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Why Hayek Is a Conservative

In honor of F.A. Hayek’s birthday, let’s consider for a moment how he misread himself. In his essay “Why I Am Not A Conservative,” the economist and philosopher argued for a radical anti-state program, in contrast to a conservatism that merely wished to slow the pace of so-called progress or defend the status quo. But […]

In honor of F.A. Hayek’s birthday, let’s consider for a moment how he misread himself. In his essay “Why I Am Not A Conservative,” the economist and philosopher argued for a radical anti-state program, in contrast to a conservatism that merely wished to slow the pace of so-called progress or defend the status quo.

But the beginning of American conservatism as a political movement is usually traced to the New Deal, and until the rise of neoconservatism was focused on repealing it. Hayek seems aware of that when he writes:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century  and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.[2] This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.

I’ve read this passage several times before and can’t escape the feeling that he’s just mistaken; a non-monarchist approximation of continental conservatism is present in the thinking of some of the Founding Fathers, so that isn’t exactly a new import. Moreover, it could be argued that modern American conservatism has always had a counterrevolutionary character, explicitly so for the Middle American Radicals of the Buchanan campaigns who wanted to “break the clock” of the 20th century.

This is another strange idea from “Why I Am Not a Conservative”:

… by its very nature [conservatism] 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

That makes sense if you consider conservatism a disposition and nothing else. Russell Kirk and others have done great work identifying conservatives across the ages by a common disposition, but they all had political ideas that were integral to their worldview too. To say conservatism cannot offer an alternative is to invite the question, “well, which one?” It just isn’t a programmatic ideology like libertarianism is; conservatives have defended everything from constitutional liberty to the divine right of kings. And, actually, so have libertarians.

In the tumultuous ideological climate in which he was writing, with various factions aligning and realigning constantly, it probably made sense for him to draw a stark line between himself and the emerging conservative movement, but that doesn’t mean his arguments are all good or that such divisions make sense today. It seems to me there are four main legs to the case for Hayek’s conservatism:

  • Anticommunism — Hayek shared the opposition to communism that is the je ne sais quoi of postwar conservatism
  • Preservation of tradition — Hayek writes America’s founding established a tradition of liberty, which he wishes to continue (there’s a contradiction here, in which he’s claiming to be preserving something that he repeatedly emphasizes has been lost). As much as Hayek favored radical change, ripping society up by its roots and redesigning it is not what he had in mind.
  • Spontaneous order — The idea of civil society as the undirected substrate of any political arrangement seems quintessentially conservative, even Burkean, a term he invoked later in life to describe himself.
  • Hayek’s prominent defenders were all on the right — Thatcher, Reagan, etc.

When I hear libertarians channel Hayek’s essay, issuing proclamations that the twain shall never meet—one always suspects it’s just because they find the label “conservative” has too much baggage, and I can’t blame them for that—their main grievances usually align with what paleoconservatives have considered betrayals:

  • Ambivalence toward the welfare state and support for an activist foreign policy, both of which are the inheritance of neoconservative dominance of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
  • Statist family-values politicking, a product of the New Right’s alliances with the religious, particularly evangelical, community in the 1970s. The break began when family-values groups started asking for for government favors through the tax code and in other ways, arguing the family is a peculiar bourgeoise institution that requires special protection. Most of these initiatives are widely regarded as tactical failures, though similar overreaches like a federal marriage amendment still have some limited support today.
  • Crony capitalism/neo-mercantilist nationalism: Opposing the former has never been more in vogue, and the latter hasn’t reared its head in a significant way since Pat Buchanan campaigned for president.

I wonder if Hayek would have written the same essay today, since much of what separated him from conservatives seems muted now and the state has grown bigger and more powerful than he probably even imagined. As far as historiographical approaches go there might be irreconcilable differences, but Hayek has all the marks of a reformist conservative.

(For a lengthier case for Hayek’s conservatism, I direct you to Dr. Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute. Relatedly, Cato Unbound is in the middle of a forum on the prospects for fusionism.)

More TAC on Hayek here:
On the Road to Serfdom Again — Brad Birzer
Do Libertarians Have a Problem With Authority? — Robert P. Murphy
Austerity’s Prophets — Mark Skousen
Hayek and Hip Hop — Michael Brendan Dougherty