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.

Time for Conservatives to Reclaim Progress

Emblematic of the intellectual failure of American conservative politics is that the word “progressive” has been abandoned to the left. It seems that in order to prove your conservative chops these days, you must take stances against change rather than for it.

This is a pity. Being conservative does not mean being adverse to change, but being adverse to change for its own sake. American history is replete with examples of conservative Presidents who rejected reactionaries in the name of progress. America’s greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, did not only issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he also championed progress by laying the regulatory groundwork for the transcontinental railroads. Theodore Roosevelt placed conservation, the environment, and trust-busting at the head of his agenda.

It is unfortunate that, beginning with Calvin Coolidge, we of the American right have forgotten that change, that progress, is not something to be fought, but something to be crafted. That collective amnesia has led conservatism to embrace an increasingly change-averse, reactionary agenda.

Maintaining the status quo is a pathetic response to the issues and dangers that confront the Republic in this century. Conservatives must learn to re-embrace change by crafting a vision of the future, and a path to that future that are principled, practical, and wise. The alternative is to forfeit the nation to a battle between radicals and reactionaries.

In the end, what separates progressive conservatives from progressive liberals are the principles that guide our agendas. The liberals have articulated theirs. It is time we articulated ours.

No to No Labels

Jonah Goldberg at USAToday offers a controversial counterpoint to the growing “No Label” political movement, wherein people disavow political categorizations in the quest to try and actually solve real problems.

I am a big fan of introducing ideas and approaches to the political system to shake things up a bit (it being a tenet of independent conservatism that complacency in politics is lethal), and I’m not sure I entirely I share Goldberg’s suspicion that this particular group may be more interested in creating a centrist un-party to support Michael Bloomberg in 2012, though time will tell on that.

He and I do agree about the value of political labels:

This highlights one of the great things about political parties and political labels. If I tell you I’m a conservative Republican, you’ll have no idea what my views are on Buffy the Vampire Slayeror beef jerky, but you’ll have a good idea of what I think about taxes and foreign policy. No, partisan labels aren’t perfect; both parties have ample disagreements within their ranks on pretty much every issue. But they’re better than nothing. They’re clarifying, not confusing. In other words, labels aren’t “meaningless” as so many self-described independents claim, but meaningful. If anything, what’s meaningless is the claim that you don’t believe in labels when obviously anybody who speaks intelligently about anything must use them.

My problem with labels happens when you try to apply them so broadly that they lose meaning. The answer to that, though, is not to eliminate labels, but invent new, more descriptive ones.

Indeed, one of the core purposes of this forum is to frame one label – independent conservatism – in a way that makes it more than just a dumping ground of non-Republican conservatives, and to update another label – Bull Moose – so as to harken back to what was called “Progressive” a century ago (and since the hijacking of that term by liberals, requires a new descriptor today.)

I do this because I have learned that in the process of participative governance, people want to apply labels to everyone involved, and if you do not find one to apply to yourself, people will come up with their own. I suspect this is what will happen to the No Label folks eventually, and it will be sad. Once you allow yourself to be defined by someone else, you begin to lose your relevance and effectiveness.

All of which makes me wonder how long “No Labels” will last.

Time to Rethink Conservatism

Interesting quote from Mark Morford on The San Francisco Chronicle’s website made me think about the sorry state of conservative thought in America.

The GOP, on the other hand, sucks hard from the teat of ignorant extremism, splashes gleefully in the shallow mud puddles of Sarah Palin’s battered grammar, draws much of its power from the worst the human spectacle has to offer. Simply put, the modern Republican Party would not exist without its army of high school dropouts drunk on Rush Limbaugh and sexual dread. It’s not difficult to imagine “Burn a Quran Day” becoming a new Texas state holiday.

Yes, it’s progressive demagoguery at its finest, but the meta-message for those of us disaffected conservatives should ring true. The GOP has gone from being what I would consider thoughtfully conservative (in the wilderness years of the late 1970s) to populist reactionary.

The only way to stop the polarization of the nation is for conservatives to begin taking the high ground again. That does not mean defending ideas that belong in the same historical dustbin as racial segregation, isolationism, and laissez-faire, nor does it mean defining a political movement by what one does not believe.

It does mean laying out a fabric of ideas that provoke thought, debate, and careful consideration that offer a way forward in the 21st Century, but that do not divorce themselves from the values laid forth in the founding documents.

There are many flavors of progress. The progressive side of the political spectrum has had a chance to advance theirs (although, I have to say in all fairness, they probably didn’t get a full chance, given that their agenda has been hijacked by a self-interested party apparatus.) It is now time for some more flowers to bloom, for a new school of thought to contend with the progressive vision.

And may the best vision win. But that can only happen when there is a didactic in the nation that rises above naked populism and political opportunism.

Time for Thinking Conservatism

The worst part of the neo-conservative/Tea Party/Fox News axis is the tar it casts upon those of us who think of ourselves as thinking conservatives. What this crowd is spouting is not what it means to be a conservative or even a Republican in 21st Century America.

It is time we recognized that there is a growing reactionary axis in American politics that is every bit as extreme and odious as their cohorts on the Left side of the dial, and adjust our collective mental spectra accordingly. And for those of you who feel the same, how about we start staking out some intelligent ideological turf so as to distance ourselves from the reactionary right?