Monday, May 2, 2011


Well, folks, it's the end of the semester. I know what that means, in general... and I also see that there were only two posts this week. I imagine you're all busy, tired, and distracted by finals. So I'll try to keep this brief.

Three points, then, on Hayeks' final essay (which I love, btw). As a little bit of background, for the past two spring semesters, I have been co-teaching a course here at Hillsdale College on "the libertarian-conservative debate" with a conservative political philosopher. Many of the issues we cover in the class focus on Hayek's essay.

I like Hayek's outline on p. 400 on the main differences between (classical) liberalism and conservatism. To me, they mostly come down to a trust in spontaneous order (L) v. social engineering (C) -- but also liberalism's refusal to impose ends, versus the conservative hierarchy of ends, based on an assumed knowledge of the world. I am always somewhat befuddled by conservatism's attempts to engineer society for its desired outcome, while simultaneously dismissing socialism as social engineering.

Two problems with this, of course. First, both socialism (contemporary liberalism) and conservatism are willing to use the coercive apparatus of the state to impose their preferences; of course, they will argue that their preferences are true/correct/good. But they are still willing, in principle, to have the state used to impose visions and change coercively. Not so liberalism. Second, they both rely, I think, on a somewhat naive view of politics, which ignores the public choice critique. Hayek writes that the conservative's "main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule...Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people." p. 402

In sum, I find that there is much in common between philosophical conservatism and philosophical socialism! Just a difference on the goals each is trying to impose. And, in practical terms, as Garrett points out, it's hard to see the diference between the Republican wing and the Democrat wing of the national Republicrat party!

[Mind you, I am talking here about political conservatism, not personal conservatism. Hayek was, it seems to me, a personal conservative -- not a wild and crazy guy guzzling absinthe in the discos of Vienna, or shooting heroin in the 1950s Chicago; quite the contrary. He also was in favor of gradual, cautious change, and emphasized the importance of institutions, traditions, customs, etc. But he was not willing to impose his views through state coercion.]

A final touch of history is in order here, I think. In 19th century Europe, there were essentially three parties: the socialists, the liberals, and the conservatives. The liberals were allied with the socialists against privilege and economic nationalism (as espoused by the conservatives); the liberals were allied with the conservatives against redistribution and radical change. It's interesting that, with the 20th century, socialism incorporated liberalism's fight against privilege, but liberalism essentially disappeared, as socialism stole the name liberal! And now, conservatives are more likely to be for free trade than socialists.

But that -- along with the elite collusion and the philosophical similarity described above -- is why I reject, with Hayek, the simple left-right spectrum.

What a fitting way to finish a book, and what a fitting way for us to finish our semester's discussion. It's all in the postscript, from the knowledge problem to spontaneous order, to the history and the problems with social engineering.

We are, of course, left with the question of effecting social change. Hayek's advice, which I've quoted so many times I won't do it again, to engage in piecemeal, marginal change, while respecting institutions and traditions and acknowleding our knowledge problem -- well, it's prudent, and I'm inclined to think he's right. But it's frustrating, especially when one is faced with opponents, be they conservative or socialist, who are all too willing to engage in wholesale social engineering and impose their preferences on us. I recommend Hayek's essay on "the Intellectuals and Socialism" and Richard Cockett's "Thinking the Unthinkable" for more material on this. But can we do any better?

Thanks for a great semester, and good luck with final exams!

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