Friday, December 17, 2010

The Party of Life: the liberalism of F. A. Hayek

The postscript to Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty is entitled, "Why I Am Not a Conservative." For Americans aware of Hayek's influence on political developments of the past half-century or so, this title may be astonishing. Aren't conservatives the very people most influenced by and most appreciative of Hayek's work? How can he devote a whole essay to why he isn't one of them?

The whole essay is indeed confusing for Americans, and from the tone of the essay one senses that Hayek was exasperated at the confusion Americans have created over the terms "liberal" and "conservative." As I've written before, the two terms scarcely mean in American today what they have traditionally meant; the term "liberal" has probably suffered more distortion even than "conservative." For this reason most Americans reading the essay will probably experience a great deal of confusion over who exactly Hayek is talking about, excepting those who are very knowledgeable about the history of ideas. Nevertheless, this is precisely what makes the essay so relevant. It is, in some sense, Hayek's warning not to do exactly what we have done: we have so closely associated his ideas with American conservatism that we can't tell what he was actually saying.

What Hayek actually wished to call himself was "liberal." By this he meant someone who believed that society should be based on minimizing coercion of the individual. He meant that government should wield no arbitrary power, but only power guided by general principles. These notions are founded on the belief that each individual contributes most to the society as a whole by making use of the knowledge of circumstances which only he can know. Hayek believed that the best kind of change in society comes about through general processes that we can understand, but it yields results which very often we don't understand nor could ever have predicted.

This is decidedly not the philosophy that goes under the name "liberal" in the United States. The philosophy of the political Left is one which evaluates government policies by their specific outcomes, which cannot accept anything other than a preconceived vision of social justice, and which very often exists in tension with itself, always fighting between the values of individual freedom and of distributive justice. Nor is Hayek's liberalism a "conservative" ideology. It is not primarily about preserving tradition, although the American tradition is to a large extent one that agrees with Hayek's philosophy. Hayek even disliked the term "libertarian," and if I may editorialize a bit, I think many libertarians are too "atomistic" in their understanding of the individual. Hayek's individualism was not based on the idea that every individual has a fundamental right to be left alone. On the contrary, his individualism was based on what he believed was the best way in which society progresses as a whole.

So what word would Hayek use to describe himself, if "liberal" has been taken away from him? This is what he says:
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. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.
"The party of life" is probably the best phrase Hayek ever used to describe his philosophy. Think of the contrasts. The socialists of the early twentieth century saw the economy as a machine to be fixed using modern scientific understanding. This mentality still plagues us. We obsess over the abstract aggregate quantities by which we have come to define our economic growth--GDP, employment percentages, consumer spending, etc.--without viewing the whole economy as really an organism, in which all of its component parts have remarkably important yet poorly understood roles to play in making the whole thing work.

Another contrast that deserves to be made is between the party of life and the party of fear. This is primarily what all of our politics seem to have become. Politicians prey on our fears about what the future holds for us, and promise that they can fix it. Their fixes usually make things worse, because they are built on the presumption that human beings wielding enough power can conquer the problems of society. The party of life must exist in opposition to this. The only way forward is to embrace spontaneous forces which we cannot fully understand, the forces which make living things as beautiful as they are. Just as nature is not built on the certainty of square corners and rigid walls, so a free society almost always takes an unexpected shape. If we remain forever frightened of this uncertainty, we cannot enjoy freedom. The more we hand over control to powerful leaders out of fear, the worse the result will be in the long run.

American "conservatives" have been affected by thinkers like Hayek, and for that reason I imagine plenty of those who self-identify as conservatives would be a little shocked to read "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Since the word "conservative" itself has morphed over time, this adds all the more confusion. Still, Hayek has given several important critiques that apply equally well to either conservatism in the abstract sense or more specifically to American conservatives of our day. Here are some points where I feel it's critical to see the difference between Hayek's party of life and the conservative party (here "party" is being used not in reference to Democrats or Republicans, but in reference to political philosophy):
  1. Authority: The first weakness of conservatism that Hayek points out is an aversion to abstract theories and general principles. Tied to this is the fact that conservatives, much like socialists, view positions of power as a means of accomplishing desired ends. Thus Hayek complains that "the conservative opposition to too much government control is not a matter of principle but is concerned with the particular aims of government." For instance, "Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field... But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture."

    The liberal, by contrast, believes government's activities should be limited according to principles. It is not a matter of getting the "right" people in charge, but a matter of restraining all government through abstract rules.
  2. Intellectual progress: I can do no better than to quote this trenchant passage:
    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 simply because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irreverent or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to fact 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 be hardly moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.
  3. Nationalism: "Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism.... It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, un-British, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots." This particularly afflicts American conservatives, who often defend protectionist economic policies (contradicting their own professed free market principles) in the name of protecting "our business" or "keeping jobs at home." By contrast, the liberal ought to be an internationalist.
  4. Imperialism: "Only at first does it seem paradoxical that the anti-internationalism of the conservative 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." With the Bush presidency still fresh in our memories, need I say any more than this?
Hayek was more interested in theory than in practice, as he very plainly admits at the end of his essay. He did not leave a clear path forward for those wishing to enact his liberal ideas--or whatever they should be called--more fully in American society. (Hayek himself suggested, perhaps somewhat whimsically, calling his ideas "Whiggism," after the Old Whig party.) But I, for one, am convinced that his philosophy deserves to be heard more and more. As Americans on both the Right and the Left continue to operate under the assumption that progress can only be achieved through power, we need a third way. The answer is not to simply abandon the concept of government or bitterly demand that the government "get off our backs." What we need is a firm set of principles guiding all government action, allowing individuals to act in their own spheres for the good of society as a whole.

Count me a member of the "party of life."

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