Why Hayek Was not a Conservative

At the end of his classic treatise The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek added a postscript entitled “Why I am not a Conservative.” Like everything he wrote, what Hayek has to say about the weaknesses of conservatism can be read with profit even by those who disagree with his arguments. The following passage, for a number of reasons, seems especially apt and relevant now, some 55 years after it was written.

Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of  its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality. The difference shows itself most clearly in the different attitudes of the two traditions to the advance of knowledge. 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. Without preferring the new merely because it is new, the liberal is aware that it is of the essence of human achievement that it produces something new; and he is prepared to come to terms with new knowledge, whether he likes its immediate effects or not.

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral
consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

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, but I shall not dwell on this point because it might be felt that my personal position makes me unable to sympathize with any form of 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. But in this respect the Continental liberalism which derives from the French Revolution is little better than conservatism. I need hardly say that nationalism of this sort is something very different from patriotism and that an aversion to nationalism is fully compatible with a
deep attachment to national traditions. But the fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.

Only at first foes it seem paradoxical that the anti-internationalism of conservatism is so frequently associated with imperialism. But the more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government. It is significant that here again we frequently find the conservatives joining hands with the socialists against the liberals – not only in England, where the Webbs and their Fabians were outspoken imperialists, or in Germany, where state socialism and colonial expansionism went together and found the support of the same group of “socialists of the chair,” but also in the United States,
where even at the time of the first Roosevelt it could be observed: “the Jingoes and the Social Reformers have gotten together; and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for their program of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which now seems to have been averted only by the other parties having adopted their program in a somewhat milder degree and form.”



4 Responses to “Why Hayek Was not a Conservative”

  1. 1 AadilGanaie December 27, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Dynamism in thought leads to progress in the advancement of knowledge. But i feel it is difficult to differentiate between the liberal and conservative explanation. For me a person who knits his bond only with liberal thought itself becomes a conservative.

  2. 2 Fred J December 28, 2016 at 1:43 am

    Couldn’t agree more that the theme of conservatism vs. new ideas, Hayek, is especially apt in the present times…approaching the topic from the area of IT (where I work) – the latest technologies make the ideas of Hayek for privately issued currencies and competition among currencies a perfectly feasible monetary architecture; and render banking (creation of exchange media out of credit) redundant…

  3. 3 André Levy December 29, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    Course he was. He wasn’t a social conservative – he was a liberal conservative, like Burke, Kirk and Chesterton – but a conservative nonetheless:

    “Since we owe the order of our society to a tradition of rules which we only imperfectly understand, all progress must be based on tradition. We must build on tradition and can only tinker with its products.”

    – F. A. Hayek, “The Political Order of a Free People”, 1979, p. 167.

  4. 4 David Glasner December 30, 2016 at 10:19 am

    AddilGanaie, There are many types of conservative, so one has to be careful about attributing to all conservatives the criticisms that he was voicing of a particular kind of conservatism. Michael Oakeshott, for example, was a conservative with whom Hayek had a great deal in common. Oakeshott viewed conservatism as a disposition rather than an ideology.

    Fred, I think Hayek’s work on competitive moneys was very important, but ultimately, I think it was flawed by what seems to be a misunderstanding about how to account for the value of money, a problem which continues to evade a simple solution. But I am skeptical that the latest technologies make competition among private currencies a likely prospect.

    Andre, Burke was a Whig. Kirk was certainly not. I don’t know about Chesterton. See my comment above about Oakshott.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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