Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative”


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Greg Ransom says:

    It doesn’t sound anything like Frum.

    Hayek was answering Russell Kirk & anticipating an answer to Michael Oakeshott.

    And the background is Conservatism on the Contintnet, and other tha. Kirk, has little to do with America, really.

    In a sense, all Americans, especially “conservative” Americans, have a built in bit of committment to the classical liberal tradition of the Founder’s and Hayek acknowledge this seminal fact about Americans, especially conservative Americans.

    Hayek is simply making a logical point about the need for foundational principles, beyond an empty committment to “the past” or to some religious dogma. What “the past” constantly changes as time passes, and changing views change the content of received religious dogma.

    Because things do change, and interpretations of the past are equally open to changing interpretation, articulated principles and a conscious understand of the way the world works are important for moving successfully into the future which is ever changing. Madison and the other Founder’s made similar arguments.

    This capacity is beyond the competency set of David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, I’d suggest.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke says:

      Getting hung up on the terms may miss Hayek’s point. From Hayek’s text:

      “It is thus necessary to recognize that what I have called “liberalism” has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today.

      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.

      It was the ideals of the English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in the whole of Europe and that provided the conceptions that the American colonists carried with them and which guided them in their struggle for independence and in the establishment of their constitution. Indeed, until the character of this tradition was altered by the accretions due to the French Revolution, with its totalitarian democracy and socialist leanings, “Whig” was the name by which the party of liberty was generally known.

      But it is still true that, since liberalism took the place of Whiggism only after the movement for liberty had absorbed the crude and militant rationalism of the French Revolution, and since our task must largely be to free that tradition from the overrationalistic, nationalistic, and socialistic influences which have intruded into it, Whiggism is historically the correct name for the ideas in which I believe.

      It is the doctrine which is at the basis of the common tradition of the Anglo-Saxon countries. It is the doctrine from which Continental liberalism took what is valuable in it. It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the conservatism of Hamilton or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”

      That, both for the genuine conservative and still more for the many socialists turned conservative, Whiggism is the name for their pet aversion shows a sound instinct on their part. It has been the name for the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power.

      It may well be asked whether the name really matters so much. In a country like the United States, which on the whole has free institutions and where, therefore, the defense of the existing is often a defense of freedom, it might not make so much difference if the defenders of freedom call themselves conservatives…”

      Bold face mine.

      I believe Mr. Ransom is accurate that Hayek’s remarks are pointedly directed at Russell Kirk, who was emblematic of “conservatism” at the time. However, Kirk was criticized as not a free-marketer, and indeed as having a knee-jerk opposition to what we might call “creative destruction” or that a properly free market would be capable of correcting itself.

      Murray Rothbard: “Kirk is the philosopher of old pre-Industrial Revolution, High Anglican England, the land of the squire, the Church, the happy peasant, and the aristocratic bureaucratic caste. He is essentially and basically antidemocratic.”

      Elitist, the “conservatism” of John Adams. So, if that’s the context of “conservative” that Hayek’s using here, well, no, he ain’t one.

      Hayek sets up the argument as “liberalism” holding the middle ground between socialism and conservatism. Anyone would want to claim ‘liberal” as Hayek approvingly uses it, but his main enemy remains socialism, which his “liberalism” opposes, as does conservatism, albeit for improper reasons [mere fear of change, mere reverence for the old because it’s old].

      But progressivism need not apply for consideration as “liberal.”

      Now, one could read Hayek as against “social conservatism”:

      “There is no reason why this need mean an absence of religious belief on the part of the liberal. Unlike the rationalism of the French Revolution, true liberalism has no quarrel with religion, and I can only deplore the militant and essentially illiberal antireligionism which animated so much of nineteenth-century Continental liberalism. That this is not essential to liberalism is clearly shown by its English ancestors, the Old Whigs, who, if anything, were much too closely allied with a particular religious belief. What distinguishes the liberal from the conservative here is that, however profound his own spiritual beliefs, he will never regard himself as entitled to impose them on others and that for him the spiritual and the temporal are different sphere which ought not to be confused.”

      But of course, “social gospel” politics are the other side of that coin, and far more germane to Hayek’s true area of expertise,
      government and economics. I don’t think he’s referring to the “social gospel,” but it fits his general pontification here as well.

      Further, it’s his opinion that his beloved “Old Whiggism” was ” too closely allied with a particular religious belief.” Perhaps he’s referring to the Church of England, but if he’s referring to Christianity or theism, that our rights are unalienable may not be easily separable from them being endowed by the Creator.Report

      • Avatar Greg Ransom says:

        Let me suggest that Hayek was not fully fair to Adams and Hamilton.Report

        • Avatar Greg Ransom says:

          Hayek’s views on the role of religion and religious people is more complex than this essay would suggest, and continued to evolve beyond 1960.

          Hayek repeatedly said that the defense of a liberal society depends on the support of religious people, and that classical liberalism — unlike leftist “liberialism” — has no fundamental incompatibility with religious belief.

          Indeed, Hayek goes on in later years to talk about how the moral views and commitment to tradition among religious believers has played a central role in the growth of the classic liberal society. Hayek, if fact, may have understated the matter.Report

  2. Avatar Greg Ransom says:

    Sorry, make that:

    ” What “the past” is, is constantly changes as time passes”Report

  3. Avatar Mona says:

    And the background is Conservatism on the Contintnet,

    Where did this pervasive canard come from? (I’ve seen Goldberg push it at NRO.) Hayek spent a good amount of ink in that essay critiquing rejection of the theory of evolution which, especially when he was writing, was a phenomenon found virtually only on the *American* right.

    No, he full well knew he was addressing all conservatives, including those in the U.S.Report

  4. Avatar Mona says:

    Hayek has almost nothing in common with David Frum. Altho I’ve lapsed from libertarianism, I maintain a great deal of respect for Hayek and his intellect/insights. The same could not be said about Frum.Report

  5. Just to clarify, I meant Frum in Frum’s criticism of the modern GOP.

    (But I also think Frum is an opportunist and is generally full of it.)Report

  6. Avatar Mona says:


    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.

    Again, and most especially when Hayek wrote the above, it pertained primarily to conservatism in America. And today’s U.S. conservatives? He’d vomit them from his mouth.Report

  7. Avatar ZZMike says:

    I’ve been reading “Road to Serfdom”. It’s taking a long time, because Hayek wrote carefully and deeply. “Why I am Not A Conservative” is fascinating, mainly because the words “conservative” and “liberal” have taken flight and lost most of their original meanings. They’ve become labels, even more, they’ve become tribal identifiers: across the two tribes, they’re terms of derision and ridicule; among tribes, terms of affection and recognition.

    I came across Mamet’s book the other day; the few pages I read were eye-opening. It’s on my list of books to buy.

    Hitchens’ review only confirms my opinion.

    Mona: “And today’s U.S. conservatives? He’d vomit them from his mouth.”

    I think that’s a bit harsh. I think he’d be much harder on today’s so-called “liberals”, whose aim in life is to expand government and its control over every aspect of our lives, and whose goal is the redistribution of wealth by onerous taxation – one way to achieve the Marxist ideal of “universal equality”.

    “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. ”

    As in, for instance, the proponents of Global Warming (or whatever PC term they have for it today).

    Here’s a line that has been picked up:

    “Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism…”

    (The site I got the essay from has “if the new”.)

    That definition simply does not apply to mainstream conservatives today. Does anyone believe that today’s scientists working in the theoretical sciences (“the new and starnge”) are all adherents of Zinn, Chomsky, Michael Moore, Kieth Olbermann, &c?

    Or that “internationalism” is something that would make this a better world? I can think of only one political movement that has “The Internationale” as their theme song.Report