Hayek, Libertarians, and Conservatives

Sixty-six years after its original publication, Friedrich Hayek's masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom, continues to inspire legions of both mature and aspiring devotees of individual liberty, free markets and limited government. Hayek's explanations of why collectivist planning must inevitably lead to tyranny are simple and logical, yet also profound and thoroughly convincing.

Hayek's grand tome, The Constitution of Liberty, published sixteen years later, contains more brilliant reasoning and forehead-slapping insights -- this time more from a "political/sociological" point of view than via the economic slant in The Road to Serfdom. But The Constitution of Liberty ends with a special postscript entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative." This short but devastating critique of American conservatism -- as Hayek saw it in 1960 -- has had a demoralizing effect on the conservative movement.

Seen from today's perspective, it is as if the Founders had put a postscript on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution asserting that all who subscribe to the underlying philosophy of the documents are flawed, wrong, and hopelessly incapable of administering a regime dedicated to the founding principles. When conservatives read Hayek's works, they find almost nothing with which to disagree. His words on the dangers of central planning and enhanced government and how they invariably lead to loss of freedom could come from the lips of Paul Ryan or Jim DeMint. How can it be that Hayek scorns the label by which these devoted students of the right identify themselves?

Hayek agonizes in the postscript as to how to label himself. He argues convincingly that he is a classic eighteenth/nineteenth-century liberal in the mold of Burke, Gladstone, Macaulay, de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. But he acknowledges that the progressives have hijacked the word "liberal," and so its original meaning has been thoroughly corrupted. He professes to dislike "libertarian" ("I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much of the flavor of a manufactured term.") and instead settles on "Whig." But as he admits, this term is too dead and buried to be resuscitated -- and also "singularly unattractive."

Other writers, in similar examinations, have suggested "constitutionalist," "traditionalist," or "neoliberal." In fact, in today's understanding of the terms, Hayek would definitely be considered a libertarian. Now, there is an enormous overlap between conservative and libertarian philosophy, but the two camps differ significantly on two crucial points.


There is a libertine streak in libertarianism that is missing from the conservative repertoire. Many conservatives tend to base their morals on religious grounds. But even among conservatives whose morals derive from a more rationalistic basis, there is a belief in an irreducible, unchangeable core to their moral structure, an immutable understanding of the difference between good and evil, which does not evolve.

A libertarian takes his devotion to individual liberty more literally. While libertarians also believe that sound morals must govern individuals and their society and must move them more toward good than evil, they also accept that morals set by the community are susceptible to change. Individuals, exercising their right to liberty, might over time come to new and better moral understandings. Thus, libertarians do not decry sexual permissiveness, drug use, and certain "life" issues which conservatives see as violations of fundamental moral laws. In particular, conservatives and libertarians tend to wind up on opposite sides of issues like drug prosecution, homosexuality, and abortion. This difference in perspective between conservatives and libertarians is fundamental, and there is no minimizing it.

America's Role

The other fundamental difference between conservatives and libertarians is in the understanding of America's role in history. While both groups are intensely patriotic and believe that America represents a tremendous step forward in human history, conservatives believe in an Old Testament-type philosophy -- America as a light unto the nations, a concept that libertarians reject.

Conservatives see America as a seminal Constitutional Republic, a beacon of freedom and a fount of liberty. They believe that Americans -- like the ancient Israelites or even like some parts of modern Jewry -- have accepted the mantle of specialness with the obligation to play a singular role in bringing freedom to the world. Conservatives describe this as American exceptionalism and believe that we as a people have accepted the consequent burdens this role puts on our shoulders.

Libertarians believe, on the other hand, that good luck and good decisions have led to our exceptional society. But other societies are free to make the same decisions; we have no special obligation to lead them there. This discrepancy leads to huge differences in opinion on foreign policy, defense spending, and the role that America is supposed to play in the world. As with the previous basic difference, this one is sharp, and its effect should not be trivialized.

Hayek recognizes both points and takes the libertarian position on each. But these are far from his most severe criticisms of conservatives. Hayek also charges that conservatives are:

  • worshippers of old ideas and ideals -- not because they are cherished or invaluable, but simply because they are old;
  • wedded to ironclad first principles (of economics, politics, and culture) and do not trust the uncontrolled, random, invisible hand-type forces that lead society to the best outcomes in a free market -- and by that he means a free market not only in business, but also in political and cultural ideas;
  • too comfortable with authority;
  • too inclined toward an aristocracy as the correct form of societal organization;
  • partial toward protectionist economic policies; and
  • basically not Whigs, but Tories.
Some or all of this might have been accurate in the 1950s, when Senator Robert Taft was "Mr. Conservative." But none of it is on the mark today. If Hayek could reappear at a Tea Party event, he would certainly repudiate most of what he wrote in "Why I am Not a Conservative." The two fundamental differences described above remain, and they would continue to identify Hayek as a libertarian, but all of his criticisms in the bulleted list no longer apply.

Judging by their known affiliations and self-identification, the vast majority of rightward-leaning people in the U.S. come down on the other side from Hayek on the two fundamental principles upon which conservatives and libertarians differ. If there is any hope of reestablishing America as a Constitutional Republic dedicated to individual liberty, then it is conservatives who shall play the main role, not libertarians.

But the latter group does have a key role to play in the unfolding conservative revolution in America. It may be explained via an analogy. Orthodox, or strictly observant, Jews see their role in the world as living a pious, holy life according to the strict commandments of God. They believe that by doing so, they constitute a light unto the nations. They seek to create a model example by which the vast number of Gentiles in the world will set their compasses, thereby "fixing the world" and bringing mankind to harmony, justice, and peace.

Whether the model is good or not, it turns out that the commandments are so incredibly strict that it is virtually impossible for any, beyond an extraordinarily dedicated few, to observe them. Most fall away. But among those are many imbued with the spirit and blessing of God, and they proceed to enrich and improve mankind, often without realizing that is their deep Jewish roots which provide the seeds of their great strength, talent, and leadership capabilities. Examples are copious: Einstein, Freud, Herzl, Salk, Sabin, Disraeli, Spinoza, Koufax, Kissinger, Brin, Berlin, perhaps even Jesus of Nazareth. It is the vastly greater number of secular Jews and their associated and converted offspring, offshoots of the rigid and impossibly demanding Orthodox tradition, who provide the light unto the nations and thereby fix the world.

In the analogy, the libertarians are the Orthodox Jews, and conservatives are their "assimilated offspring." A dogmatic, fiercely rigid, sometimes self-defeating and blind devotion to the purest form of libertarianism gives rise to a somewhat less pure but more successful offshoot (conservatives). The latter are in a position to deploy the fundamentals of the "parent religion" without being crippled by the extremely pure version to which a widespread conversion is not in the offing. In both versions there remains an irreducible core that is preserved. But it is the "less pure" version that has the greatest chance of "fixing the world."

In modern terms, I believe that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin would be classified as conservatives, not libertarians. Paine was a libertarian, and I'm not so sure about Jefferson. With all due respect to the genius of Friedrich Hayek, I believe that conservatives, not libertarians, will lead us to the Promised Land.

Ron Lipsman is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Liberal Hearts and Conservative Brains.
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