Tag Archives: conservatism

Hayek and Conservatives

F.A. Hayek is an unlikely conservative hero. After all, this is a man who titled one of his most famous essays “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” He self-identified as a liberal – in the original sense of the word, which more or less means what we would today call libertarian. Since liberalism took on an entirely different meaning during the 20th century, Hayek wrote that he would settle for being called an Old Whig. But he could not stand to be called a conservative.

For one, he believed that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not be too much restricted by rigid rules.”* Sounds an awful lot like the Bush years.

Sure, No Child Left Behind will radically grow federal involvement in education, which is properly a state and local issue. But we have good intentions! Sure, the PATRIOT Act could easily be abused. But it’s ok, because our guys are in charge! They’d never overstep their boundaries.

Conservatism, Hayek argued, is not a rigorous philosophy. It is “essentially opportunist and lacks principles.”**

That’s why I was surprised to see that the Heritage Foundation, a proudly conservative think tank, published an abridged edition of Hayek’s classic 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Heritage’s economic policies are reasonably free-market, at least when Democrats are in power. So it makes sense that they would be Hayek fans, even though they aren’t ideological soulmates. But I am wary that they are promoting him as a conservative thinker; he was not.

Still, popularization is one of the most important tasks a think tank can perform. It is also one of the most neglected. Kudos, then.

The heart of The Road to Serfdom is Hayek’s version of a slippery slope argument. It is an easy charge to level at the current administration, which could be another motivation for Heritage.

Hayek and Heritage would agree: government intervention tends not to get the results it seeks; intentions are not results. Frustrated economic planners believe the only solution is more intervention. When that fails, still more meddling ensues. And on, and on. Then one day the people wake up to find they have lost their freedom.

The lesson is to not give in to the urge to use the hammer of government to drive home the nails of social problems. There are better ways, and less destructive hammers with more precise aim.

That’s the popular understanding of The Road to Serfdom. But Hayek pointed out in 1973 that there is more nuance to his book:

What I meant to argue in The Road to Serfdom was certainly not that whenever we depart, however slightly, from what I regard as the principles of a free society, we shall ineluctably be driven to go the whole way to a totalitarian system.  It was rather what in more homely language is expressed when we say:  “If you do not mend your principles you will go to the devil.”

The Bush and Obama administrations have joined together to double the size of government in one short decade. Their spending and regulating has driven debt through the roof, slowed economic growth, and kept millions of jobs from being created.

Worse, this bipartisan binge of government activism is showing no signs of slowing down. Many people think we’re already well down the road to serfdom. It looks bleak. But it isn’t really. It is reversible; the road to serfdom is a two-way street. We can go back, so long as we remember the principles of a free society.

The trouble is that conservatives seem to forget the libertarian portions of their philosophy every time they win an election. That’s why I’m glad that Heritage is popularizing Hayek with an abridged, easy-to-read version of The Road to Serfdom. I just hope they don’t portray him as a symbol of an ideology he publicly rejected.

More people of all political stripes need to read Hayek and be exposed to his arguments. More people need to learn why government does harm, even when it tries to do good. More people need to learn how easy it is to go down the road to serfdom — and that our cars can go in reverse, too.

The more people realize this, the higher the odds that they will keep conservative politicians in check post-election. If the Bush-Obama disaster has taught us anything, it’s that the seduction of power makes even good men go to the devil.

I hope Heritage’s popularization of Hayek sends that important lesson far and wide — while acknowledging that he doesn’t fit into the progressive/conservative spectrum; Hayek was nothing if not an independent thinker.

*F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p.401.



An Illiberal Liberal

Brad DeLong writes that “America’s best hope for sane technocratic governance required the elimination of the Republican Party from our political system as rapidly as possible.”

There are two things wrong with that statement. One is that he wants a technocratic government. Top-down. Orderly. Planned. But we live in a bottom-up world. Everything from language to Wikipedia to the economy itself is is a spontaneous order. They grow and evolve despite, not because of, direction from above. The most beautiful designs have no designer.

The other flaw is that DeLong favors a one-party state. Such regimes have been tried many times over the years. The results have rarely been humane.

I am neither conservative nor a Republican. But I sure am glad that America has two parties instead of one. That second party is proof that some people can’t shut other people out of the political discourse simply for disagreeing. Freedom of speech and thought are the cornerstones of a liberal society. DeLong rejects them at our peril.

On the traditional left-right spectrum, DeLong is on the left side. But that never has been an accurate way of identifying ideologies. A progressive should never be mistaken for a liberal. Yet most people make that mistake every day.

I’ve written before that Bush and Obama’s policies differ in degree, but not in kind. They are amazingly similar, both in domestic and foreign policy. Yet people insist on calling one a conservative, and the other a progressive. They are placed at opposite ends of the spectrum. How curious. How inaccurate.

A more accurate dichotomy than progressive-conservative is liberal-illiberal. I’m a proud liberal; DeLong might be surprised to find his illiberalism nestled right next to his detested George W. Bush.

Family Research Council Designated a Hate Group

The Southern Poverty Law Center has officially designated the Family Research Council a hate group. The SPLC defines hate groups as having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The Family Research Council’s views on gay rights accurately fit that description. Something about the SPLC’s move smacks of a PR stunt, more about politics than policy. But it is technically accurate.

Of course, people should be free to dislike other people for any reason they wish — even if those reasons border on bigotry, as they do with FRC. Bigotry and homophobia are wrong, but they shouldn’t be crimes; freedom of thought and all that.

But an organization that wants to use the power of the state to enforce its moral views deserves universal opprobrium. Morality is an individual issue. Not a government one. That FRC is so eager to use the cudgel of government to make people abide by their views is troubling. And not just because I don’t share those views.

This whole controversy highlights the fundamental contradiction at the heart of conservatism, which I don’t think gets nearly enough attention. Many conservatives hold fairly free-market economic views. They don’t think government can do a good job running the economy. Yet they assume that the same government that can’t deliver the mail on time is somehow able to achieve their overarching vision of a more moral society.

Not the most internally consistent philosophy.

The Kagan Nomination: What Matters, What Doesn’t

One of the criticisms being hurled at Elena Kagan from the right is that she might be a lesbian. This concerns me.

Not the lesbian part; few things are less important to one’s judicial qualifications. My worry is that Republicans have so atrophied intellectually that this is their loudest reason for opposing her.

A thoughtful soul (I forget who) recently remarked that twenty years from now, almost everyone currently on the wrong side of gay rights issues will be embarrassed to admit it. Yet the obsolete epithets being hurled at Kagan — which may or may not be accurate, and frankly, who cares — are what many of Kagan’s opponents seem to care about the most.

And people wonder why I often take visible offense when someone tries to call me a conservative.

There are substantive reasons to be skeptical about Kagan. One of them is how she views the executive branch. “She is certainly a fan of presidential power,” one scholar remarks. This is important.

Chief Justice Roberts has similar views. He was picked in part because the Bush administration knew he wouldn’t strike down that administration’s more controversial power grabs. Harriet Miers was not rejected for her views, which are utterly conventional. Her nomination was only struck down because her lack of subtlety in expressing those views was considered gauche.

While I have never been an Obama fan, one of my hopes for his administration was that he would repudiate Bush-era excesses such as the PATRIOT Act. He embraced them instead. Having all those cool powers at his disposal was just too much to pass up.

President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees so far seem no different from Roberts or Miers: what the other branches of government want, they shall get. The exceptions, such as the Citizens United decision, are so rare that they garner weeks worth of headlines; such outbursts must be kept to a minimum. Hence Kagan.

What the Supreme Court needs is a healthy dose of judicial activism. Kagan, like Roberts, Sotomayor, and other recent nominees, is a judicial passivist. They reflexively defer to the executive and legislature, right or wrong.

What we need are Justices who will stand up and say “no” when Congress passes a law that is unconstitutional, or when the president abuses his powers. That’s why judicial review exists in the first place. This tradition goes all the way back to Marbury v. Madison, often the very first case that students read in undergraduate constitutional law classes.

As Kagan goes through the pomp and circumstance of the confirmation process, maybe she’ll prove better than her likely soon-to-be colleagues. Maybe she won’t. But so long as her Republican opponents are fixated on something so trivial as her sexual orientation, we may never find out. Given her relative youth, three decades or more of jurisprudence are at stake.

Hayek’s Uneasy Relationship with Conservatives

Bill Easterly does a good job of sticking up for Hayek.

Hayek could be quite different than Hayekians. That distinction needs to be made in this era of tea parties and the dominant liberal-vs.-conservative false dichotomy.

I think it’s great that some conservatives are boosting Hayek (I wish progressives would, too; they’d find a lot to like). It just appears they aren’t reading him very closely. Do bear that in mind before associating Hayek with conservatism.

Worth reading: Hayek’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Print it out. Read it closely. Mark up the margins with your notes and reactions. Agree or disagree, this essay rewards deep and careful thought. I’ve read it several times over the years, and every time I pick it up again I learn something new.