Not A Conservative

Lynne Kiesling

I am glad to see from Virginia Postrel’s recent post that Mark Edmundson is being introduced to Hayek, albeit at perhaps a later stage in his lifelong education than may be befitting the power and importance of Hayek’s ideas.

However, I must pick one nit that always grates on me when I see or hear it. The interviewer characterizes Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as “a bible for people on the conservative political side”. I really must object to this characterization, and I’d like to think that Hayek would too. Indeed, one of his most powerful essays was titled “Why I am Not a Conservative”. Note that although the essay was written in 1960, it still resonates. I offer as evidence the first three paragaphs:

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. 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. [NOTE: by “rational liberalism” Hayek is referring to that arising from the constructivist Cartesian tradition.]

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. 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,” 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.

4 thoughts on “Not A Conservative

  1. Other

    Lynne Kiesling posts three paragraphs of Hayek’s Why I am Not a Conservative. It may be that there are still those who will find this illuminating, who don’t have a good handle on the origins of political labels and what they mean. Here’s the last gra…

  2. I think that calling conservatism a, “widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change,” is a antiquated and misleading statement.

    Opposed to change? Foreign policy under the conservative internationalist agenda (neo-con, supposedly the most conservtive of the conservative) is the most radical departure from the traditional cannon of American political thought.

    Opposed to change? In the next four years, Bush is planning to embark on an entire overhaul of the Social Security system.

    While these ‘progressives’ ballyhoo about revolution, Conservatives are the true vanguard of progress.

  3. Though it may be antiquated, it is correct to claim that a Conservative is opposed to change.

    Bush has taken on some very Liberal ideas in Social Security reform and Tax Simplification. Holding to the current tax regime would be Conservative (and yes, mostly supported by lefty Democrats).

    Unfortunately, Bush has also taken on several left-wing economic ideas, like the bloated farm program, ever increasing HUD, and steel tariffs which do not work now, nor have ever worked to improve agriculture, housing or steel production.

    I think it is more accurate to refer to position on specific issues as Liberal and Conservative positions, and to refer to specific person as Republican and Democrat, as consistency is not a strong suit of any politician.


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