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!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hayek's is NOT Conservative, Who knew?

Actually, we SWEET scholars knew it all along, right?

It has been interesting to find in the postscript that conservatism has only recently been re-defined, and actually, it originally was associated with a more modern-day liberal left view point that involves ideals consisting of socialism, a centralized economy, and more government involvement in protecting individually specified rights or the preservation of them. This could be found in the 17th century in the union states prior to the civil war.

The conservation of rights were also, on the other hand not the common constitutional rights or even unalienable rights we now think we're preserving, they were focused on preserving institutions such as slavery. whoh, ouch. I am glad that the liberalism/conservationism terms have been re-defined without an association to the institution of slavery or any other form of unjust rights. But this is, and has been, a long process of: changing ideals, times, and the reconstructing of the definition of our basic human rights.

I am, once again, not fitting into Hayek's definitions with my personal political stance, I think I am actually right alongside him, a "liberal" in the most organic form. This brings a question, just how relative is the idea of a de-centralized economy? I think it evolves with the opinions of unpredictable human beings, who forget their history.

Extra Extra! This just in Hayek thinks that Socialism and Liberalism are completely different entities.

Believe it or not this seems to be news to me.

Granted that I’ve only taken a few courses in political science and only one of which would fall into the category of political theory, but typically I’ve noted a trend of many people tying these two ideologies together even though they are very different. I have heard of the analogy that Hayek tries to debunk numerous times (the one about a the whole….”imagine a line, this line is a spectrum of political identity. You have Conservatism on the far right and then you have liberalism on the center left and socialism on the far left.”) I lived how Hayek defines each of these positions then notes that a more correct analogy would be that of a triangle “with the conservatives occupying one corner, with the socialists pulling toward the second and the liberals toward the third.” (p. 389)

I thought it was interesting he noted that in a sense Socialism can be considered to be closer to Conservatism than Liberalism. This idea at first sounds outlandish and any political T.V. pundit would argue against it in a heartbeat. Hayek though, finds points to back up this argument. For instance his point about how reformed Socialists typically end up favoring Conservatism rather than Liberalism. This is something that I have notice among those who have made that change. He notes that Conservatives favor authority in order to have liberty and Socialists who favor authority to constrict it.

Like I have noted in this post this idea is very new to me, and I find it more surprising than the title of the chapter. :-)

See you all this Thursday now it’s off to getting ready for some finals.