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Libertarianism and Conservativism – foes or friends?

F.A. Hayek at the end of his “Constitution of Liberty” (1960) wrote “Why I am not a Conservative” – which is odd as Hayek had (perhaps without knowing it) a good grasp of what actually is a positive conception of conservatism, and a poor grasp of libertarianism.

Hayek rejected the word “libertarian” as “artificial” which is just as well as he was not a libertarian – philosophically or politically.

Philosophically Hayek was a determinist (like so many 19th century and early 20th century thinkers, he assumed that “science” mandated determinism). Hayek took David Hume literally (whether Hume should really be taken literally is a hotly contested issue), the “I” (the human person) is an illusion, as is human choice – a thought does NOT mean a thinker (a reasoning “I”) and as there is no agent (no human being – no reasoning “I”) there is no agency (no free will), actions are predetermined by a series of causes and effects that go back to the start of the universe – and humans (who are not beings) can do no other than we do (we could not have done otherwise – as choice is an illusion).

Politically Hayek claimed to an “Old Whig”, but is hard to see how his philosophical views are compatible with the Whig point of view – which was based on the MORAL value of human free will (it is not an accident that David Hume was not a Whig) . The determinist (such as the Thomas Hobbes) holds that “freedom” is just an absence of external restraint – for example when a dam fails the water is “free” to rush out and destroy towns and so on. “Freedom” (in the determinist view) is not a matter of moral choice (remember choice is an “illusion”) so “freedom” is like taking one’s hand off a clockwork mouse and letting this clockwork mouse go around on the floor. It is hard to see how this “freedom” can be of any moral importance at all – if any view of politics can be based upon it would be a politics of tyranny (exactly the politics that Hobbes did base upon it), after all walls of water from broken dams (and so on) does not sound very nice.

Still does Hayek say anything else about his politics? Yes he does – again in the “Constitution of Liberty” we are told that he supports the “limited state” not the “minimal state”, because (according to Hayek) the minimal state can not be defined and the limited state can be defined.

Hayek is just wrong – the minimal state is easy to define (although very hard to achieve or maintain – an anarchist would argue impossible to maintain or achieve). The definition of a minimal state is one that just uses force only against the violation of the non aggression principle (attacks on the bodies or goods of people or groups of people). It is actually the “limited state” that is hard to define. Limited to what?

Hayek does make some vague efforts to define the “limited state” – for example he says that such a state applies “general rules” that apply to everyone.

O.K. then – everyone is to have their head cut off. Is that a good example of a “limited state”?

Hayek also says that a limited state does not seek to have a monopoly of any service.

O.K. then – everyone but the children of Mr Smith of 25 Silver Street to go to a state school?

Unfair example? O.K. – how about the state hands education and healthcare “free” (at the expense of the taxpayers), but you are free to pay twice (i.e. pay again on top of taxation) to go private? Is this the limited state?

How about you can go to any doctor you like and send your children to any school you like, but the state pays the bill (no matter how big it is), is that the limited state?

Such a state (one that seeks to provide or pay for education, healthcare, old age provision and on and on) will end up spending half the entire economy (and still fail). That does not sound very limited or sustainable – and Hayek (in his attack on the Welfare State) shows he understands this. However, his “limited state” is not defined in a way that prevents it.

Oh dear this post seems to have turned into “why Hayek is crap” which is unfair as anyone (even the best of us) looks terrible if one just concentrates on errors and weaknesses. I will leave the above out if I ever give a talk on this subject (because it sounds terribly negative) – but it needed to be put on record.

So why is Hayek (perhaps without knowing it) insightful about Conservatism?

Hayek’s own definition of Conservatism (given in “Why I am Not a Conservative”) is not good. He just defines it as being opposed to change – so (for example) a North Korean conservative now would be a socialist (or that is the system they have) and a British conservative I (say) 1870 would be a free market person – as this was the system of the time.

Whatever Hayek may have believed that is not a serious definition of Conservatism. But Hayek (again perhaps without knowing it) does give a description of Conservatism – in “Constitution of Liberty”, “Law. Legislation and Liberty” (and other works).

Cosmos not Taxis – spontaneous order (evolved over time) not top down planning. What Hayek called the results of “human action not human design” (it would be have been better to say the results of voluntary action not forced action – but Hayek had philosophical problems with even voluntary design).

Or (in the language of the conservative writer M.J. Oakeshott) a Civil Association not Enterprise Association, a Societas not a Universitas.

Institutions and customs that evolve over time often without people knowing the reasons they are useful – till they are broken.

As Tolkien’s (Tolkien being a Catholic Conservative) character “Gandalf” puts it in the “Lord of the Rings” – “he who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom”.

This is what Conservatism is about – a preference for evolved custom and ways of doing things (ways of living) over imposed “rational” planning by the state.

The state (in the Conservative view) is like the Thrain of the Shire (Tolkien’s) and the Mayor.

The Thrain does nothing in peacetime (in war it is different) – he just farms his estate. And the Mayor is the leading figure at formal dinners (like those of the old Closed Corporations that were the only “urban local government” before the Act of 1835 in England and Wales), he does not order folk about. Families govern their own affairs and do not attack each other (police forces were not compulsory on the counties of England and Wales till 1856). There is plenty of (moral – traditional) authority, but little naked “power”.

I think it is obvious show this view of Conservatism is close to libertarianism (hence “Tory Anarchist”) – a friend not a foe. But is it tied to Hayek and his philosophical opinions?

No it is not – which is why I mentioned Oakeshott and Tolkien (two Conservatives with very different philosophical opinions to Hayek). Both Oakeshott and Tolkien believed in free will (agency – moral responsibility, the ability to choose to do otherwise).

Even in the 18th century Conservatives did not follow the philosophical opinions of David Hume (again IF they were his opinions – I repeat this is hotly contested). Neither the Tory Conservative Dr Johnson or the Old Whig Conservative Edmund Burke (a real Old Whig – unlike Hayek) accepted determinism and the denial of human personhood (moral choice – the ability to choose to do otherwise). Edmund Burke and Dr Johnson (the Whig and the Tory) both believed in free will (agency – moral responsibility, the ability to choose to do otherwise) and were moral universalists (not just Dr Johnson – but Edmund Burke also, for the T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson view of his is totally wrong, to Burke it did not matter if something happened in the Middle Ages or right now, in India or America – right was right and wrong was wrong).

Is this the only view of Conservatism?

Of course not – there are other views of Conservatism. For example the statism of Disraeli (with his life long commitment to “social reform” – yuk).

However, that is hardly “doing nothing” (against those who do not themselves aggress against others). The Tauist Old King Log sitting in the shade – rather than Young King Stork “helping” his subjects by eating them.


  1. Paul Marks says:

    Before some clever-dick says “April Fool” this article was posted after twelve (British time).

    I have avoided trying to define “Tory” in the above – because it is difficult and not directly relevant (Conservative and Tory not being the same thing – some people who call themselves Tory would not be Conservative in the sense my post outlines, and Old Whigs were-and-are Conservative but they are NOT Tory).

  2. john in cheshire says:

    “Institutions and customs that evolve over time often without people knowing the reasons they are useful – till they are broken…”, like the House of Lords as was.

  3. John Galt says:

    My fundamental problem with Conservatives is that while their philosophy nominally allows for the shrinking of the state, to all practical extents the opposite is true and Conservatives are active proponents of big government WHEN THEY ARE IN POWER.

    Only during a fiscal crisis do Conservatives support a period of retrenchment before, inevitably, the crisis passes and the expansion of the state continues apace, often at an even faster rate than before.

    Even under the radicals of the Thatcher era it was only the rate of expansion of the state that was reduced, the acceleration of the state, if you will. :-)

    Libertarians would actually cut the size, scope and power of the state, which is why they will be deliberately excluded, by hook or by crook. No big government would let Libertarians get into power as it would be their death knell.

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    Paul, you wrote,

    “…the philosophical opinions of David Hume (again IF they were his opinions – I repeat this is hotly contested).”

    My question is, “Hotly contested by WHOM?” I would like to read some of those who argue against interpreting Hume as meaning what he says, so that I can see and judge for myself what they say.

    Thanks for a very interesting posting. :>)

  5. David Roberts says:

    Paul, how would a determinist answer the application of Pascal’s wager to free will?

  6. Paul Marks says:

    David Roberts – in theory a determinist will answer as it is predetermined they will (by a series of causes and effects going back to the Big Bang). In practice determinists sometimes go around preaching, trying to convert (such as J, Edwards and, later, George Whitefield) although they would simply say that their preaching was also predetermined from the start of time (so no contradiction).

    Julie – our friends over at the LA site think the sun shines out of David Hume’s posterior (they will not hear a word against him). And perhaps it was indeed a complicated game (act) David Hume saying “prove it” (it being the basic facts of our existence) “I am going to play Devil’s advocate and see if you can actually prove your own existence (as a reasoning “I”), and so on”.

    John in Cheshire – well I already envy (the south east is already humid). Yes your example is a good one.

    John Galt.

    That is the weakness of Old King Log (whether Christian or Taoist) – he will not create a massive state, but nor will he get rid of it. Young King Stork’s officials remain (even if Young King Stork is no more) and they will continue to eat the “frogs” (the people).

    What does one do when the warnings of Samuel (First Samuel, Chapter Eight) have been ignored?

    When a massive state has already been created?

    That is where the conservative part of me (of us) has to step back – and the libertarian part has to step forward.

    When we actually have to work to dismantle what has been created – because, once created, these schemes GROW ON THEIR OWN.

    Once these government FUNCTIONS are existence there is no more need for Young King Stork – the state will GROW ON ITS OWN.

    This is what Bertrand d Jouvenel and Anthony de Jasey have explained.

  7. Julie near Chicago says:

    Paul … as for the LA site, there are you, Ian, Hugo, David Davis, and — um, I’m out of names. (There, my Snark for the day, but with a grain of truth the size of an elephant to it. 😉 )

    I’m interested because I can’t think of anybody serious other than you who is willing to give Mr. Hume the benefit of the doubt — anybody else who thinks he was being outrageous personally, just in order to shake people up and make them reconsider their metaphysical positions.

  8. Julie near Chicago says:

    Sigh, no, “…anybody else [other than you] who thinks he was being outrageous purposely” to shake people up….

    Sorry. :(

  9. NickM says:

    As to Hume, my understanding was he could out-consume Hegel.

    I get most of my philosophy from Monty Python via Youtube.

  10. Agency means the capacity to make choices that are not predetermined (there is nothing wrong with saying that something is “determined” as long accepts that a person, a reasoning “I”, can determine, decide, some things).

    As I understand it David Hume denies this (even denies the existence of the reasoning “I” – claiming that a thought does NOT mean a thinker). Although Hume may be playing the role of a “Devil’s Advocate” in order to wake up people from their complacent slumbers.

    A defence of Hume should be that he did NOT hold this – NOT that the word “agency” no longer means that humans are beings, i.e. that we have the capacity to make some CHOICES (that are neither predetermined or random).

    Redefining the words “agency” and “agent” so that they no longer mean the capacity to make real choices (at least some of the time) is dishonest – radically dishonest.

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