When Friedrich Hayek announced his personal political philosophy as an “unrepentant Old Whig” in his magnum opus Constitution of Liberty, he was reaching deep into the well of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, even if he had originally spoken these words against his friend, Russell Kirk, in their famous Mont Pelerin debate of 1957.
While the Old Whigs founded themselves rather spontaneously as a coherent movement during the 1680s in England, they drew their inheritance and patrimony from the great republican and Stoic thinkers of the Occident. As with other liberally-educated persons of his generation, Hayek frequently referenced the great thinkers of the ancient world, especially Aristotle and Cicero, in his own works, and, of course, he also cited a number of other thinkers who helped develop the Whig and republican movements during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, including James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke. And, finally, he discussed intellectuals following the events of 1688, including Commonwealth men such John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. Hayek rightfully viewed himself in a line of succession with these profound social critics and philosophers.
Though Hayek openly rejected the label “conservative,” he did, for example, find and identify with many of the same heroes of the past as did self-professed conservatives such as Kirk and R.A. Nisbet. Indeed, with the very important exceptions of Locke, Mill, and Acton, the primary influences on all three men were nearly identical. That Hayek came from Central Europe and Kirk and Nisbet from America probably helps explain, in many ways, the desire on Hayek’s part to avoid the label “conservatism.” Its American (and English) manifestation was quite different from the continental variety. Hayek, of course, knew its twentieth-century English and American types, but he had seen much in Europe that almost certainly shaped his distaste for the term, “conservative.”
Regardless, I think it’s critically important for those of us who identify with imaginative conservatism to give Hayek his due as a thinker and a man. While Hayek has much to tell us about many things (he was, after all, accomplished in philosophy, economics, law, and psychology), I’ll offer just two of his most important ideas: the necessity of voluntary community and the fatal conceit.
Economies and Communities
Importantly, Hayek argued that while “each man knows his interests best,” one’s gifts should be used in community, where reason is “tested and corrected by others.” Daniel Rush Finn has done an excellent job of contrasting Hayek’s and John Paul II’s economics in his 1999 article, “The Economic Personalism of John Paul II: Neither Right nor Left,” so I won’t try to rehash that or make the attempt to claim that Hayek’s understanding is fully commensurate with Catholic social teaching. Though nominally Roman Catholic, Hayek’s understanding of the individual is clearly not the same as the Catholic understanding of the human person, but it’s worth mentioning here that John Paul II held Hayek in great respect. John Paul consulted Hayek on some issues in 1980; but that’s another story.
Hayek’s views on community and the role of the individual within community, however, are very western, if not completely Catholic. This is a very long passage from Hayek, but I think it’s worth quoting all of it, especially as Hayek did such an excellent job of distinguishing true individualism from false:
This entails certain corollaries on which true individualism once more stands in sharp opposition to the false individualism of the rationalistic type. The first is that the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, which all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working in human society. The second is that the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may be recognizable, and which to him will often appear unintelligible and irrational. I need not say much on the first point. That true individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group, that it believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations, and that indeed its case rests largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration need not be stressed further. There can be no greater contrast to this than the false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state, and which tries to make all social ties prescriptive, instead of using the state mainly as a protection of the individual against the arrogation of coercive powers by the small groups. Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society as these smaller groupings of men are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of the rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody may understand is also an indispensible condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is of course, a commonplace. But the reverse of this, while less familiar, is probably not less true: that coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society where conventions and traditions have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable.
Hayek’s view, after all, agrees with Aristotle’s (and St. Paul’s and Marcus Aurelius’) belief that “man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis.” That is, man must employ his particular gifts within community to make and render them meaningful. Hayek was anti-utopian regarding this, however. Man is a “very irrational and fallible being,” Hayek wrote, “whose individual errors are correct only in the course of the social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.” The market process, and, consequently, the social process helps attenuate the problems of man’s inherent flaws, but it does not erase them or make somehow good. The system of private property rewards virtue and punishes vice, at least to a great extent, as well as allows entrepreneurs to try and fail and try again. As an additional advantage, private property also brings a considerable amount of harmony to a community. In this, Hayek sounds as much like Adam Smith as he does Burke. As the great Anglo-Irish statesman had argued, commerce reconciled “conflicting interests without giving one group power to make their views and interests always prevail over those of others.” But, it was more to Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith that Hayek turned, arguing that commerce and virtue were not incompatible. Certainly, Mandeville and Smith each recognized that man is fallible. One can neither reshape nor redesign the human person.
One significant difference between Hayek and his republican and Whig ancestors is that the Nobel-prize winning economist believed democracy to be a strong safe-guard against tyranny. Most seventeenth and eighteenth-century republican and Old Whig thinkers abhorred democracy as nothing more than mob rule. Certainly Plato challenged the concept in The Republic, arguing that democracy always devolved into the leadership of a morally suspect tyrant, because he represented the lowest common denominator. The people were too easily swayed by their emotions and passions, foregoing their rationality for the sake of the moment. As with most of those in the Whig tradition, though, Hayek did call for balance within government as well as arguing for strict limitations on the actual functions of government.
Importantly, though—especially here at The Imaginative Conservative—we should return to Hayek’s relationship with de Tocqueville. Hayek, as noted above, saw himself as a de Tocquevillian, and he especially advanced de Tocqueville’s arguments regarding the voluntary association. It is only through voluntary association, whether in the private (that is, market) or the independent sector, that society experiences true progress. As Hayek wrote, paraphrasing the eighteenth-century Scot, Adam Ferguson, society develops not by human design, but rather by human action. When man acts alone, he acts with only limited knowledge. This natural restriction applies equally to the entrepreneur and the politician. “This is the constitutional limitation of man’s knowledge and interests, the fact that he cannot know more than a tiny part of the whole of society and that therefore all that can enter into his motives are the immediate effects which his actions will have in the sphere he knows,” Hayek explained. Because the world is so complex, it is only through human action, rather than human design, that societies grow, evolve, and truly progress. Indeed, Hayek concluded, it is the knowledge problem and the price system that allows for a division of labor and, hence, a civilization to occur.
The Fatal Conceit
Hayek’s second great contribution to the understanding of republicanism and whiggery is that by trying to create heaven on earth, man will instead create a hell. Hayek called this the “Fatal Conceit,” the belief that an individual can reshape the world in his own image, overturning centuries of finely-evolved history, morality, and philosophy.
In the modern world, one may trace the origins of the “Fatal Conceit” and its resulting widespread destruction of lives to the French Revolution. Burke described it well: “Have we not produced it ready made and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter itself.” In turn, the goddess will devour its creators.
At the end of the nineteenth century, many thinkers in the Whig tradition feared the twin intellectual evils of their time, nationalism and socialism. They rightly feared these evils would individually or intertwined wreak widespread destruction upon the world in the twentieth century. Whig historian Lord Acton stressed that the end of Christendom and the western ideals would mean the rise of nationalism. “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races,” he wrote in his famed essay, “Nationalism.” Paganism, however, “identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.” Though written in 1862, Acton seemingly understood that a Nietzsche would soon arise. “By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory,” Acton continued. Those deemed inferior, the historian argued, will be “exterminated, or reduced to servitude, or outlawed, or put in a condition of dependence.” Hayek made a similar point in his December 1945 lecture in Dublin:
Whether even the small countries will escape will depend on whether they keep free from the poison of nationalism, which is both an inducement to, and a result of, that same striving for a society which is consciously organized from the top. . . . nationalism. . . is but a twin brother of socialism.
The twentieth century—whether described as fatally conceited or Nietzschean—has witnessed the greatest shedding of blood of any century in world history. The sheer numbers of those killed by their own governments are simply mind boggling. According to demographer and political scientist R.J. Rummel, governments murdered nearly 170 million persons between 1901 and 1987. The Soviet Union slaughtered 62 million; China nearly 45 million (Mao and Chang Kai Check taken together); and National Socialist Germany 21 million. By contrast, war took the lives of only 35 million between 1901 and 1987. More recent estimates show these figures to be much higher—roughly 205 million executed by their own states, another 50 million killed in war.
Progressives, Hayek argued, hate the natural order and the natural law. They demand that “everything must be tidily planned” by an “all-powerful central government.” Ironically, their attempt to create order only begets severe and violent disorder, the shattering of the soul and the world.
Hayek was not a conservative, nor it is my intent that The Imaginative Conservative should try to make him one. “Conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time,” Hayek feared. “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.” Hayek did praise conservatives for their ability to create and defend “spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions.” But, their victories lay in the past, he believed. Today’s conservatives, Hayek argued, “lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.”
Most readers of The Imaginative Conservative presumably disagree with Hayek’s assessment. Regardless, as anti-ideologues, we take the good—that which is timeless—in each man. Hayek had more than most to offer us, and his words will certainly continue to shape, limit, and inspire throughout the twentieth-first century. If we want to change our society, our laws, our culture, and our government; if we want to prevent the big government conservatives, the neo-cons, and the militaristic liberals from continuing to shape the world according to their unholy wills, we probably don’t have the right to dismiss an ally such as Hayek.
I’ll give Hayek the last words:
To the accepted Christian tradition that man must be free to follow his conscience in moral matters if his actions are to be of any merit, the economists added the further argument that he should be free to make full use of his knowledge and skill, that he must be allowed to be guided by his concern for the particular things of which he knows and for which he cares, if he is to make as great a contribution to the common purposes of society as he is capable of making.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. On their relationship, see Birzer, “More Than ‘Irritable Mental Gestures’: Russell Kirk’s Challenge to Liberalism, 1950-1960,” Humanitas (2008): 64-86.
2. This is not to imply that Hayek accepted the complete corpus of each thinker’s beliefs, of course. He took issue, for example, with Aristotle several times. See Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Results of Human Action but not of Human Design,” chapter in Richard M. Ebeling, ed., Austrian Economics: A Reader (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1991), 134; and Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 48.
3. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 15.
4. Daniel Rush Finn, “The Economic Personalism of John Paul II: Neither Right nor Left,” Journal of Markets and Morality 2 (Spring 1999): 74-87.
5. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 22-24.
6. Aristotle, The Politics, Book I.
7. Friedrich A. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” chapter in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 8-9.
8. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 13. Most importantly, see the several works of James R. Otteson, especially Actual Ethics.
9. Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960; Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 403.
10. Plato, The Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 293-302.
11. See, for example, Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Liberty, and Legislation, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 1979), especially chapter 13.
12. Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Meaning of Competition,” in Ebeling, ed., Austrian Economics: A Reader, 264-80.
13. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 14.
14. Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35 (September 1945): 519-30; and Hayek, “The Results of Human Action but not of Human Design” chapter in Ebeling, ed., Austrian Economics: A Reader, 134-49.
15. Hayek, “Use of Knowledge in Society,” 528-9.
16. Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” 92.
17. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1986), 409-33.
18. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 28.
19. R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1994). See also Stephane Courtois, et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
20. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” 27.
21. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 14.