My essay on the Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek in the April 20 print edition of National Review (not available online) considers the essentials of classical liberalism—and finds that a crucial element of classical liberalism is the moral philosophy developed by thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and dervived from Christian principles.
What distinguishes classical liberalism—and modern Reaganite conservatism—from libertarianism is exactly this concern for preserving and strengthening the moral structures that make freedom possible.
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Repairing the Right
By S. T. Karnick
Review of The Cambridge Companion to Hayek, edited by Edward Feser (New York: Cambridge University Press), 342 pages, $29.99 pb, ISBN 0521615011
The 6.4 trillion dollar question in American politics today is whether the great coalition of the Right—the Reagan alliance between libertarians and traditionalist conservatives—can be put back together. It is tempting to see the Nobel Prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek (1899-1992) as a potential key figure in establishing a solid philosophical foundation for such a happy remarriage. Hayek wrote secular arguments for traditionalist policies and philosophy, and based them solidly on worldly evidence.
As Edward Feser observes in his Introduction to the thoroughly informative and stimulating Cambridge Companion to Hayek which he edited, “it is typical of New Right thinking to try to combine an emphasis on free markets, limited government, and individual liberty with the encouragement of personal moral restraint and respect for tradition and religion. Hayek’s body of thought weaves these themes together systematically, regarding as it does both the deliverances of market competition and those of tradition as the byproducts of similar selection mechanisms.”
That should be enough, one might think, but it isn’t, as the book ultimately makes clear. Subsequent chapters trace the evolution of Hayek’s subject matter from his early days as an economist to his political, philosophic, and scientific writings of later years. Underneath the variety of subjects he tackled, Hayek’s thinking retained a firm foundation. As Feser notes, “A characteristically New Right combination of classical liberal economics and Burkean conservative social theory seems to have been his settled position, and by the end of his life, the label ‘Burkean Whig’ was the one he indicated best characterized his politics.”
Contributor Robert Skidelsky points out that Hayek was no libertarian—he argued, for example, that the state should provide a social safety net. As contributor Andrew Gamble notes, “The issue he always maintained was not whether planning should be done or not, but whether it should be done centrally or divided among many individuals.” His preference, of course, was for the latter.
The book offers good insights into Hayek’s debates with British economist John Maynard Keynes. The two had more in common than is commonly thought. Skidelsky notes that Keynes identified the intellectual foundations of Western civilization as “the Christian Ethic, the Scientific Spirit and the Rule of Law,” and he cordially welcomed Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, calling it “a grand book” in which he found himself “in deeply moved agreement,” though he did have some criticisms, maintaining (of course) that macroeconomic government intervention could be done well, which Hayek dogmatically denied.
Skidelsky notes that Keynes really wanted the same thing as Hayek: to defend Western, liberal values. Their big difference was over the amount of state intervention required for that good work. Moreover, as more than one contributor to the book observes, Hayek never really did say exactly where to draw the line between excessive laissez-faire and overly intrusive government. He was completely victorious, however, in his criticism of socialism, beginning in the late 1930s. His argument was simple and devastating: “he argued that socialist planning could not accomplish the ends it set out for itself,” contributor Bruce Caldwell notes.
A market economy, Hayek noted, incorporates an unimaginably large number of personal decisions based on an even greater number of individual preferences, and does so with amazing accuracy through the price mechanism. And even if it were possible for any group of people or machines to do the computations necessary to replace the price mechanism, the knowledge they would need—the individual preferences—does not exist outside the local context and thus cannot be accessed by planners, as contributor Peter J. Boettke notes.
Hayek truly can be said to have changed the world with his publication of The Road to Serfdom in 1944, just when it seemed that the movement toward collectivism was inevitable and inexorable. Contributor Anthony O’Hear praises the book’s “combative spirit” and notes, “Hayek asserts that socialism means slavery and that even in the democratic west we are steadily moving in the direction of socialism.”
The good news Hayek found was that central planning wasn’t necessary anyway. As contributor Eric Mack points out, “A great deal of Hayek’s message is simply that a well-ordered society exhibiting rational coordination among its members need not be a designed and commanded order. Freedom and the choices of free individuals can also be the source of rational coordination.” In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek sketched out a political approach intended to preserve such a liberal social order.
A central tenet is that legitimate government actions are those that adhere to the principle of equality before the law. Favoring individuals or groups would thus be forbidden. This makes individual liberty a critical element of the equation. In addition, Hayek says, the government itself should be bound by the rule of law. Even within these strictures, he concedes, not all that is permissible will be wise, but the principles would definitely sweep away the kind of destructive economic planning that was common at the time.
This effort was really an attempt to posit classical liberalism as the alternative to modern statism. As contributor Chanduran Kukathas notes, The Constitution of Liberty opens with the words, “If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations.” The political system that Hayek proposed, as Kukathas describes it, was an order “governed by abstract rules of just conduct.” Abstract rules, contributor Roger Scruton notes, govern conduct without specifying the end to be achieved by them. An order based on abstract rules and individual liberty is able to accommodate a healthy pluralism and avert tribalism, two important goals for Hayek after World War II.
The opposite danger, however, is the great curse of the modern West. A liberal social order “is possible . . . only if there is widespread agreement on some values,” Kukathas notes. Hayek places his trust in the organic growth of socially beneficial customs and traditions. But traditions break down all the time, Scruton observes, and “if these good things decay, then there is no way, according to Hayek, that legislation can replace them. For they arise spontaneously or not at all.” Government cannot reverse the decay, and the foundations of the liberal social order and market economy continue to erode.
What keeps a society together, Scruton observes, are bonds of “history, territory, language, and allegiance. . . . Only when this sense of membership is in place are people disposed to submit to a common rule of law and willing to place contractu
al obligations to strangers above tribal and family ties.” Excessive emphasis on the free and sovereign individual frays these bonds, Scruton observes, and the modern, heavily interventionist state undermines these traditions further. As a result, Scruton notes, “spontaneous order . . . is a rare achievement” in human history.
This is where conservatism is essential to the maintenance of a liberal social order, Scruton says, for one of conservatism’s goals is “to give a coherent and humane account of the kind of pre-political membership that will sustain free institutions and a rule of law.” This essential loyalty cannot “be costlessly replaced by relations of a purely contractual kind.” Therefore, Scruton concludes, “liberalism is possible only under a conservative government.”
Although Hayek has the right end in view, his means are insufficient to get us there. In the end, Hayek’s thinking is an important and even necessary element of the modern right—but not a sufficient one. Where Hayek leaves off, other defenders of moral traditions and social bonds must step forward.