espite his great
influence on American conservatives, F.A.
Hayek is not really a conservative.
In "Why I am Not a Conservative," the postscript to The Constitution
of Liberty, Hayek characterizes conservatism as the "habitual
resistance to change," and liberalism as the view which cherishes
individual liberty (p. 397). Hayek calls his version of liberalism
Whiggism "the name for the only set of ideals that has consistently
opposed all arbitrary power" (p. 410).
As Hayek writes:
"[T]he decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to
be called such
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.
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." (p. 398)
Hayek eschews the conservative label because he is fundamentally
not seeking to conserve the existing order, but rather to expound
the virtues of individual liberty.
Hayek is aware of the terminological confusion presently at issue:
"[In Europe,] Until the rise of socialism, [conservatism's] 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' (p. 397).
Mises and Hayek, liberalism is the philosophy which recognizes
that individual liberty and private property are not only
inseparable, but also the basis for civilization.
With respect to the American political tradition, Hayek writes that
his version of liberalism
"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" (p. 409).
Despite the fact that American conservatives and classical liberals
("libertarians") are often fellow travelers, Hayek sets himself
outside of conservatism even the liberal-minded American
variety when he writes that
"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" (p. 399).
Later, Hayek fundamentally distances himself even from American
conservatism by writing that,
"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 spheres which ought not
to be confused" (p. 407).
There is a tension in Hayek's thought. He does not wish to impose
morality or religion, yet he quotes Lord Acton's statement "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."
Conservatives may wonder, if there is a higher law, how it could
be wrong to impose this law? Hayek's refusal to impose morality
and religion establishes that he is not a conservative.
Hayek concludes the postscript by doubting the existence of "conservative
political philosophy," writing that:
"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.' 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"
Hayek also rejected the label "libertarian." But his reasons for
doing so differed greatly from his principled rejection of the label
"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
In the appendix to Liberalism (available free online here),
Ludwig von Mises, who turned Hayek away from Fabianism, notes this
terminological confusion, but instead embraces the term 'liberal':
"Just as liberalism must, from inner necessity, eschew every trick
of propaganda and all the underhanded means of winning general acceptance
favored by other movements, so it must also avoid abandoning its
old name simply because it is unpopular. Precisely because the word
'liberal' has a bad connotation
liberalism must stick to it.
One may not make the way to liberal thinking easier for anyone,
for what is of importance is not that men declare themselves liberals,
but that they become liberals and think and act as liberals" (p.
For Mises and Hayek, liberalism is the philosophy which recognizes
that individual liberty and private property are not only inseparable,
but also the basis for civilization.
Conservatives influenced by Hayek might consider whether they misidentify
themselves by the label 'conservative.' Why not retake the term
'liberal' from the Clintons? No one is inclined to let them keep
the White House furniture. Why let them keep the title to a philosophical