Why I Am Not a Conservative

by F. A. Hayek




In The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960)

"At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition."

~ Lord Acton

1. At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty,[1] those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current politics today they generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties. But, though the position I have tried to define is also often described as “conservative,” it is very different from that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their ideals equally. It is therefore important to distinguish clearly the position taken here from that which has long been known – perhaps more appropriately – as conservatism.

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.[2] This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves “liberals.” I will nevertheless continue for the moment to describe as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism. Let me say at once, however, that I do so with increasing misgivings, and I shall later have to consider what would be the appropriate name for the party of liberty. The reason for this is not only that the term “liberal” in the United States is the cause of constant misunderstandings today, but also that in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism.

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,”[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.

2. The picture generally given of the relative position of the three parties does more to obscure than to elucidate their true relations. They are usually represented as different positions on a line, with the socialists on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals somewhere in the middle. Nothing could be more misleading. If we want a diagram, it would be more appropriate to arrange them in a triangle with the conservatives occupying one corner, with the socialists pulling toward the second and the liberals toward the third. But, as the socialists have for a long time been able to pull harder, the conservatives have tended to follow the socialist rather than the liberal direction and have adopted at appropriate intervals of time those ideas made respectable by radical propaganda. It has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism and stolen its thunder. Advocates of the Middle Way[4] with no goal of their own, conservatives have been guided by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes – with the result that they have shifted their position every time a more extreme movement appeared on either wing.

The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies. Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy. So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth.

This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

3. Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.

This brings me to the first point on which the conservative and the liberal dispositions differ radically. As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such,[5] while the liberal 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. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative 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.”

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles,[6] it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks. So unproductive has conservatism been in producing a general conception of how a social order is maintained that its modern votaries, in trying to construct a theoretical foundation, invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal. Macaulay, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Lecky certainly considered themselves liberals, and with justice; and even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative 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 to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them.[7] Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he 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. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as “concessions” to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire. To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one’s concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. 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. This may also explain why it seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal.

In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people – he is not an egalitarian – but he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. While the conservative inclines to defend a particular established hierarchy and wishes authority to protect the status of those whom he values, the liberal feels that no respect for established values can justify the resort to privilege or monopoly or any other coercive power of the state in order to shelter such people against the forces of economic change. Though he is fully aware of the important role that cultural and intellectual elites have played in the evolution of civilization, he also believes that these elites have to prove themselves by their capacity to maintain their position under the same rules that apply to all others.

Closely connected with this is the usual attitude of the conservative to democracy. I have made it clear earlier that I do not regard majority rule as an end but merely as a means, or perhaps even as the least evil of those forms of government from which we have to choose. But I believe that the conservatives deceive themselves when they blame the evils of our time on democracy. The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power.[8] The powers which modern democracy possesses would be even more intolerable in the hands of some small elite.

Admittedly, it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further limitations of the power of government was thought unnecessary. In this sense democracy and unlimited government are connected. But it is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.

That the conservative opposition to too much government control is not a matter of principle but is concerned with the particular aims of government is clearly shown in the economic sphere. Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field, and here the liberals will often find allies in them. But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture. Indeed, though the restrictions which exist today in industry and commerce are mainly the result of socialist views, the equally important restrictions in agriculture were usually introduced by conservatives at an even earlier date. And in their efforts to discredit free enterprise many conservative leaders have vied with the socialists.[9]

4. I have already referred to the differences between conservatism and liberalism in the purely intellectual field, but I must return to them because the characteristic conservative attitude here not only is a serious weakness of conservatism but tends to harm any cause which allies itself with it. Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality.

The difference shows itself most clearly in the different attitudes of the two traditions to the advance of knowledge. Though the liberal certainly does not regard all change as progress, he does regard the advance of knowledge as one of the chief aims of human effort and expects from it the gradual solution of such problems and difficulties as we can hope to solve. Without preferring the new merely because it is new, the liberal is aware that it is of the essence of human achievement that it produces something new; and he is prepared to come to terms with new knowledge, whether he likes its immediate effects or not.

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Connected with the conservative distrust if the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries. But refusal to acquaint one’s self with new ideas merely deprives one of the power of effectively countering them when necessary. The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

A great deal more might be said about the close connection between conservatism and nationalism, but I shall not dwell on this point because it might be felt that my personal position makes me unable to sympathize with any form of nationalism. I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest. But in this respect the Continental liberalism which derives from the French Revolution is little better than conservatism. I need hardly say that nationalism of this sort is something very different from patriotism and that an aversion to nationalism is fully compatible with a deep attachment to national traditions. But the fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.

Only at first does it seem paradoxical that the anti-internationalism of conservatism is so frequently associated with imperialism. But the more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” other[10]– not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government. It is significant that here again we frequently find the conservatives joining hands with the socialists against the liberals – not only in England, where the Webbs and their Fabians were outspoken imperialists, or in Germany, where state socialism and colonial expansionism went together and found the support of the same group of “socialists of the chair,” but also in the United States, where even at the time of the first Roosevelt it could be observed: “the Jingoes and the Social Reformers have gotten together; and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for their program of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which now seems to have been averted only by the other parties having adopted their program in a somewhat milder degree and form.”[11]

5. There is one respect, however, in which there is justification for saying that the liberal occupies a position midway between the socialist and the conservative: he is as far from the crude rationalism of the socialist, who wants to reconstruct all social institutions according to a pattern prescribed by his individual reason, as from the mysticism to which the conservative so frequently has to resort. What I have described as the liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers. He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this 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[12] – 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.

There is no reason why this need mean an absence of religious belief on the part of the liberal. Unlike the rationalism of the French Revolution, true liberalism has no quarrel with religion, and I can only deplore the militant and essentially illiberal antireligionism which animated so much of nineteenth-century Continental liberalism. That this is not essential to liberalism is clearly shown by its English ancestors, the Old Whigs, who, if anything, were much too closely allied with a particular religious belief. 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 sphere which ought not to be confused.

6. What I have said should suffice to explain why I do not regard myself as a conservative. Many people will feel, however, that the position which emerges is hardly what they used to call “liberal.” I must, therefore, now face the question of whether this name is today the appropriate name for the party of liberty. I have already indicated that, though I have all my life described myself as a liberal, I have done so recently with increasing misgivings – not only because in the United States this term constantly gives rise to misunderstandings, but also because I have become more and more aware of the great gulf that exists between my position and the rationalistic Continental liberalism or even the English liberalism of the utilitarians.

If liberalism still meant what it meant to an English historian who in 1827 could speak of the revolution of 1688 as “the triumph of those principles which in the language of the present day are denominated liberal or constitutional” [13] or if one could still, with Lord Acton, speak of Burke, Macaulay, and Gladstone as the three greatest liberals, or if one could still, with Harold Laske, regard Tocqueville and Lord Acton as “the essential liberals of the nineteenth century,”[14] I should indeed be only too proud to describe myself by that name. But, much as I am tempted to call their liberalism true liberalism, I must recognize that the majority of Continental liberals stood for ideas to which these men were strongly opposed, and that they were led more by a desire to impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern than to provide opportunity for free growth. The same is largely true of what has called itself Liberalism in England at least since the time of Lloyd George.

It is thus necessary to recognize that what I have called “liberalism” has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today. It is also questionable whether the historical associations which that name carries today are conducive to the success of any movement. Whether in these circumstances one ought to make an effort to rescue the term from what one feels is its misuse is a question on which opinions may well differ. I myself feel more and more that to use it without long explanations causes too much confusion and that as a label it has become more of a ballast than a source of strength.

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the sense in which I have used it, the term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.

7. We should remember, however, that when the ideals which I have been trying to restate first began to spread through the Western world, the party which represented them had a generally recognized name. It was the ideals of the English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in the whole of Europe[15] and that provided the conceptions that the American colonists carried with them and which guided them in their struggle for independence and in the establishment of their constitution.[16] Indeed, until the character of this tradition was altered by the accretions due to the French Revolution, with its totalitarian democracy and socialist leanings, “Whig” was the name by which the party of liberty was generally known.

The name died in the country of its birth partly because for a time the principles for which it stood were no longer distinctive of a particular party, and partly because the men who bore the name did not remain true to those principles. The Whig parties of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and the United States, finally brought discredit to the name among the radicals. But it is still true that, since liberalism took the place of Whiggism only after the movement for liberty had absorbed the crude and militant rationalism of the French Revolution, and since our task must largely be to free that tradition from the overrationalistic, nationalistic, and socialistic influences which have intruded into it, Whiggism is historically the correct name for the ideas in which I believe. The more I learn about the evolution of ideas, the more I have become aware that I am simply an unrepentant Old Whig – with the stress on the “old.”

To confess one’s self as an Old Whig does not mean, of course, that one wants to go back to where we were at the end of the seventeenth century. It has been one of the purposes of this book to show that the doctrines then first stated continued to grow and develop until about seventy or eighty years ago, even though they were no longer the chief aim of a distinct party. We have since learned much that should enable us to restate them in a more satisfactory and effective form. But, though they require restatement in the light of our present knowledge, the basic principles are still those of the Old Whigs. True, the later history of the party that bore that name has made some historians doubt where there was a distinct body of Whig principles; but I can but agree with Lord Acton that, though some of “the patriarchs of the doctrine were the most infamous of men, the notion of a higher law above municipal codes, with which Whiggism began, is the supreme achievement of Englishmen and their bequest to the nation”[17] – and, we may add, to the world. It is the doctrine which is at the basis of the common tradition of the Anglo-Saxon countries. It is the doctrine from which Continental liberalism took what is valuable in it. It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the conservatism of Hamilton or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”[18]

I do not know whether to revive that old name is practical politics. That to the mass of people, both in the Anglo-Saxon world and elsewhere, it is today probably a term without definite associations is perhaps more an advantage than a drawback. To those familiar with the history of ideas it is probably the only name that quite expresses what the tradition means. That, both for the genuine conservative and still more for the many socialists turned conservative, Whiggism is the name for their pet aversion shows a sound instinct on their part. It has been the name for the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power.

8. It may well be asked whether the name really matters so much. In a country like the United States, which on the whole has free institutions and where, therefore, the defense of the existing is often a defense of freedom, it might not make so much difference if the defenders of freedom call themselves conservatives, although even here the association with the conservatives by disposition will often be embarrassing. Even when men approve of the same arrangements, it must be asked whether they approve of them because they exist or because they are desirable in themselves. The common resistance to the collectivist tide should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the belief in integral freedom is based on an essentially forward-looking attitude and not on any nostalgic longing for the past or a romantic admiration for what has been.

The need for a clear distinction is absolutely imperative, however, where, as is true in many parts of Europe, the conservatives have already accepted a large part of the collectivist creed – a creed that has governed policy for so long that many of its institutions have come to be accepted as a matter of course and have become a source of pride to “conservative” parties who created them.[19] Here the believer in freedom cannot but conflict with the conservative and take an essentially radical position, directed against popular prejudices, entrenched positions, and firmly established privileges. Follies and abuses are no better for having long been established principles of folly.

Though quieta non movere may at times be a wise maxim for the statesman it cannot satisfy the political philosopher. He may wish policy to proceed gingerly and not before public opinion is prepared to support it, but he cannot accept arrangements merely because current opinion sanctions them. In a world where the chief need is once more, as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected, his hopes must rest on persuading and gaining the support of those who by disposition are “progressives,” those who, though they may now be seeking change in the wrong direction, are at least willing to examine critically the existing and to change it wherever necessary.

I hope I have not misled the reader by occasionally speaking of “party” when I was thinking of groups of men defending a set of intellectual and moral principles. Party politics of any one country has not been the concern of this book. The question of how the principles I have tried to reconstruct by piecing together the broken fragments of a tradition can be translated into a program with mass appeal, the political philosopher must leave to “that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs.”[20] The task of the political philosopher can only be to influence public opinion, not to organize people for action. He will do so effectively only if he is not concerned with what is now politically possible but consistently defends the “general principles which are always the same.”[21] In this sense I doubt whether there can be such a thing as a conservative political philosophy. Conservatism may often be a useful practical maxim, but it does not give us any guiding principles which can influence long-range developments.


The quotation at the head of the Postscript is taken from Acton, History of Freedom, p. 1.

  1. This has now been true for over a century, and as early as 1855 J. S. Mill could say (see my John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor[London and Chicago, 1951], p. 216) that “almost all the projects of social reformers of these days are really liberticide.”
  2. B. Crick, “The Strange Quest for an American Conservatism,” Review of Politics, XVII (1955), 365, says rightly that “the normal American who calls himself ‘A Conservative’ is, in fact, a liberal.” It would appear that the reluctance of these conservatives to call themselves by the more appropriate name dates only from its abuse during the New Deal era.
  3. The expression is that of R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), p. 209.
  4. Cf. the characteristic choice of this title for the programmatic book by the present British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, The Middle Way (London, 1938).
  5. Cf. Lord Hugh Cecil, Conservatism (“Home University Library” [London, 1912], p. 9: “Natural Conservatism … is a disposition averse from change; and it springs partly from a distrust of the unknown.”
  6. Cf. the revealing self-description of a conservative in K. Feiling, Sketches in Nineteenth Century Biography (London, 1930), p. 174: “Taken in bulk, the Right have a horror of ideas, for is not the practical man, in Disraeli’s words, ‘one who practices the blunders of his predecessors’? For long tracts of their history they have indiscriminately resisted improvement, and in claiming to reverence their ancestors often reduce opinion to aged individual prejudice. Their position becomes safer, but more complex, when we add that this Right wing is incessantly overtaking the Left; that it lives by repeated inoculation of liberal ideas, and thus suffers from a never-perfected state of compromise.”
  7. I trust I shall be forgiven for repeating here the words in which on an earlier occasion I stated an important point: “The main merit of the individualism which [Adam Smith] and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid.” (Individualism and Economic Order [London and Chicago, 1948], p. 11.)
  8. Cf. Lord Acton in Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone, ed. H. Paul (London, 1913), p. 73: “The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.”
  9. J. R. Hicks has rightly spoken in this connection of the “caricature drawn alike by the young Disraeli, by Marx and by Goebbels” (“The Pursuit of Economic Freedom,” What We Defend, ed. E. F. Jacob [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942], p. 96). On the role of the conservatives in this connection see also my Introduction to Capitalism and the Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 19 ff.
  10. Cf. J. S. Mill, On Liberty, ed. R. B. McCallum (Oxford, 1946), p. 83: “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”
  1.  J. W. Burgess, The Reconciliation of Government with Liberty (New York, 1915), p. 380.
  1. Cf. Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty, ed. I. Dilliard (New York, 1952), p. 190: “The Spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” See also Oliver Cromwell’s often quoted statement is his Letter to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland,August 3, 1650: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” It is significant that this should be the probably best-remembered saying of the only “dictator” in British history!
  2. H. Hallam, Constitutional History (1827) (“Everyman” ed.), III, 90. It is often suggested that the term “liberal” derives from the early nineteenth-century Spanish party of the liberales. I am more inclined to believe that it derives from the use of that term by Adam Smith in such passages as W.o.N., II, 41: “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation” and p. 216: “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.”
  3. Lord Acton in Letters to Mary Gladstone, p. 44. Cf. also his judgment of Tocqueville in Lectures on the French Revolution (London, 1910), p. 357: “Tocqueville was a Liberal of the purest breed – a Liberal and nothing else, deeply suspicious of democracy and its kindred, equality, centralisation, and utilitarianism.” Similarly in the Nineteenth Century, XXXIII (1892), 885. The statement by H. J. Laski occurs in “Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy,” in The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age, ed. F. J. C. Hearnshaw (London, 1933), p. 100, where he says that “a case of unanswerable power could, I think, be made out for the view that he [Tocqueville] and Lord Acton were the essential liberals of the nineteenth century.”
  4. As early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, an English observer could remark that he “scarce ever knew a foreigner settled in England, whether of Dutch, German, French, Italian, or Turkish growth, but became a Whig in a little time after his mixing with us” (quoted by G. H. Guttridge, English Whiggism and the American Revolution [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942], p. 3).
  5. In the United States the nineteenth-century use of the term “Whig” has unfortunately obliterated the memory of the fact that in the eighteenth it stood for the principles which guided the revolution, gained independence, and shaped the Constitution. It was in Whig societies that the young James Madison and John Adams developed their political ideals (cf. E. M. Burns, James Madison[New Brunnswick, N.J.; Rutgers University Press, 1938], p. 4); it was Whig principles which, as Jefferson tells us, guided all the lawyers who constituted such a strong majority among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and among the members of the Constitutional Convention (see Writings of Thomas Jefferson [“Memorial ed.” (Washington, 1905)], XVI, 156). The profession of Whig principles was carried to such a point that even Washington’s soldiers were clad in the traditional “blue and buff” colors of the Whigs, which they shared with the Foxites in the British Parliament and which was preserved down to our days on the covers of the Edinburgh Review. If a socialist generation has made Whiggism its favorite target, this is all the more reason for the opponents of socialism to vindicate its name. It is today the only name which correctly describes the beliefs of the Gladstonian liberals, of the men of the generation of Maitland, Acton, and Bryce, and the last generation for whom liberty rather than equality or democracy was the main goal.
  6. Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (London, 1906), p. 218 (I have slightly rearranged Acton’s clauses to reproduce briefly the sense of his statement).
  7. Cf. S. K. Padover in his Introduction to The Complete Madison (New York, 1953), p. 10: “In modern terminology, Madison would be labeled a middle-of-the-road liberal and Jefferson a radical.” This is true and important, though we must remember what E. S. Corwin (“James Madison: Layman, Publicist, and Exegete,” New York University Law Review, XXVII [1952], 285) has called Madison’s later “surrender to the overwhelming influence of Jefferson.”
  8. Cf. the British Conservative party’s statement of policy, The Right Road for Britain (London, 1950), pp. 41–42, which claims, with considerable justification, that “this new conception [of the social services] was developed [by] the Coalition Government with a majority of Conservative Ministers and the full approval of the Conservative majority in the House of Commons … [We] set out the principle for the schemes of pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit, industrial injustices benefit and a national health scheme.”
  9. A Smith, W.o.N., I, 432.
  10. Ibid.



This piece by Dr Madsen Pirie was published in 1987 at the end of a tribute to F A Hayek by many distinguished scholars. The book was ‘Hayek — on the fabric of human society.’ Hayek himself died within five years, but lived to see socialism perish earlier, as he had said all false religions do.

Adam Smith Institute 1987



At the end of his Constitution of Liberty in 1960, Professor F A Hayek appends a famous postscript entitled ‘Why I am Not a Conservative.’ Conservatives in many countries who look to Hayek for ideas and inspiration have this essay raised against them from time to time. Indeed, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, as British Prime Minister, was herself challenged in a radio interview on the BBC. She had claimed the influence of Hayek’s ideas; it was her recommendation which secured him the title of Companion of Honour. Even so, the interviewer reminded her of the title of Hayek’s postscript, leaving Mrs. Thatcher to claim that F A Hayek would certainly approve of much of what she had done. This was correct.


Hayek’s argument


Hayek’s case in that essay was a straightforward one. He denied the identification as a conservative because conservatives wanted to keep things as they were, whereas he wanted to change them in the direction of greater freedom. Conservatives had no political destination in view, whereas Hayek wanted to move towards a free society. Conservatives accepted a status quo hostile to liberty, whereas he rejected it. In his judgement, ‘Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.’1


'Let me now state,' he adds, 'what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.'2

Hayek was emphatic in his rejection of conservatism. He dwells on the points of differences, and minimizes the areas of contact and co–operation. Although conservatives find themselves from time to time in harness with those who seek a free society, Hayek argues this is no more than an accident of circumstance. It is the joint opposition to socialism which makes them appear to be allies: ‘At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change.’3

In a perceptive piece of analysis, Hayek shows that in the United States tradition is to a great extent the tradition of liberty. ‘Defence of the existing,’ he says, ‘is often a defence of freedom.’4 The point could be argued in detail, and may not be as widely accepted today as it would have been when Hayek wrote, but there is a case to be made for the view. It is thus possible for conservatives in America to equate the society they wish to sustain with a free one, or one which is comparatively free.

In Europe, by contrast, the establishment of free societies would often involve the rejection of traditions averse to liberty. Hayek’s point is that the distinction between liberty and Conservatism might be blurred for an American audience, but is sharply visible in Europe, even when both are working together against the further

encroachments of collectivism. The one, says Hayek, seeks to slow the pace of change, whereas the other wants to move in a different direction. An American trying to slow the pace of change could be slowing the rate at which traditional freedoms are eroded.

'I personally cannot be content,' Hayek tells us, 'with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move.'5

Hayek depicts conservatives as following helplessly in the wake of progress toward socialism. ‘As the socialists have for a long time been able to pull harder, the conservatives have tended to follow the socialist rather than the liberal direction.’6

Other conservative writers

Hayek’s own stress on the difference between himself and the conservative position is reinforced by some conservative writers. In his Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott refers to Hayek by name, describing Hayek’s rejection of ideologies as an ideology itself. While being admittedly better than other ideologies, its philosophical origins deny it admission into the conservative camp. ‘A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite,’ observes Oakeshott, ‘but it belongs to the same style of politics.’7

Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind takes a similar view. After dealing with the traditionalist conservatives, he turns to those whose support is for a free society, saying ‘Turn we now to the gentiles.’8 His ‘gentiles’ include such thinkers as De Tocqueville and Macaulay, and would, if he were admitted at all, include Hayek.

Hayek himself is so sure that he is not a conservative that he tries to find a name suitable for those who espouse views such as his. He rejects the term ‘Liberal’ as being too debased both in the United States and in Europe by the enemies of liberty. ‘What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favours free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brains unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.’9 After something of a struggle, the best term he can produce is ‘Old Whig,’ because ‘it was the ideals of the English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement.’10 But he admits the term is inadequate.


Given the title of Hayek’s postscript and his own determination to emphasize the points of difference, the writer who ventures to disagree has to make a case. It is possible to argue that Hayek’s interpretation of conservatism needs an overhaul, or that Hayek himself has changed in the quarter century since the essay was published. I intend to argue for both of these positions.

It is not sufficient to redefine conservatism so that it includes Professor Hayek, nor to produce present-day conservatives who happily embrace the name while simultaneously espousing the views of F A Hayek. A case can be made, however, for suggesting that Hayek has drawn no distinction between the conservative temperament and the conservative political tradition. My contention is that there is such a distinction, and that it is an important one.

The meaning of conservatism

The term ‘conservative’ is used to describe both an attitude of mind and a political tradition. Thus a lifelong supporter of the left can be described as ‘conservative’ if he or she exhibits a reluctance to accept change or to move with new ideas. The trade union movement in Britain, and especially its leadership, was for a long time described as ‘conservative’ even though it worked to secure the election of collectivist, even radical, governments.

LordHughCecildescribesconservatismas’adispositionaversefromchange,’11 and Michael Oakeshott speaks of the conservative ‘disposition.’12 Both of them have as their subject matter an attitude of mind. What they describe is a psychological trait, or a tendency to behave in certain ways. The conservatism to which they refer is an aspect of personality.

Among the differences of temperament between people is their reaction to change and their sense of adventure. It is a valid and useful distinction to point to. Some people by nature prefer the quiet life and like to keep things the same. More adventurous souls forever seek out new challenges and opportunities.

Hayek himself is by no means ‘conservative’ in this sense of the word. His own disposition is far from staid. On the contrary, it is characterized by intellectual curiosity and a readiness to be stimulated by new ideas. Few people have sought in their mid eighties the challenges which Hayek took on, or displayed the same enthusiasm for intellectual excitement.

But Hayek’s postscript is not intended to tell us primarily about his personality. He does tell us directly of the way he embraces change, and the readiness with which he accepts an unpredictable outcome for society. ‘The chief need,’ he tells us, is ‘to free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected.’13 Thus, ‘to pretend to know the desirable direction of progress seems to me to be the extreme of hubris. Guided progress would not be progress.”14 Because he equates the disposition to reject change with the conservative political tradition, Hayek declines the label.

It is by no means obvious that the disposition does equate with the political tradition. Those of conservative bent tend to avoid the process of political activity altogether. They prefer instead to spend time on the things of permanent value. As Quintin Hogg put it, ‘the simplest among them prefer fox–hunting — the wisest religion.”15 It is very rare indeed to find one of conservative disposition who is prepared to engage in active politics. History accords few examples of those who have embarked upon political activity in order to stop it.

Contentment is not the hallmark of the politician; activity and change are the very stuff of politics. The occasional lord might be thrust into the upper chamber by chance of inheritance, but those of conservative inclinations would not normally be active participants. It is possible that some may have been motivated to such a life of toil by the concept of duty; but this is something which more politicians plead than feel. Lord Eldon, who spent a life in politics voting against everything, is an exception so noteworthy that a society was formed to commemorate his achievement.16 If the conservative political tradition were limited to this type of performance, there would be very little of it.

The imposition of change

The point is that there is a distinction between the mere dislike of change and the practice of conservative politics, even though it is a distinction not drawn by Hayek. Conservatives in politics are not united by similarities in personality, but by their attitudes to society. If we list under the banner of conservatism figures as diverse as Burke, Liverpool, Peel, and Salisbury, right down to Churchill and Thatcher, we find major differences of temperament at once obvious. Some were optimists, some pessimists. Some were gregarious, some withdrawn.

What unites them is not an aversion to change, but an aversion to imposed change. All of them have embraced certain types of change and opposed others. Some introduced change. The unifying factor is an opposition to those changes which attempt to impose a pre-conceived plan upon society. What they have sought to preserve is not any particular state of society, but its spontaneity. Their opposition has been to the type of changes which seek to produce a particular outcome and to make people live in a particular way.

'We must all obey the great law of change,' says Burke. 'It is the most powerful law of Nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.'17 Robert Schuettinger concludes in his analysis of conservatism that 'The intelligent conservative will not be content simply to stand like a rock for order and tradition.’18 Even Michael Oakeshott says that being conservative 'is also a manner of accommodating ourselves to changes, an activity imposed upon all men.'19

Burke’s objection to the French revolutionaries was not derived from an obsessive dislike of change. He recognized that changes are sometimes necessary. What he objected to was the attempt to make society conform to a rational plan. Burke’s conservatism was founded in his rejection of endeavours to produce a preconceived outcome.

A body of tradition, in Burke’s scheme of things, is not a fixed status quo to be preserved, but something which enables changes to be made safely. Burke’s determination is to preserve the circumstances under which society can evolve over time, and to prevent attempts to make it conform to rational precepts. Society is too complex to be planned by the mind of man, he thought, and should reach its outcome as a result of the actions of large numbers of people made over a long period of time.

Burke reflects here the ‘healthy skepticism’ which Schuettinger has conservatives show ‘toward grandiose plans for reform.’20 ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.’21

Traditions can guide people by the accumulated wisdom they represent, but even traditions change over time. The outcome must be a spontaneous one, with the inputs of many persons over time.

The conservative political tradition seeks not to preserve any given state of society, but its spontaneity. It seeks to retain, or to restore, the conditions under which the pattern of society is not determined by the actions of an individual or a group who try to mould it to fit a vision, but emerges instead from the accumulated inputs of the many. To borrow and adapt Oakeshott’s famous metaphor, what conservatives object to is the attempt to steer society.22

Under conservatism, people make choices. Their future, and that of their society, is not made to conform to the grand design of some idealist, but is instead a cumulative result of independent actions. The individuals do not try collectively to achieve any particular goal; the outcome is the overall result of all of their actions.

Most people follow traditions because they are brought up to do so, because they like to do so, or because it is easier and safer to do so. When traditions change, conservatives would have it that they do so because their value has declined, or because circumstances have changed, and because people have developed different traditions to replace them. What conservatives object to is the deliberate abolition of traditions because they have been examined and found wanting, because they fail to produce the social goals desired by the legislators.

By opposing plans to make society conform to a preconceived end, conservatives have established a political tradition which links Burke and Churchill, Peel and Salisbury, Liverpool and Thatcher. It tries, as R J White puts it, ‘to legislate along the grain of human nature rather than against it,’ and seeks ‘to pursue limited objectives with a watchful eye.’23

Conservatives in politics may or may not have shown conservative temperament or disposition. They may have supported empires, opposed corn laws or ended rationing. What has united them has been their determination to let society evolve in its own way, instead of being steered toward some predetermined end. Causes come and go, but the principles by which conservatives approach them remain.

Conservatism and the free society

It is necessary to draw this distinction between the conservative disposition as a personality trait and the political tradition which bears the same name, because while Hayek eschews the former he can be accommodated within the latter. Hayek’s own desire to move towards a freer society fits in well with the conservative preference for a society whose outcome is the product of actions by its members, rather than that of rules imposed by leaders.

Hayek would unquestionably endorse Winston Churchill when he said ‘We seek a free and varied society, where there is room for many kinds of men and women to lead happy, honourable and useful lives. We are fundamentally opposed to all systems of rigid uniformity in our national life.’ 24

Churchill’s recognition of the necessity for a large measure of individual freedom would similarly attract Hayek’s approval. ‘Let the people use their good common sense, multiply the choices which are open to them at every difficult phase in their lives,’ is Hayek distilled for the hustings, but the words are those of Churchill.25

A century earlier Disraeli had described the fact that an Englishman is ‘born to freedom’ as among ‘the noblest of all inheritances.’26 ‘We value our freedom principally,’ he had said, ‘because it leaves us unrestricted in our pursuits.’27

Hayek’s notion of a spontaneous order accords with the conservative rejection of a planned order superimposed upon society. Even the conservative distrust of rational planning finds its echo in Hayek’s contention that society itself holds more information than can be found in the brain of any individual or small group. While Hayek is at pains to deny that the sum of the knowledge of individuals exists anywhere as an integrated whole, he does speak of there being ‘much more “intelligence” incorporated in the systems of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.’28

At the time of the postscript, Hayek was perhaps influenced by the fact that some parties which called themselves Conservative appeared to have embraced central planning, and were not trying to restore to society the spontaneity it had yielded to rational design.

'In many parts of Europe,' Hayek tells us, 'the conservatives have already accepted a large part of the collectivist creed.' He cites 'advocates of the Middle Way with no goal of their own' as the ones who have compromised with socialism.'29

From the perspective of a quarter of a century later, we can see that this was a temporary phenomenon. Conservatives have reasserted since then, in several countries, the rejection of a central design, and the determination to allow society’s course to be determined by the actions of its members.

A marked contrast appeared briefly in Britain between the conservative disposition and the political tradition. Those who opposed change found themselves supporting a socialist status–quo against conservatives of the political tradition seeking to bring back the spontaneity lost to central direction. Margaret Thatcher appeared as radical to them as no doubt did the conservatives who in the first half of the nineteenth century unwound the cumbersome controls and mechanisms of the eighteenth century.

Winston Churchill sought to restore in his 1951 administration some of the spontaneity lost to socialism.30 Mrs. Thatcher did no less in 1979. F A Hayek would find no difficulty in supporting both of them, and indeed, the general tendency of conservatives to sustain spontaneity against the encroachments of the designers when it is present, and to restore it when it is lost. He points out that ‘Follies and abuses are no better for having long been established principles of policy.’31

Rational planning

Hayek shares with the conservative political tradition the skepticism of rational planning from the centre, preferring that which is done by individuals. He shares that tradition’s respect for choices made by individuals, and perhaps even its view that most of those choices will be to follow the traditions and customs which have evolved in society. Hayek sees tradition as ‘not something constant, but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success. It changes but can rarely be deliberately changed.’32 He adds that ‘all progress must based on tradition. Wemustbuildontraditionandcanonlytinkerwithitsproducts.’33 (hisitalics).

There have always been issues superimposed on the general strands which unite conservatives over the centuries. At one time it might be imperial preference, at another it might be the question of British entry into the European Economic Community. The issues arouse opposition from within the conservative movement, as well as from outside it. The point is that the issues do not define the Conservative parties, and never have. The central unifying aspect of political conservatism is an attitude to society which is clearly shared by Hayek himself.

Hayek credits Adam Smith with the perception that ‘we have found a method of creating an order of human co–operation which far exceeds the limits of our knowledge. We are led to do things by circumstances of which we are largely unaware. We do not know the needs which we satisfy, nor do we know the sources of the things which we get. We stand in an enormous framework into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we have never made and never understood, but which have their reason.’34

It is part of the conservative disposition to fear the unknown. A predictable outcome is regarded more sanguinely than a leap into the dark. Yet the political tradition continually seeks to reject plans which purport to lead to a predictable outcome in favour of allowing society to reach unknown conclusions by the aggregate behaviour of its members. It is ‘the socialist who wants to reconstruct all social institutions according to a pattern prescribed by his individual reason.’35 Political conservatives do not seek any particular order; they seek the unknown one which will emerge gradually if preconceived ends are denied.

On this point, too, Hayek is in agreement with conservatism’s political tradition, and out of accord with the disposition. He tells us in the postscript that he has no fear of the unknown outcome. ‘The fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.36 His supposition is that the spontaneous order which arises as society evolves is more likely to be acceptable than any conceived in the mind of man. His thoughts match the view of conservatives that the traditional practices and culture of a society are a surer guide than rational analysis.

It is clear from the foregoing that Hayek’s rejection of the label ‘conservative’ arises from his equation of it with simple hostility to change, rather than with the more complex attitudes characterized by the conservative political tradition. Once the distinction is made and established, Hayek’s views can be seen as fitting in comfortably with the latter. He might indeed occupy a position which stresses freedom and choice more than some who are called conservatives, but these ideas have always played a significant role in conservative political history. Churchill himself saw the choice as ‘between two ways of life; between individual liberty and state domination; between the concentration of ownership in the hands of the State and the extension of a property-owning democracy.’37


The second prop of the argument that F A Hayek is a conservative is that Hayek has changed, and that the F A Hayek who wrote the postscript in 1960 can be seen as more conservative a quarter of a century later. My point here is not that Hayek has changed his views, but that he has changed his emphasis.

The areas which Hayek has explored since writing The Constitution of Liberty do not represent any marked philosophical shift. On the contrary, all of them are presaged by remarks made in his earlier work. The difference is that what appeared then as points made in passing have since become central. What appeared in the guise of qualifying remarks barely noticed have become dominant themes in his thought.

A comparison of Hayek’s work before The Constitution of Liberty and after it might lead one to suppose that the libertarian at sixty became a conservative by his mid-eighties. It is not the case I propose to argue. Instead my claim is that even in his early works, Hayek shows due deference for the concerns which were later to occupy the major part of his thought. In 1945 he had written: ‘We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.38

Hayek has changed, but it is not a change of ideas, but of the attention devoted to them. In changing his emphasis, Hayek has brought to the surface the conservatism

which was always implicit. In The Constitution of Liberty Hayek spoke of the mind as a ‘product of civilization’ and referred to the experience which shaped it as ‘embodied in the habits, conventions, language, and moral beliefs which are part of its makeup.’39 ‘Civilization,’ he told us, ‘enables us constantly to profit from knowledge which we individually do not possess.’40

Earlier works

Through the pages of the earlier works strides the autonomous individual making choices. Nowhere is this presence writ larger than in The Constitution of Liberty. He or she knows more about their circumstances, and cares more. They are better equipped to make decisions and plans than is any central authority. The moral argument and the practical argument ride in harness. No–one has the right to take away that power of decision, and the result of its exercise will be a more efficient allocation of resources and wealth creation.

'Liberty' says Hayek, 'is not merely one particular value. It is the source and condition of most moral values.'41 If it is usurped by central planners, then people are denied the very basis of morality, and that which makes them distinctively human. Instead of being equal citizens of the kingdom of ends, they are reduced to mere building blocks for the private utopia of another.

Furthermore, a society which allows us to pursue our advantage as we perceive it will be more efficient at delivering the goods. It will be more flexible, more adaptable to the changes constantly taking place, and will direct resources to where they will be used to best advantage. When we are free to make choices, and to take part in voluntary transactions, the price mechanism will be able to direct people toward supplying the needs of those they will never meet.

So forceful are the arguments for the free choices of autonomous individuals that The Constitution of Liberty has been hailed as a classic libertarian text. It builds on John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty,42 reproducing some of Mill’s arguments in more subtle and complex form, and adding more sophisticated ones of its own, while avoiding Mill’s occasional pitfall.

The later Hayek

The Hayek who wrote Law, Legislation and Liberty in the 1970s, Knowledge, Evolution and Society, and The Fatal Conceit in the 1980s talks in different tones. His attention has switched to the way in which societies evolve, and which of them survive. In his ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’ he deals with the sources of our values. Those we think up are minor, as are those we inherit biologically. By far the most important source is transmission by cultural inheritance. ‘Culture is neither natural nor artificial, neither genetically transmitted nor rationally designed. (his italics) It is a tradition of learnt rules of conduct which have never been ‘invented’ and whose functions the acting individuals usually do not understand.’43 'What has made men good is neither nature nor reason but tradition.'44

Hayek rejects the sociobiologists in large measure. He sees ‘no justification for some biologists treating evolution as solely a genetic process.’45 . But he also dismisses values derived rationally.

In assigning prime place to cultural transmission, Hayek appears to downgrade the role of the autonomous individual thinking things out and coming to rational

conclusions. Evolution, albeit cultural evolution, has displaced the individual rational mind from the pedestal it appeared to occupy.

Those who thought that The Constitution of Liberty or early parts of Law, Legislation and Liberty represented attempts to show the framework of a rational society based on the principle of liberty may have felt unease at the new direction of Hayek’s thought. Hayek says explicitly that ‘Man did not adopt new rules because he was intelligent. He became intelligent by submitting to new rules of conduct.’46 (his italics).

The title of The Fatal Conceit is significant. It arose from an old challenge, never accepted, to have the proponents of socialism engage in public debate with Hayek and his supporters. In writing The Fatal Conceit, Hayek writes his life’s enemy into its grave. But there is more. The fatal conceit is that of man who thinks he can construct human society to a pattern.

Hayek points out that there have been many human societies, and many experiments with new ones. Those which survived were the ones which incorporated traits conducive to survival. Hayek never goes into great detail about this, but does stress the family and private property as institutions without which societies have not survived for any length of time.

'We do not owe our morals to our intelligence: we owe them to the fact that some groups uncomprehendingly accepted certain rules of conduct — the rules of private property, of honesty, and of the family — that enabled the groups practising them to prosper, multiply, and gradually to displace the others.'47

In his later works, Hayek’s account of the development of our moral values draws more heavily on evolutionary mechanisms than it does on the rational decisions of autonomous minds. ‘Moral advance by some groups results from their members adopting rules which are more conducive to the preservation and welfare of the group.’48

We emerged from the society of the hunting pack by a process of cultural evolution, says Hayek. Those groups which were able to set aside the moral values of the small group were the ones which prospered and spread. Instead of sharing, some groups learned to store and accumulate wealth, and to trade. Hayek notes that ‘most of these steps in the evolution of culture were made possible by some individuals breaking some traditional rules and practising new forms of conduct — not because they understood them to be better, but because the groups which acted on them prospered more than others and grew.’49 Thus began the origins of the ‘Great Society’ which has subsequently made possible so much of human progress.

It is central to Hayek’s case that this process took place by the selective survival of those groups which followed the appropriate precepts. ‘Those communities who adopted the new rules and, in doing so, infringed upon deeply embedded natural feelings became the successful ones, the ones who multiplied because they were more prosperous and were able to attract people from other groups.’50

The values were incorporated into traditions and customs, and passed on culturally. Children acquire detailed knowledge of the complex rules of society, says Hayek, as they master the complex grammar of languages. They are not learned by rote, or acquired from books. They are part of the complex web of information which children absorb from their cultural environment during their upbringing.

Hayek points to an important advantage which cultural evolution enjoys over genetic evolution. ‘It includes the transmission of acquired characters. The child will acquire unconsciously from the example of the parent skills which the latter may

have learnt through a long process of trial and error, but which with the child become the starting point from which he can proceed to greater perfection.’51

This is certainly a plausible account, but it does diminish the domain over which free choice has jurisdiction. When moral values are determined by cultural inheritance over time, and transmitted by custom and tradition, there is less scope for the autonomous individual to make free decisions about them. His choices are, as it were, already constrained by his own upbringing and the history of his society. What Hayek calls ‘rules of conduct’ matter very much more. ‘Man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is often served better by custom than understanding. 52

The fatal conceit is this belief that man’s individual mind is wiser than the collective mind of his society over the centuries. The latter not only holds more information, it has the advantage of having been tested by time. Hayek, in his later writings, returns again and again to the theme that the societies which survived and spread were the ones which incorporated the traits necessary for them to do so. ‘The new manners of conduct were not adopted because anybody thought they were better. They were adopted because somebody who acted on them profited from it and his group gained from it.’53

Individuals still make choices. They sometimes make the choice to reject the accumulated wisdom which inheres in their society, and attempt to refashion it anew. Hayek cites cases. Indeed, he says that new religions with their attendant behaviour codes appear on average about once per decade. The ones which endure are those whose social practices sustain such necessary institutions as the family and private property. The others, he reckons, are counted out within three generations; ‘not more,’ he says, ‘than roughly a hundred years.’54

Hayek makes what must be, for the left, a disturbing inversion of their world view of values. They view modern ‘scientific’ socialism as a rejection of man’s primitive past, and the imposition upon his world of the products of rational insight. Not so, says Hayek. ‘Our innate moral emotions and instincts were acquired in the hundreds of thousand years — probably half a million years — in which Homo Sapiens lived in small hunting and gathering groups.’55

Our ancestors learned to override the primitive instincts in order to create that ‘Great Society’ whose maintenance depends upon learned rules. It is the left who take us back to the primal instincts, teaching us to reject what we have learned in favour of feelings more appropriate to the hunting pack than the larger society whose suppression they made possible. Socialism is thus an atavism, appealing to the sentiments of our primitive past.

Hayek’s later work on the evolution of society and the cultural transmission of values still allows free choice. That free choice is conditioned by the society in which we grew up, and whose values we acquired. ‘Freedom was made possible by the gradualevolutionofthedisciplineofcivilization.’56 Thereis,moreover,anadditional proviso that if we exercise that choice to overturn institutions such as private property and the family, we cannot expect the long-term survival of the societies which result.

Underlying unity of Hayek’s thought

The stress on the origins and development of human societies in his later works should not lead us to suppose that Hayek has only recently arrived at these views. In fact there are precursors and echoes of this viewpoint in his earlier work. What is

new is the attention and the emphasis which his later works impart to them. Hayek’s earlier attention was given much more to the decisions which people make about their societies, even while recognizing the sources of many of those views and the consequences of them.

In one sense, Hayek’s later work has concentrated on areas which produce a third argument to supplement the other two. We should opt to sustain that Great Society of free exchange because it is more moral, and because it allocates resources more efficiently. Hayek shows how Edmund Burke and Adam Smith were at one on this point. ‘Edmund Burke,’ he tells us, is ‘the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.’57

Hayek has now added the additional point that the Great Society is one which has succeeded in evolutionary terms. It is a society which survives, where others have failed.

My contention is that while Hayek’s work on cultural inheritance does not contradict his earlier position, it does bring about some more conservative strands which were previously recessed. Hayek has not departed from his concern to restore and sustain a freer society. What he has done is to put it into the context of the evolution of societies. We now see clearly what he previously put almost in parentheses, that custom and tradition play a role in shaping our values and influencing our choices. He does not mince his words. ‘Our morality itself is the result of a process of cultural selection. Those things survive which enable the species to multiply.’58

People might plan for an equal society, but evolution has counted out previous attempts to do so. They might decide to confiscate property and reallocate it according to some supposed sense of justice; but societies which head too far down that road find it to be a dead end. People might make children wards of the state, in order to free them from the values which would otherwise be imparted by parents, but the graveyards of history are littered with societies which sought to do likewise. Even the stability of our present civilization is ‘precarious,’ ‘because it rests largely on cultural traditions which can be more rapidly destroyed than the genetic endowment of populations.’59

Conservative sentiments

Hayek remains firmly committed to freedom. People must be allowed to make choices, and the overall outcome must be the result of those individual decisions. Hayek now treats society as a process just as he treats the economy as a process. The multitude of inputs continually reaching it as a result of individual choices change it from moment to moment. Even as Hayek opposes economic planning from the centre, so does he oppose social planning on a similar scale. Individuals should do the planning, and should be free to do so.

Even here, Hayek recognizes that ‘the success of an innovation by a rule–breaker, and the trust of those who follow him, has to be bought by the esteem he has earned by the scrupulous observation of most of the existing rules. To become legitimized, the new rules have to obtain the approval of society at large — not by a formal vote, but by gradually spreading acceptance.’60

These are conservative sentiments. The combination is that of a respect for the importance of custom and tradition as vehicles for transmitting social values, with a rejection of any imposed rational order. Burke himself would be happy to line up

behind a banner such as that one. David Hume would consider himself in good company.

If there were those who thought from Hayek’s earlier work that he wanted to distil the essence of liberty and use it to build a society anew, his later writing must have changed their opinion. Hayek seeks, as conservatives do, a spontaneous society in which individual actions produce an unplanned order. He rejects, with them, the attempt to construct a rational order and impose it upon people in place of their own decisions. He stresses, as they do, the value of culture in its broadest sense as a repository of wisdom greater than can be retained by any one mind.

Hayek recognizes that societies change; that is what evolution is all about. But it is evolution, not revolution which makes change take place successfully. This, too, is part of the conservative political tradition. In Hayek’s earlier works, we saw, as he did, the differences between his own outlook and those of conservative disposition. He saw the contrast between those who wanted to win back ground for freedom and spontaneity, and those who did not. In his later work we see how his ideas mesh with the political ideas which conservatives have stood for and worked for.

Hayek searched to find a name for the party which would represent people who thought as he did. His search is over. There already is a name for the party which stands for freedom of choice, and which seeks to preserve the spontaneity of outcome which those individual choices accumulate toward. It is a party which recognizes the role played by traditions and cultural inheritance in the safe evolution of society. It is the party which rejects the pretensions of central planners, collectivists, and advocates of a preconceived design. If Professor Hayek has avoided knowing it hitherto, he should know now that the name of this party is Conservative .


1 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960)

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Michael Oakeshott, ‘Rationalism in Politics’ in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962)

8 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Gateway, sixth edition, 1978) 9 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London:

Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

10 Ibid.

11 Lord Hugh Cecil, Conservatism (London: Williams & Northgate, 1912)

12 Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (London: Methuen, 1962)

13 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

14 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

15 Quintin Hogg, The Case for Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947)

16 The Eldon League.

17 Edmund Burke, Letter to a Noble Lord (London: 1796)

18 Robert L Schuettinger, The Conservative Tradition in European Thought (New York: Putnam, 1970)

19 Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (London: Methuen, 1962) 20 Robert L Schuettinger, The Conservative Tradition in European Thought (New York: Putnam,

1970) 21 Edmund Burke, Letter to a Noble Lord (London: 1796)

22 The reference is to Oakeshott’s metaphor depicting political activity as a ship without direction. See his ‘Rationalism in Politics’, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962)

23 RJ White, The Conservative Tradition (London: Black, 1950)

24 Winston S Churchill, ‘Speech to the Conservative Party Conference’, 5 October 1946, in Randolph S Churchill (ed.), The Sinews of Peace (London: Cassell, 1948)

25 Winston S Churchill, ‘Speech to the Conservative Party Conference’, 14 October 1950, in Randolph S Churchill (ed.) In the Balance (London: Cassell, 1952)

26 Benjamin Disraeli, Vindication of the English Constitution (London: 1835). 27 Benjamin Disraeli, ‘The Spirit of Whiggism’, in The Runneymede Letters (London: 1836).

28 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

29 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

30 His party’s slogan in that election was ‘Set the People Free’

31 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

32 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

33 Ibid.

34 F A Hayek, ‘Our Moral Heritage’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

35 F A Hayek, ‘Postscript: Why I am Not a Conservative’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

36 Ibid 37 Winston S Churchill, ‘Election Address’, 15 October 1951, in Randolph S Churchill, Stemming the

Tide (London: Cassell, 1952) 38 F A Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, reprinted in his Individualism and Economic

Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948 39 F A Hayek, ‘The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization’, Chapter 2 of The Constitution of

Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960) 40 F A Hayek, ‘The Different Uses of Experience’, in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge,

and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

41 F A Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

42 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, (London: 1859) 43 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty,

Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 44 Ibid. 45 Ibid. 46 Ibid.

47 F A Hayek, ‘Our Moral Heritage’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

48 F A Hayek, ‘Socialism and Science’, in his New Studies in Politics, Philosophy, Economics, and the History of Ideas (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

49 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

50 F A Hayek, ‘The Reactionary Nature of the Socialist Conception’, in his Knowledge, Evolution, and Society (London, Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

51 F A Hayek, ‘Nature Versus Nurture Once Again’, in New Studies in Politics, Philosophy, Economics, and the History of Ideas (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

52 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

53 F A Hayek, ‘Science and Socialism’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

54 F A Hayek, ‘Our Moral Heritage’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

55 F A Hayek, ‘Science and Socialism’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

56 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

57 F A Hayek, ‘Individualism: True or False’, in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948)

58 F A Hayek, ‘Our Moral Heritage’, in his Knowledge, Evolution and Society (London: Adam Smith Institute, 1983)

59 F A Hayek, ‘Nature Versus Nurture Once Again’, in New Studies in Politics, Philosophy, Economics, and the History of Ideas (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

60 F A Hayek, ‘The Three Sources of Human Values’, Epilogue to Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

  1. 3pennymovies posted this