The Continuing Relevance of Hayek’s Critique of Conservatism:

My recent post on the continuing relevance of F.A. Hayek’s critique of socialism brings to mind his critique of conservatism, much of which also remains relevant. Most of Hayek’s work was focused on criticizing socialism and related left-wing ideologies. During his heyday (roughly form the 1930s to the 1960s), conservatism was a fairly marginal force in the intellectual world, while many perceived socialism as the wave of the future. Nonetheless, Hayek wrote a famous 1960 essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative,” some of which has continuing relevance as a critique of conservatism even today. In reading the essay, it’s important to keep in mind that Hayek used the word “liberal” to denote something like what “libertarian” or “classical liberal” mean today. It is also worth noting that Hayek believed there were some important commonalities of interest between libertarians and conservatives, at least in the United States. Nonetheless, he also believed that conservatism has major shortcomings.

The word “conservatism” is a vague term that covers a wide range of ideas. Hayek’s criticisms don’t necessarily apply to every version of conservative thought. A few of his arguments are totally dated, and some perhaps were invalid even back in 1960. But several apply to various forms of conservatism that remain influential today. In particular, Hayek’s criticisms of conservative for their excessive aversion to change, their attachment to discretionary government power, their willingness to use state power to enforce “moral” values, and their tendency towards “strident nationalism” all retain considerable force.

Hayek suggested that conservatives emphasize aversion to change at the expense of developing a clear alternative to left-wing progressivism:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. 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. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

This point does not apply to all forms of conservatism. For example, “religious right” conservatives clearly do have a theologically inspired “alternative to the direction we are moving.” However, it does apply to the still-common “Burkean conservatism” which defines itself primarily by its support for tradition and opposition to rapid change. Hayek’s claim that conservatives share important “basic conceptions” with socialists (or at least with statist liberals), also has great resonance in the age of “big government conservatism,” a platform adopted by Republicans such as George W. Bush, and Mike Huckabee. By no means all conservatives fall into this category. But a good many do.

Hayek’s claim that conservatives are excessively tolerant of discretionary authority in government is also relevant at a time when many conservatives have embraced the Bush Administration’s assertion of virtually unlimited executive power:

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said 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 to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people. [emphasis added]

Like the previous one, this criticism does not extend to all conservatives. But it does apply to a significant number of highly influential ones.

It is also difficult to dispute that many modern conservatives remain vulnerable to Hayek’s criticism that they are overly eager to use the power of the state to impose their preferred “moral” values:

[T]o 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.

As I argue in this article, many social conservatives fail to see that the same shortcomings they see in government intervention in the “economic” sphere also apply to government regulation of “morals” and culture.

Finally, Hayek was on point in noting the connection between conservatism and nationalism, which he (correctly, in my view) viewed as a generally pernicious force:

Connected with the conservative distrust if the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries. But refusal to acquaint one’s self with new ideas merely deprives one of the power of effectively countering them when necessary. The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

A great deal more might be said about the close connection between conservatism and nationalism . . . I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest [by the government].

This point has all sorts of applications to conservative positions on trade, immigration, and other policy debates in the US. Certainly, it is reflected in assertions by many conservatives that foreigners and immigrants must be prevented from competing with “our” industries, taking “our” jobs, using “our” resources, and so on.

Outside the US, the connection between conservative nationalism and xenophobia on the one hand, and statism on the other is even more evident. For example, the use of nationalism as a “bridge from conservatism to collectivism” was a central tenet of Nazi and Fascist ideology.

Not all conservatives are strident nationalists, just as not all are averse to change or enamored of broad executive power. Because the word “conservatism” applies to so many different movements and ideas, it would be wrong to assume that Hayek’s criticisms are relevant to all conservatives. But they do still apply to a great many.

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