Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How Hayek Inspired a Conservative Turn from Tradition to Ideas

James Pierson,in an article on the rise of conservative philanthropy, distills Hayek:
"The Road to Serfdom" advanced two broad themes, one negative and the other positive. The first was that socialism leads almost inevitably to tyranny and the loss of liberty in all of its forms. The second was that the antidote to socialism is to be found in the revival of classical liberalism as articulated by British-Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume and Edmund Burke. The book was in some ways highly pessimistic, for socialism was advancing everywhere and appeared irresistible. . . . At the same time, Hayek saw a way out through the revival of a tradition of thought that was in the process of being lost.

As for present-day conservatism, in Hayek's view it suffered from a fatal weakness. Because it relied on tradition rather than principle, it could slow down or resist but never fundamentally alter the direction in which events were moving. That is why he took pains to emphasize that he himself was not a conservative at all, but rather a liberal in the Whig tradition. . . . This, as it happened, was one feature of Hayek's thinking that appealed in particular to Americans.

The American polity, as Hayek understood, was originally built on the principle of liberty, and its political tradition was greatly influenced by the Whig ideals of limited government and the rule of law [Bernard Bailyn and others also believed this - MAC]. As a consequence, defenders of the American tradition were themselves frequently 'liberals' in the European sense. For Americans concerned about the expansion of government, the alternative to socialism and the welfare state was not conservatism but individualism.

Another enduring contribution of "The Road to Serfdom," perhaps more influential in the long run than Hayek's critique of socialism, was its emphasis on the importance of ideas in the growth of political movements. Challenging the assumptions of the historical school of thought, Hayek insisted that socialism and statism were products not of economic forces beyond anyone's control but of erroneous and destructive ideas. The Whig principles that had influenced continental thought during the 18th and 19th centuries had been displaced by German thinkers from Hegel and Marx down to Sombart and Mannheim, whose collectivist doctrines had captured the imagination of intellectuals. In another essay, 'The Intellectuals and Socialism' (1949), Hayek mapped out a broad, long-term strategy for combating this challenge.

Practical men of business, Hayek wrote, were at a decided disadvantage in the war of ideas because of their deep distrust of theoretical speculation and their 'tendency to orthodoxy.' Businessmen, moreover, did not understand the link between ideas and political movements, and therefore did not see the need to mount a sustained intellectual defense of their own interests. He urged his followers to learn from the success of socialism, which had originated as a construction of theorists and philosophers and only later emerged as a political movement fielding candidates for office and appealing to voters.

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