Best described as a libera
Is Friedrich Von Hayek best described as a liberal or conservative?
In considering whether Friedrich von Hayek is more rightfully considered a liberal or a conservative, several standards must be defined and applied. The definitions of liberalism and conservatism must be propounded both within and without his thought, and conclusions drawn regarding the veracity of his own use of the terminology. Hayek's own thoughts and actions must then be considered in the light of these definitions. Central to this discussion will be Hayek's essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative', included as a postscript in his 1960 masterpiece The Constitution of Liberty, which, despite its title, is far from offering the final word on this debate. Perhaps it is the debt its title owes to Bertrand Russell's vociferous and single-minded ‘Why I am Not a Christian', as well as its attention-grabbing position at the end of The Constitution of Liberty that has created such consternation among critics of Hayek's, but it is not in itself intended as a cold and logical deposition, but rather a statement of personal alignment, and an equally personal glossing of the implications of this alignment.
Like Russell's 1927 lecture - which begins ‘first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word "Christian". It is used in these days in a very loose sense by a great many people', (Russell: 2004, p.1) - Hayek's initial concern is to provide his own interpretation of the term “Conservative”, which he believes has been somewhat misappropriated, both by those who speak for it and those who speak against it. Hayek well understood the difficulty that his position would generate, and explains in ‘Why I am Not a Conservative', that many of the problems surrounding the comparative positions of individuals in respect to schools of political thought, as well as the relation of these schools to one another emerges from the unique character of the USA, and principally its differences from Europe where so many of these terms originated and matured. Hayek states that:
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. (Hayek: 1960, I)
The “American tradition” referred to by Hayek is the Constitution, which he sees as representative of the views expounded by the French liberals of the 19th century and beyond. This belief in the liberal nature of the American constitution, in the European sense of liberal, is a defining factor in Hayek's thought. Hayek can be seen as invoking much of the discourse of Originalism, the belief that the Constitution has some form of ‘fixed' meaning, and that this meaning should form the basis of American political thinking. Originalism is, by definition, generally considered a trait of conservative political thinking, however even this assertion is not simple. Originalism can be broadly broken into two strands; “original intent” which specifies that the content of the Constitution should be considered as consistent with what was meant by those who originally drafted it. This is the viewpoint espoused by the majority of contemporary conservative theorists, including Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork; who violently oppose the concept of a Living Constitution. (Stahl) The alternative is known as “original meaning”, which contends that it is the original interpretation of those living at the time of its drafting which should be considered. Hayek's relationship to Originalism has been much questioned, however his support of tradition is most often cited by conservatives as an implicit support of the constitutions importance, and an important prop for his belief in his support for certain conservative thinkers and concepts. Hayek explicitly states that
This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes. (Hayek: 1960, II)
As Steven Calabresi notes in his survey of Originalism, ‘Conservatives like to believe with Friedrich Hayek that tradition embodies the wisdom of the ages and is a spontaneous source of order that ought to be followed.'(Calabresi: 2007, 209) Hayek appeals to one of the central premises of conservatism, the maintenance of order and tradition, much of which he sees as derived from the Constitutional Rights which every American is entitled to. Hayek does not perceive a contradiction in his support of “long-standing institutions” if they facilitate the forms of progress which he sees as the goal of liberalism, just as conservatives are willing to suspend criticism of his liberal views owing to the solid constitutional basis of much of his political feeling and theory. Hayek's feelings regarding the constitution then, emphasises the fundamental importance of retaining a relative rather than absolute understanding of terms such as liberal and conservative, and their ever-shifting nature in world politics.
Liberalism and conservatism must therefore be considered in their relative relationship to one another, and, as terms of critical thought and discussion, must be constantly interrogated in order to maintain an accurate understanding of their implications. Hayek discusses the traditional mapping of liberalism, conservatism and socialism across a linear scale ‘with the socialists on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals somewhere in the middle' (Hayek: 1960, II) which he repudiates absolutely. He proposes instead a triangular arrangement, which can be modelled as below:
In this new model, liberalism does not represent the mid-ground between left and right wing political thought, but rather a “pulling away” from both, remaining roughly equidistant from each of the two traditional political poles. It is also notable that the distance between socialism and conservatism is far less than between each of them and liberalism. The image is also suggestive because it implies the impetuous straining of the liberal identity to progress beyond the limitations forced upon it by the binary system, which is of central importance to Hayek's thought.
The close linking of socialism and conservatism is important not in terms of political theory, but in “philosophical” outlook and political strategy, for Hayek maintains that:
as the socialists have for a long time been able to pull harder, the conservatives have tended to follow the socialist rather than the liberal direction and have adopted at appropriate intervals of time those ideas made respectable by radical propaganda. It has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism and stolen its thunder. (Ibid. II)
Though conservatism strives for stability and the retardation of radical progress, under Hayek's model it is itself a constantly shifting set of ideologies. Hayek's tone here, as elsewhere, is highly disparaging of conservatism, and strays dangerously close to ad hominem rhetoric. Conservatives have aligned themselves with socialists in order to leverage a certain amount of the public dissatisfaction and radical potential, though it remains diametrically opposed to its collectivist goals. One potential criticism of this argument is that it amounts to more of a condemnation of electoral strategy than a true critique of conservative ideology. One of the most quoted sections of Hayek's essay regards his statement that the conservative
has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. (Ibid.)
The conservative may be possessed of his own personal moral convictions, but in the role Hayek allots for him as unthinking supporter of systems of governance, effectively the caretaker of politics, he is unable to conceive of a middle ground between his own convictions and those of others. It is this inability to consider a full range of opinions, and adapt political thinking in light of these opinions, which stunts the intellectual growth of the conservative, as well as the efficacy of his policies.
It is this form of ‘ethical' liberalism which provides the most compelling evidence for Hayek's stated liberal bias, and accounts for much of his popularity among contemporary libertarians. Hayek is vociferous in his belief that the state should play a minimal coercive role in dictating the lifestyles as well as financial management of its citizens. Hayek's reflection that:
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. (Ibid.)
is borne from a suspicion of both the extension of government control over individual liberties (which he saw as a hall-mark of conservatism) and the doctrine of a collectivist society (which seeks to bring unity through homogeneity rather than the mutual acknowledgement of difference). Hayek's personal definition of conservatism was a doctrine which enslaved the behaviour of its populace to a form of continuity, often enforced on grounds of religion; therefore entailing a blending of church and state which Hayek found abominable.
The nature of Hayek's criticism of conservatism is highly idiosyncratic throughout his essay, commensurate with what at times appears to be more of a universal distaste for what he believes are key features of conservative thinking, rather than an attack on individual issues of policy. Hayek states that:
As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. (Ibid. III)
One suspects that the conservative writers avoided such loaded words as ‘timid' and ‘courage'. Conservatism is seen as indicative of all that cravenly clings to institutions amidst the sea of world change. An alternative perspective, in which many of the same arguments are employed, yet with the rhetoric turned on its head, directed towards the championing of conservatism rather than its denigration can be found in Michael Oakeshott's 1956 essay ‘On being Conservative', in which the desire to retain a certain stasis regarding those aspects of life which are seen as fit to purpose is regarded with respect and championed as the course of the truly progressive, as opposed to the impulsive and potentially retrogressive liberal. Oakeshott states that:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss. (Oakeshott: 1962, 168)
Oakeshott agrees with Hayek that much of conservatism is a matter of temperament, yet views this temperament not as a mark of cowardice or lack of conviction, but rather the understanding that the form of passionate and often blind progress favoured by Hayek has destructive and universally frustrating potential. In his description of the role of government, Oakeshott's concept of conservatism is only marginally divergent from Hayek's view of liberal mutual governance of interests, involving ‘informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision.' (Ibid, 188) By figuring conservatism as analogous with cowardice, and liberalism with bravery, Hayek taps into a highly provocative discourse, but he also conceals many of his own conservative opinions. Hayek maintains that he has no objection to the forms of conservatism which ‘dislike [...] too rapid change in institutions and public policy' (Hayek:1960, III) confessing that he agrees that ‘here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong.'(Ibid.) Hayek reiterates that it is chiefly cowardice in economic matters which he objects to, and specifically a lack of trust in the market. Hayek's rhetoric can cause a reader to miss the conservative undertones of ‘caution and slow progress' when considering questions of alterations to institutions, but this caution is an important and usually indicative feature in conservative discourse. Though even the classical liberalism to which Hayek subscribes rejects calls for instantaneous revolution and thoughtless change, it is notable that Hayek refuses to allot the same degree of laissez-faire trust to the institutions in their rejuvenation that he calls for economically.
There are aspects of Hayek's call for a spontaneous approach to both social control and economics which critics have found highly questionable, or even indicative of a marked conservative bent in his political thought. John Gray, in assessing the legacy of Hayek's thought, notes that:
It is often argued that, when taken in conjunction with its twin idea of cultural evolution by the natural selection of rival social practices, the idea of spontaneous social order has a conservative rather than any liberal or libertarian implication, since it seems to entail blind submission to the result of any unplanned social progress. (Gray: 1999, 3)
This criticism could also be levelled at Hayek's economics, which, though admirably full of the liberal ‘bravery' he champions, can seem surprisingly naive. Writing of the market, Hayek states that:
There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people's frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. 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." (Hayek: 1960, III)
Just as the social progress described by Gray has the potential to explode in directions which the population could neither be expected to predict, such as the formation of grass-roots political or religious organisations which could rampage unchecked by strict processes of government, so the market could collapse, or expand at a disastrous rate, without a certain level of governmental control. To trust in the balance of the markets to feed and clothe the population of a country is a colossal display of optimism and good-will regarding the potential of the populace, not only of the single country, but of all countries with which it is to trade. This opens the question of who is best fitted to protect the liberties of the people, and the view that this control is best left to the markets and the corporations of free-market capitalism is one which is highly susceptible to criticism. Hayek's liberalism here takes on a certain utopian bent, with the wheels threatening to fall from his argument as it expands wildly upon the precepts of laissez-faire economic management.
To rest upon this criticism of his ideas is to miss perhaps the most important aspect of Hayek's political thinking, what John Gray termed ‘the well-spring of all Hayek's work in social philosophy and [...] economic theory' (Gray: 1996, 3) which was the expansion and enrichment of human knowledge. Hayek saw liberalism as the ultimate form of government to encourage human progress, which was by its very nature a potentially chaotic venture.
Though the liberal certainly does not regard all change as progress, he does regard the advance of knowledge as one of the chief aims of human effort and expects from it the gradual solution of such problems and difficulties as we can hope to solve. (Hayek: 1960, IV)
The stability which he sought in government may be a mark of a certain form of conservatism in his thinking, but it is a conservatism to ensure the stability of the absolute requirements for human progress; all other aspects of it are discarded, from the precepts of general stasis, even to the preference for universal happiness. This is one of the essential differences between the liberalism of Hayek and modern-day libertarianism. Whereas libertarian viewpoints can be criticised for the placing of individual freedom over the greater social good, in Hayek's formulation, the liberal viewpoint is the most selfless of all. Hayek understands the temptations of conservatism, or even socialism, and is able to enumerate and cherry-pick their benefits, but they must ultimately be set-aside in the consideration of human progress.
Hayek's politics then, can be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate liberalism through its definition against socialism, which was then considered to be the most progressive doctrine and the natural alternative to conservatism, as well as government forces of social and market restriction, though with a strong respect for those aspects of American culture which he considered to embody the very best principles of human interaction, which find their basis in the Constitution. In the respect with which he held the most venerable institutions of America's foundation, and in his absolute opposition to all socialist and collectivist thought, he has become an important political property for parties on both the right and left of the political spectrum to claim ownership over. His true orientation, however, was (as his triangle suggests) in pulling violently away from the proscriptive tenants of either creed, in pursuit of the expansion of human knowledge and potential.
However, in a number of his expressed attitudes towards society, and through the implications of his economic theories, Hayek arguably demonstrates an outlook more in keeping with liberal traditions. Firstly, it is a vital tenet of the liberal position that there is a degree of faith in the ability of society to make beneficial social change - as may be seen in Hayek's theories of spontaneous order, which states that social orders (such as societies, or financial markets) can arise through the unplanned actions of individuals acting in a self-interested manner. Applied to the personal arena, this (as Hayek puts it), would lead to the conclusion that aspects of one's personality such as religion, are not proper objects of coercion. Hayek's theories would certainly be closest to the liberal position: the concept of spontaneous order would be most in keeping with the maximisation of personal freedom, this being the most likely to generate the circumstances in which the most efficient equilibrium can be generated. In this sense, Hayek is inevitably tied to the liberal position.
Secondly, in The Road to Serfdom, Hayek sets out his argument against a socialist state: he argues that a planned economy could only come about through a central planning “authority”, and that this will inevitably be inefficient, given that the planners will only ever have access to a limited supply of information. The market, on the other hand, will have the optimal supply of information - it contains the ‘information' of all its participants, which though admittedly less than perfect, is much more complete than that held by any smaller group or individual. Again, however, this argument depends entirely on the defence of personal liberty: any restrictions on citizens would affect their participation within the market, and would by extension affect this optimal supply. Once again, Hayek's economic arguments are tied inextricably to broader liberal arguments concerning personal autonomy: if this is not maximised, then his argument becomes unsustainable. This can also be seen to underpin his theories on money - that state intervention (in the form of central banks) is unlikely to ever be effective: the banks, having a sub-optimal supply of information, are likely to allow an over-expansion of bank credit, leading to an unsustainable “boom” based on cheap credit. This leads to the creation of market “cycles” - recessions occurring when the availability of credit is suddenly lessened. Again, the role of sustaining the economy is unplanned and informed by citizens rather than government.
This again shows itself within Hayek's social philosophy, regarding the role of the state, for example: he argues that the role of government should be minimised, and limited only to enforcing the rule of law. Though the justifications for this are economic, the practical consequences correspond almost perfectly with the ideals of liberalism - for example, we may compare it to Mill's theories on liberty, based on the “harm principle” , this being that the only justifiable basis for state intervention could be the prevention of harm to other citizens. Applying the force of the state to upholding the rule of law alone would have much the same practical consequences, in that the rule of law would presumably include within it the prevention of harm done willingly to others.
Liberal with conservative strands of thinking, free growth and spontaneous evolution, old whig.