationalist tradition is here closer to the Christian tradition of the fallibility and sinfulness of man, while the perfectionism of the rationalist is in irreconcilable conflict with it. (120)

While these chapters at first blush would seem to exist in contradiction with Mill’s criticisms of “Custom” and would seem to merit placing Hayek—and perhaps liberatarianism—in the “conservative” camp, there are good grounds to understand Hayek’s defense of tradition as a preferred ground for progress. Unlike the times when Mill was writing, for Hayek the greatest threat to liberty no longer seemed to be the tradition-bound opinions that demanded conformity—particularly instantiated in “custom”—but rather the threat to liberty through directives of governmental central planning, empowered by the intervening philosophical developments of Progressive liberalism. While for Mill, government power should be used on occasion to restrain public opinion and protect transgressive individuals, for Hayek, progressive innovation was more likely to arise from the countless decisions of individuals in the ongoing development of ways of life, while government power increasingly seemed designed to thwart such developments. For Hayek, “tradition” was actually a constantly changing and shifting body of views and beliefs, largely accepted on a loose and voluntary basis in a way that did not bind individuals as firmly as he feared was the case of centralized government diktat. Indeed, eschewing Millian arguments to achieve Millian ends, Hayek held that tradition and custom were flexible enough to allow for considerable innovation:

It is this flexibility of voluntary rules which in the field of moral makes gradual evolution and spontaneous growth possible, which allows further experience to lead to modifications and improvements. Such an evolution is possible only with rules which are neither coercive nor deliberately imposed—rules which, though observing them is regarded as merit and though they will be observed by a majority, can be broken by individuals who feel that they have strong enough reasons to brave the censure of their fellows. (124)

Hayek’s “tradition” was thus defended for the end of progress and change—indeed, change that he argued ought to be considerably more rapid and transformative than his arguments in defense of tradition would initially seem to suggest. Progress is the inevitable result of unpredictable developments that are the product of the inquiring and innovating human mind. It can’t be said in advance whether any experiment or idea will turn out well, but Hayek has faith in the human capacity always to turn potentially baleful developments into unexpected forms of progress. As such, his arguments are not “traditional,” hewing closely to ways of ancestors: “It is not the fruits of past success but the living in and for the future in which human intelligence proves itself.” Change has no particular object but change: “progress is movement for movement’s sake” (95).

That said, Hayek is aware that a society that is in fact no longer “traditional”—relatively stable and very slowly-changing—in fact demands not only change, but rapid change as a matter of social necessity. Absent stability, the only option is rapid progress. This is because a changing society will foster relatively high degrees of inequality, and thus, potentially destabilizing dissatisfaction. Only rapid progress can ensure that the greater inequality of dynamic societies is acceptable to those who are “left behind.” “Progress at such a fast rate cannot proceed on a uniform front but must take place in echelon fashion, with some far ahead of the rest.” If such inequality is allowed to become stabilized, political and social dislocation is the likely result. As a matter of political exigency, Hayek argues, “in order that the great majority should in their individual lives participate in the advance, it is necessary that it proceed at a considerable speed” (96; emphasis mine).

“Tradition” thus exists to supply the venue for speedy progress. The speed of progress is needed to allay social discontent. And progress itself exists for the sake of progress. While opposed to “Progressive” fondness for central power and government planning, one is finally struck by the similar commendation of progress as an inevitable feature of modern society by libertarians, as much as by progressives. We are “captives of progress,” Hayek states—a curious formulation by a proponent of liberty, but perhaps finally understandable for one who equates the persistence of political liberty as hinging on constant and accelerating progress, lest society consume itself amid the realization that always only a few are the fullest beneficiaries of that “speedy progress.”

**Our course now takes a week hiatus for Spring Break; we will begin the second half of the course on Conservatism, starting with Natural Rights Conservatism and selections from Leo Strauss, beginning the week of March 23rd.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.



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