Why Hayek Wasn’t Conservative…or Was He?

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Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek is best known among conservatives for his well-argued defense of markets, The Road to Serfdom. The work has become a part of the conservative canon in America, and Hayek a patron saint. In my mind and perhaps in the minds of others this meant that Hayek was a conservative.

And yet he declared was not. In an essay I encountered thanks to Christopher Hitchens‘ review (read “skewering”) of David Mamet‘s conservative manifesto, The Secret Knowledge, Hayek distances himself from European conservatives, saying:

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.

But as Hayek points out, this is conservatism of the European variety. American conservatism was to him not quite so odious, as what we in America call “conservatism” is what Europeans would call “liberal,” and what we call “liberal” are closer to what Hayek called radicals or even socialists.

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. 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.”

Hayek’s point is that American conservatism is at its heart and in its origins a fundamentally progressive movement, albeit progress based on the ideals and institutions that form the American political tradition. Movements to the left of American conservatism on the political spectrum are, to Hayek, either conservatism disguised as radicalism, or actual radical/socialists. Movements to the right are thus more akin to the European conservatives, reactionaries, in essence, a political tendency that Hayek notes is “alien to the American tradition.”

Hayek identifies himself as a European liberal, and by extension equates himself with the traditional American conservatism. To a European like Hayek, then, Hayek was not conservative. But in the American albeit non-Tea Party sense of the word, he was.

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