Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hayek on Conservatism and Liberalism

In his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty Friedrich Hayek wrote a short essay titled Why I Am Not a Conservative[1] in which he differentiated among modern liberalism, Classical Liberalism, American conservatism, continental conservatism, and socialism. It seemed to Hayek as it did to Mencken, that American liberalism had become decidedly illiberal and that while the conservative was now allied with the defender of liberty against socialism, they were far from one and the same. Minimally, Hayek was correct to distinguish among these movements.

Besides for the sake of satisfying my desire to quibble over definitions, it seems prudent today to revisit this work and see how Hayek's distinctions stand. My hope is not to establish a perfect set of definitions but rather to point out interesting coincidences, contrasts, changes, and arguments. Perhaps we may shed a little light on matters which seem rarely considered without much bias and histrionics. Of course we will be general here because the definitions are general, the movements they describe having been diverse and having changed over time. Also I myself don't like to be pigeon-holed into broad categories and I'm sure you don't either. Nonetheless movements do have broad traits and similarities, so let us look at them and raise a few interesting questions.

I've chosen to examine a few quotations from this insightful essay and discuss each in turn.

It is that by its very nature it 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.
This seems to me to be an excellent point slightly misstated (though Hayek goes on to make it later in one way or another.) It is certainly true that conservatism, qua disposition, has no finite ideology. Yet in practice it is not nothing. No one who identifies as conservative would say he he is not in favor of something, i.e., something has to be conserved. Such usually is either the status quo or something more distant in the past. It does then seem to offer a direction, just not a degree. The conservative disposition, then, has the potential for regression. For example, in attempting to conserve some idea one continually regresses backward in the hope of finding some pure form of the idea or some idealized implementation of it which one hopes to conserve. As progressivism has no delimiting factor to prevent its lurch forward, conservatism has none preventing its lurch backwards. Now reasoning backward and forward is good for discovering the ideological roots and logical ends of one's beliefs but it can carry one far afield and away from his own political tradition.

Such brings us to the crux of Hayek's point above: once something exists at some point it can be called conservative. Thus today calling yourself a conservative says very little as you could essentially want to conserve anything and hence there is merit to complain about conservatives who are pro Social Security but against universal health care, who are in favor of this government institution but not that one. This is quite dangerous for any movement, since without a definite ideology it becomes, well, indefinite, and eventually infinite in scope.

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."
This seems more true of a particular personality than any ideology. In fact it seems rather reasonable and may be phrased quite simply: "where is the good going to come from?" If you know what the good is why don't you try and bring it about? The difference again is temporal: the conservative wishes to conserve the good which already exists at the expense of attaining the good which does not, and the reverse for the progressive. The liberal position, however and as Hayek rightly says, is not the median between these positions. Existing institutions and future systems of organization are evaluated by how they advance or preserve something specific: liberty.

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.
Again these characteristics seem largely applicable to both the left and right. Since no one has made a case for mob rule, let us move the discussion to that of democracy. Now of democracy we may say there are two aspects, that of individual sovereignty and that of "rule by the people." The second characteristic is most often interpreted to mean, essentially, majoritarianism. Now the right seems fairly consistent in its anti-democratic, aristocratic, sometimes even monarchist sentiments. It favors bringing about the good through existing institutions. The left, however, often promotes democracy and populism. The will of the people, the current generation of people, is seen to take precedent over existing rules and legislation and thus the popularity of the notion of a "living constitution." In contrast the conservative sees abiding by inherited rules as necessary for the preservation of existing good. Interestingly, though, while the left (ostensibly) procures its will from the people, it manages oligarchy anyhow in the form of statism and bureaucracy. Again it is only the liberal who trusts that free men each managing their own interests can realize them.

The similarities persist regarding lack of economic understanding. While we are not in a position here to categorize economic theories as leftist or rightist and then attempt to validate them, I would draw the one point that both are authoritarian. For example, both socialist models and rightist models like distributism require some body to decide how much of something you can own.

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. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people - he is not an egalitarian - bet he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. While the conservative inclines to defend a particular established hierarchy and wishes authority to protect the status of those whom he values, the liberal feels that no respect for established values can justify the resort to privilege or monopoly or any other coercive power of the state in order to shelter such people against the forces of economic change. Though he is fully aware of the important role that cultural and intellectual elites have played in the evolution of civilization, he also believes that these elites have to prove themselves by their capacity to maintain their position under the same rules that apply to all others.
Hayek puts this particular point well although he does not here call the "proving of themselves" what it is: a marketplace. The broader question here is the same as above: how does the good come about in a society? The conservative or traditionalist view is that it comes from institutions designed to bring about the good. Yet there is no institution which functions well apart from the quality of those running it and just as a good institution can fall under the stewardship of lesser men so can a poor one succeed under great ones. What then, is the benefit of giving an institution a monopoly on particular cause? On this point too the conservative finds common ground with the socialist, this time in terms of his fear of what an unruly marketplace will produce. A marketplace will, of course, produce whatever people want (within physical possibility.) Some fear what "the many" will bring about and thus see a need to "guide" what is brought about.

Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism.
This point I am not particularly persuaded by. In America measures of both the left and the right, though small, are prone to both nationalism and its opposite, what British philosopher Roger Scruton has called oikophobia. [2] In the 20th century nationalism was often coupled with both leftist and rightist regimes. Logically, though, it would seem that nationalism is conservative by nature since it seeks some connection to the past, presumably to a past perceived as laudable, but this is at least in part a coincidence. Such is because one need not love what one's country was to be nationalistic, but only what it is. Indeed revolutions often have a nationalist element. One could of course found a country ex nihilo and it be quite nationalistic. Yet the overwhelming tendency to draw connections to the past, even when tenuous or outright wrong, is quite revealing about human nature. Nearly everyone pays homage and lip service to America's Founding Fathers. There are very progressive people whose favorite president is Thomas Jefferson and very conservative people whose favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt. Many a man feels his ideas to be consistent with the founding principles of America in one form or another.

7) When it comes to discussing war it seems nearly impossible for men to speak honestly. Specifically, I mean that when people speak about war in particular they seek to categorize ideas in dishonest ways, making all ideologies other than their own to be the inherently immoral or belligerent party and their own to be the besieged, inherently peaceful one. Everyone considers his ideology inherently pacifistic, except for under circumstances x, y, and z while opposing ideologies are inherently belligerent. (Here Hayek sees the socialists and conservatives again in concert, this time favoring imperialism.) It seems to me that this dissonance is the result of a tension few people want to admit, resulting from the fact that every movement seeks to grow and hopes to achieve dominance. Even if you admit the benefits of plurality and variety, what party has ever come to power, decided to advance its goals in moderation and given its opponents say in the process? (Though most of the time parties have to cooperate with others somehow because their power is balanced.)

Still no one likes being forced to do anything so most people at some level realize force is not desirable. The question is, then, when is force acceptable? Hayek essentially outlines the liberal position:
. . .to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most  conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion.

Thus for the liberal there is a bit of a problem, that even if you believe that something is good for all man's liberal nature prevents the use of force. At best you can attempt to persuade him to do the good. Liberalism implies that even if you believe something is morally wrong, the use of force is still worse barring certain grave instances.

8) Clearly the most notable feature of Hayek's framework and discussion is his association of reason with Liberalism:
There is one respect, however, in which there is justification for saying that the liberal occupies a position midway between the socialist and the conservative: he is as far from the crude rationalism of the socialist, who wants to reconstruct all social institutions according to a pattern prescribed by his individual reason, as from the mysticism to which the conservative so frequently has to resort. What I have described as the liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers. He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him. It has to be admitted that in some respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic .
The Liberal bests both the progressive and the conservative because he has a finite idea he wishes to preserve and extend. He therefore does not see change as inherently good or bad, but as a potential for improvement. He doesn't see institutions as inherently corrupt or sustaining and he doesn't see methodology as inherently truth-finding simply because it is new or old.

(Regarding conservatism and the use of reason, Hayek may be right but I think it would be better to be more specific: it would be unreasonable not to seek new methods in order to figure out some unknown, and it is conservative not to seek them for fear of making something else worse, but such a circumstance could come to pass without claiming "the authority of supernatural forces," which seems an extraneous addition to the argument.)

Hayek's lesson here, though, seems to be that progressivism and conservatism are dispositions more than ideologies. As ideologies they are diverse to the point of being infinite and thus indistinct. Still, though, he seems to find good in both, describing conservatism as "probably necessary" and praising progressivism for its optimism about the future. Regardless of labels a fairly common view of  the problem goes something like this: there is good existing which ought to be conserved and bad existing which one would hope to root out, and good to be gained which we would hope to get, and potential bad we hope to avoid. Now how do we balance all of that to maximize the good? Thus in one respect an ideology is part definition of the good and part means of achieving it and in this respect conservatism/progressivism are only part of half of the equation.



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