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Who Gets Hayek?

November 25th, 2003 · No Comments

As the “Conservative Crack Up” progresses, a post by Jonah Goldberg revisits the custodial battle over Friedrich Hayek in the context of the gay marriage debate.

First, some nitpicky observations. Jonah writes:

Yes he rejected the label “conservative,” but he just as explicitly rejected the label “libertarian.” The conservatives he disagreed with were of the European variety. Meanwhile, he explicitly declared that conservatives in America are the friends of liberty. His preferred label was “Old Whig” which was also the preferred self-description of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism — a fact and allusion Hayek clearly had in mind.

Jonah’s referring here to the essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” which is included as a postscript to The Constitution of Liberty. Let’s actually look at the text and see how well this stands up. Here’s where he “rejected the label ‘libertarian’”:

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the sense in which I have used it, the term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute.

So yes, Hayek rejected “the label,” in the most literal sense—he didn’t like the word. And I agree, from an aesthetic point of view, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it seems rather more important to note that what he’s effectively saying here is: “people have recently coined this term and used it to describe the position I hold. But I don’t like the sound of the word.” Seems like a thin reed on which to hang the claim that Hayek (contra Hayek) is a conservative, not a libertarian.

Next—when Hayek announced that he was “not a conservative,” did he really just mean that he wasn’t a European conservative? Again, you have to torture the text a bit to get this result. First, Hayek mentions the “recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism” as a source of one more linguistic confusion—the same confusion that makes him wary of describing himself as a “liberal,” though in a historical sense that’s a perfectly proper name for his position. But he says nothing to indicate that his remarks are limited to this breed of conservatism. Indeed he notes (as Goldberg says) that American conservatives have for contingent reasons been friends of liberty, and therefore natural allies of classical liberals. He cites this as the reason that it’s necessary for him to clarify that it is nevertheless inappropriate to call him a conservative. That is, his essay makes sense only as an account of why even though American conservatives are often pro-liberty, he is not one. Goldberg’s account makes it sound as though the essay stops two pages in.

A similar claim is made by Edward Feser in a piece from a few years back assaulting the cultural libertinism of folks like my colleagues at Reason. I invite readers to just scan the essay and determine whether one must strain the text in order to read it as applicable to our own brand of conservative. Feser, like Goldberg, emphasizes Hayek’s regard for the power of evolved institutions and the danger of radical “constructivist rationalism,” concluding:

It is baffling, then, why anyone should think Hayekâ??s philosophy a club with which to beat off traditionalism. Indeed, where traditional moral scruples are concerned, the Hayekian libertarian ought to regard change with as much caution as he would changes to the institutions of property and contract.

This seems like a common error, and I think it stems from a “Panglossian” misreading of Hayek. He did not hold what one of Goldberg’s correspondents calls a “vulgar Hegelian” position—the view that whatever is (or anway, whatever has evolved) is rational. It would be hard to account for Hayek’s high reputation if he did hold such a self-evidently wrong view, and he distances himself from it on a few occasions, lest anyone mistakenly attribute it to him. From The Constitution of Liberty:

These considerations, of course, do not prove that all the sets of moral beliefs which have grown up in a society will be beneficial. Just as a group may owe its rise to the morals which its members obey, … so may a group or nation destroy itself by the moral beliefs to which it adheres.

And from Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

The fact that law that has evolved in this way has certain desirable properties does not prove that it will always be good law or even that some of its rules may not be very bad.

There are a few other such instances, but it should suffice to note that Hayek’s argument makes no sense as a blanket condemnation of tinkering with evolved institutions. The sine qua non of evolution, after all, is descent with variation: Hayek’s case is intelligible only if people sometimes alter their institutions in response to changing circumstances or new ideas. (Unless, that is, one assumes that the only form of evolution occurs by means of whole cultures dying out. In which case we’d be left with the question of how the institutions of the successful cultures came about in the first instance. A lucky guess right at the start?)

Hayek was always careful to distinguish his attack on constructivist rationalism from a general attack on rationality in public policy evaluation—a self-defeating task if ever there was one. Rather, Hayek advocated what he called critical rationalism, which makes entirely legitimate “immanent” criticism of social institutions. While Hayek didn’t believe it possible to rationally reconstruct society as a whole, one could certainly argue that certain (evolved)principles inherent in the public political culture conflicted with (evolved) social institutions as they existed. One could argue, as Frederick Douglas did, that the underlying ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence were flatly incompatible with chattel slavery. Or, in this instance, that very many of the arguments for the social importance of marriage apply as well to homosexual as heterosexual couples. On this account, one could reform social institutions after the model of Neurath’s ship: one may repair the ship at sea by standing on one plank while mending or replacing another—it was rebuilding the entire ship from scratch that was ruled out.

All that to one side, it’s worth further noting that Hayek’s general preference for piecemeal evolution over the top-down imposition of a pattern or plan pretty clearly cuts against the conservative position in this instance: a federal defense of marriage act is rather obviously intended to forestall the gradual tendency of local communities and progressive churches to be disposed to sanction homosexual couplings.

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