What is Hayek's true political persuasion? I’ve often pondered this question and consider it important for those in right-wing politics for three reasons. First, I believe that Hayek is a conservative thinker. Second, considerable confusion persists as to the philosophical heritage of the Liberal Party. Many insist it’s “a progressive party” and conservatives are imposters. These people tend to locate Hayek within the liberal political tradition, perhaps not realising the obvious philosophical similarities between Hayek and conservatives like Burke and Oakeshott. Third, while I accept that people can never agree, disagreement might be partially mitigated by an appreciation of how aspects of classical-liberalism and conservatism philosophically cohere.
In locating Hayek within the conservative tradition I find the following decisive:
- a scepticism about rationality and human affairs;
- a reverence toward grown or evolved social institutions;
- flowing from (2) a preference for inherited and established traditions and institutions; and
- a view of rights or freedom as rooted in social convention, as distinct from the usual liberal insistence on inherent, universal or divine rights.
I also feel it incumbent upon me to respond to the view (even by Hayek himself) that he’s simply an “old Whig”; liberalism untainted by the 20th century collectivist epoch.
The limits of rationality
The litmus test for conservatism is the belief that reason plays a limited role in the co-ordination of society. Societies are not the products of human thinking but an unintended outcome of “suprarational” factors: values, beliefs, institutions and languages are all tied up in a complex matrix of spontaneity. Further, to the conservative it is past human experience and the accumulated wisdom of established institutions that one turns to in deciding what provides a “workable” framework for civil social order. We arrive at the solution to our problems through trial and error over years, not through the genius of any one person or school. There’s an obvious logic to this. Just as it would be impossible to construct without reference to some other authority an aeroplane or computer we can’t, from inside a philosophical vacuum, think up the ideal society. The conservative is never surprised that radical and revolutionary political systems fail so miserably - radicalism is inspired by ideology and contempt for inherited wisdom.
Hayek was influenced by the sceptical empiricist tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith who refuted that the human mind can understand the totality of human activities. Hayek’s philosophy and economic theory stressed “evolved reason” as distinct from the “constructivist rationalist” mindset that derived from Descartes and Bacon. This “constructivist rationalist” thinking links in with Kant and the Enlightenment idea that society can be re-organised rationally. Congruent with Hayek is the critique offered by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism and Politics, that the rationalists with their causally mechanistic mindset fail to comprehend the value of inherited wisdom.
Hayek’s scepticism about the power of rationality in co-ordinating human affairs ties in directly with his theory of the “spontaneous ordering” nature of human societies.
Hayek’s social and economic theories build upon the problem of economic calculation as identified by Ludwig Von Mises in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. Mises argued that socialism fails at a systemic level because it ignores market price signals and therefore can only result in a misallocation of resources.
In contrast the beauty of free enterprise is that market signals indicate where resources are to be distributed according to people’s willingness to buy something. Influenced by the abovementioned Scottish philosophers, Hayek developed his theory of “spontaneous order” that the free price system is not a product of design but of human action: the market just like language, law, morals, customs and the institution of private property are all the product of undirected human activity.
The conservative emphasis on the value of society as guided by unconsciously acquired habits, intuition and inherited wisdom can be easily extended to Hayek’s account of free-enterprise as a system of tacit or dispersed knowledge that finds communication via the market price signal. There’s also congruency with Burkes warning that government “meddling” always tends to a “subversion” of the market. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Hayek shares the conservative view of grown social phenomena, in contrast to the Enlightenment Liberal tendency to insist on abstractions and rational design.
Hayek’s traditionalism flows from his belief in grown or evolved social phenomena. I think two palpable examples are his defence of British common law and his reservation about democracy.
Take for example his reverence for British common law. Hayek saw the traditional common law system as another example of an organically grown institution. The system relied on cases being brought before a court with each case decided on its merit according to the doctrine of stare decisis - the judges in making their decisions are constrained by the adoption of principles applied previously to analogous cases. Common law represents gradualism where principles are developed gradually over many decisions. Like other “spontaneously ordered” institutions the common law is the creation of human action and not rational design.
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