THE BLOG
08/17/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011

F.A. Hayek Against the Conservative

Glenn Beck told his audience that Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom was the "best thing you can read." The book shot up the Amazon bestseller list instantly as Beck's cult-like followers rushed out to buy it.

Beck was unaware that Hayek's friend, and sometimes sparing partner, John Maynard Keynes, also called it a "grand book" and said he found himself "in agreement with virtually the whole of it; and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement." The New York Times said this book, by the Nobel Prize winning economist, is one of the staples of the conservative Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party and Glenn Beck would do well to educate themselves as to Hayek's actual view in his essay, "Why I Am Not a Conservative."

Conservatives concentrate on Hayek's opposition to state socialism, but have little understanding of his radical classical liberal ideas and ignore his opposition to conservatism.

Hayek saw himself as a liberal, in the classical sense of the word. And, while Keynes differed greatly from Hayek's views on economics, Keynes saw himself in the same ideological camp as his friend.

Hayek was "not averse to evolution and change" and said that when "spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it [liberalism] wants a great deal of change." This, he argued, was in conflict with the "conservative attitude" which was a "fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such." Hayek said his position "is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead."

Conservatives focus on Hayek's distrust of centrally imposed, top-down change. Meagan McArdle, for instance, invoked Hayekian theory to claim, "changing the explicitly gendered nature of marriage... might be accidentally cutting away something that turns out to be a crucial underpinning." This confuses Hayek's opposition to imposed change with opposition to all change. Hayek's view was that for a new social order, or social rules, "To become legitimized... [they] have to obtain the approval of society at large -- not by a formal vote, but by gradually spreading acceptance," much the way that same-sex marriage has gained support. This is particularly true when the change recognizes a "conflict between a given rule and the rest of our moral beliefs." Then we "can justify our rejection of an established rule." For example, when denying same-sex couples the right to marry conflicts with our acceptance of equality of rights before the law, we can justify changing the laws on marriage according to Hayek's insights.

Hayek warned that conservatives, however, "are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rates to whatever appeals to the more timid mind."

Another difference between Hayek and conservatives is he saw order emerging from voluntary interactions of people, while "Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention to authority." The conservative, he said "feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change 'orderly.'"

Hayek believed in the rule of law, with government powers strictly limited to general rules of social order. Contrast this with a conservative who "does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not be too much restricted by rigid rules." Hayek warned that the conservative is "less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them" and said "he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people."

Hayek saw conservatives as lacking principles but not "moral conviction." He wrote, "The conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions," but "has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions." Hayek's liberal social order allows people of differing convictions the freedom to pursue their own values. The joking response to conservatives, "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married," actually encapsulates Hayek's view of a liberal society, which allows people of different views the freedom to pursue their own values. Those who oppose erotica are free to NOT buy it, those who oppose abortion are free to shun abortions, those who oppose gay marriage don't have to get gay married!

It is here that Hayek's liberalism is most clearly in opposition to both conservatism and socialism. "I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion."

Conservatives invoke supernatural claims to justify intransigent opposition to change, not so with Hayekian liberals.

"The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face [human] ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him. It has to be admitted that in some respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic -- but it seems to require a certain degree of diffidence to let others seek their happiness in their own fashion and to adhere consistently to that tolerance which is an essential characteristic of liberalism."

Hayek's wrote, "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 spheres which ought not to be confused."

Hayek never feared evolutionary change in society, nor believed religious values sufficient reason for using power of the state to prevent change. Hayek, the intransigent opponent of socialism that Beck and conservatives admire, also saw himself equally opposed to their conservative agenda, something conservatives ignore at their peril. More confusing for these so-called admirers of Hayek would be the fact that Hayek opposed their conservative agenda for precisely the same reasons he opposed socialism. But that, I suspect, is a brew too strong for the so-called Tea Party.