Which Sort of Conservative Was Hayek Not?

by John Holbo on October 29, 2008

Jonah Goldberg has responded to my “Spread The Wealth” post. A minor point: “My longstanding gripe with the use and abuse of that essay [Hayek’s “Why I Am Not A Conservative”] is that some libertarians and liberals deliberately confuse the fact that Hayek isn’t referring to American conservatives when he says he’s not a conservative.”

Well, I have always taken Hayek to be referring to American conservatives: “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. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.”

‘Recent attempts to transpant’? Russell Kirk, I presume. “Has acquired a somewhat odd character.” Frank Meyer and 1960’s National Review-style ‘fusionism’, I presume. A halfway Hayek, halfway Kirk hybrid. That’s Goldberg, too, give or take.

Now there is a diplomatic quality to Hayek’s essay, which could lead you to miss the fact that he is, in fact, talking about American conservatives. Pragmatically, Hayek regards American conservatives as his allies, but only because he thinks they can serve as a counterweight to socialism, not because he agrees with them philosophically. He thinks they have ‘a somewhat odd character’. The essay is, in part, an attempt to tell American-style conservatives this without really rubbing their noses in it – more flies with honey and all that.

What does Goldberg make of the essay’s epigraph, from Lord Acton? “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.” I wouldn’t say this is flamingly self-evident, but I have always taken this to be Hayek’s way of expressing the somewhat delicate balance of his personal alliance/association with American-style conservatism.

Goldberg is definitely confused about the redistribution stuff. But, to be fair, my post wasn’t very clear. Later, later.



John Emerson 10.29.08 at 4:53 pm

“At all times sincere friends of …… have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own…..”

Put the right word in the blank and that’s Leo Strauss.


John Holbo 10.29.08 at 4:58 pm

I think that makes it sound a little extra paranoid, rather than just hard-nosed.


Righteous Bubba 10.29.08 at 5:18 pm

Had Hayek written “Why I Am Not a Fascist” Goldberg would have been pretty goddamned sure he meant American liberals.


salacious 10.29.08 at 5:26 pm

Emerson, you only get strauss out of that excerpt if you read “masquerading as” in place of “associating.” It’s pretty clear that Acton, and for that matter Hayek, was discussing the pragmatics of coalition building, rather than some arcane Straussian misdirection.


Raghav 10.29.08 at 5:43 pm

I think Julian Sanchez basically takes apart Goldberg’s misreading of Hayek here.


matt 10.29.08 at 6:22 pm

I thought that John Gray was quite good on this point in his postscript to his later editions of his book _Hayek on Liberty_, where he basically rejects his earlier love for Hayek just because the sort of creative destruction that Hayek found so attractive in the Market was incompatible with the conservatism Gray had come to hold. (Mostly destructive, not that creative was how Gray saw it, but even if we reject that, the general point as to why Hayek really _can’t_ be a conservative holds.)


Bill R 10.29.08 at 8:05 pm

I was going to echo the the point that Julian Sanchez made in the article linked above. He only has an aesthetic problem with 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.”

And in the next sentence goes on to describe why the term itself is at issue.

“It [the term libertarian] 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.”


DC 10.30.08 at 12:31 am

“It [the term libertarian] 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.”

That bit has always made me want to suggest “catellaxetarianism” as an alternative.


SamChevre 10.30.08 at 3:19 pm

I think a big part of the problem is the “conservative” (like “liberal”) represents an opportunistic coalition, not a consistent point of view, in American politics. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 American conservatisms.

1) Aristocratic conservatism. This strain is what a European in the 1800’s would probably have meant by “conservatism”–an ideology designed to preserve the power of the landed gentry over everyone else. The plantation South (particularly the VA and SC Tidewater) are exemplary of this type of conservatism; think of Jefferson’s contempt for cities and city-dwellers. In the US, this conservatism tends to be Anglophile.

2) Nationalist conservatism. This conservatism is the American equivalent of French Gaullisme. America should be powerful, not constrained by treaties or international bodies, etc. A lot of the neo-cons fall in this class, as does Pat Buchanan. While not necessarily nativist, this conservatism tends in that direction.

3) Communitarian conservatism. This conservatism is probably the strongest in the current environment–the group that wants community norms to stay about the same. It includes the religious conservatives whose main concern is keeping their communities similar in family structure and political ritual to the past, the local production activists, many of the protectionists, and so on. Think of Wendell Berry, or Ross Douthat.

4) Liberty-conserving conservatism. This conservatism sounds like a contradiction in terms, but is a fairly big part of the coalition in the US. As “liberalism” has become the side of politics that is in favor of more rules in many areas and more technocratic government, “conserve our historic rights” is a big rallying cry. This group tends to include the libertarian-leaning conservatives–think of the Volokh bloggers, or the Institute for Justice, or FIRE.

I’m fairly sure that the aristocratic conservatives were a significant target for Hayek, and the liberty-conservers weren’t.


Steve LaBonne 10.30.08 at 6:25 pm

Real “liberty-conservatives” in the US (along with some fakers, like some of the Volokh cowd and, worse, the likes of Reynolds ) call themselves libertarians. The vast majority of those who answer to “conservative” tout court (as well as the fakers) are authoritarian militaristic statists (and many are racists and nativists as well).


someguy 10.30.08 at 6:31 pm

“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,”[3] 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. ”

It’s a pretty neat trick.

On the one hand progressive taxation is an American tradition. Obama’s proposals fit within that tradition.

Implicitly and often stated explicitly it is his opponents with their flat tax proposals and other schemes to rob from the poor and give to the rich who are the radicals.

On the other hand they are also the conservatives Hayek identifies.

Maybe Hayek was referring to American conservatives and maybe not. Whatever.

Hayek would almost certainly look kindly on current American conservatives with their SS privatization and flat tax proposal schemes as opposed to just looking to provide a brake against the worst excessives of progressives.


J Thomas 10.30.08 at 9:09 pm

John, remember that old post of yours about arguing with people who aren’t really thinking coherently? It’s not your responsibility to create a coherent position for them so that you can argue against it.


Anarcho 10.31.08 at 9:26 am

“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.”

Of course, the term “libertarian” had been used since (at least) the 1890s as an alternative to anarchist, i.e., a supporter of anti-state socialism of the kind advocated by Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and, more recently, Noam Chomsky. Its first use in this context dates back to the 1850s. It still means that in Western Europe, although the US definition (which dates back to the 1960s/70s) is becoming more used in Britain — sadly!

Libertarians in this traditional sense tend to call the US-style “libertarian” propertarians, for obvious reasons. Still, it is ironic that defenders of private property effectively stole the term “libertarian” from the left!


Mike Huben 10.31.08 at 10:11 pm

Today’s libertarians are mostly old-time Manchesterites, working to serve the interests of plutocrats. Just look at the various Index Of Economic Freedom surveys they produce: they are identifying the freedoms that are valuable to the first-class citizens (corporations, the rich, etc.) and ignoring the freedoms needed by ordinary people.


novakant 11.01.08 at 11:04 am

Jonah Goldberg has responded to my “Spread The Wealth” post.

Honestly John, why do you engage in a discussion with that guy?

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