Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism II

The first post in this series concentrates on the more radical authoritarian populist side of conservatism in Europe. Before getting on to American conservatism and other aspects of European conservatism, I will respond to requests in the comments for definitions of what I mean by liberalism and conservatism. The shortest class definition I am aware of is that of David Hume in his essay ‘Of the Parties of Great Britain’ where he suggests that Whigs (liberals) favour liberty with a monarchy and that Tories (conservatives) favour monarchy with liberty. This can be expanded with little, if any controversy, to be taken as: liberals advocate liberty with order; conservatives favour order with liberty.

I will move from Hume to Benjamin Constant in Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments. Constant is surely an unimpeachable source on what it is to be a classical liberal and it is important to note that Constant thinks there is something different in a politics based on principles of freedom than the thought of Edmund Burke. The distinction Constant makes is key to thinking about the relation between classical liberalism and conservatism, so is key to the claim that I make that (classical) liberalism are very distinct.

To increase the force of collective authority is never other than giving more power to some individuals. If the wickedness of men [an emphasis on this is a mark of conservative thinking], it is an even stronger one against power. For despotism is only the freedom of one or a few against the rest. Burke says that freedom is power. One can likewise say that power is freedom.(Book XV, Chapter 2)

This thought flows right into this thought from a later chapter:

Freedom is a power only in the sense that a shield is a weapon. So that when one speaks of possible abuses of the principle of freedom, such an expression is inaccurate. The principles of freedom would have prevented anything under the heading of abuses of freedom. These abuses, whoever their author, taking place always at the expense of another’s freedom, have never been the consequence of these principles, but rather their reversal.  (Book XVII. Chapter 1)

In my summary of the above: conservatism defines freedom as limited because of a dangerous power in excess, so requiring tradition, hierarchy, and the aggressive use of state sovereignty to to curb it, while liberalism suggests that more freedom is the answer to abuses of power.

Since Burke is a key figure for those advocating some kind of kind of intimate alliance, or even identity, between (classical) liberalism and conservatism or libertarian conservative fusionism, Constant’s criticism of Burke is important. I won’t get into the detail of Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke’s central text on politics here, I will just note that the reader of this classic of conservatism will find many passages on the absolute sovereignty of the state, the virtues of rigid social hierarchy and of traditions supporting such hierarchy, along with the perfection of the British constitution of the time.

These passages, it seems to me, should raise concern to the advocate of liberty, which I believe derives its energy from the criticism of tradition, hierarchy, and existing institutions. As Constant recognises, we should not be quick to replace institutions that have grown over centuries with a perfect new design, but we should certainly not be afraid to innovate either, as we should not be slow to notice the growing faults of institutions over time as they come into conflict with new circumstances.

Burke was perhaps a bit more liberty-minded and a bit more innovation-friendly than the other famous critics of liberalism and Jacobinism – de Maistre, de Bonald and Donoso Cortés, but the understanding of liberty as particular Liberties inherited from tradition, upheld by a state that insists on its own absolute authority is something he has in common with them. For Constant, the excesses of the French Revolution are a reason to argue for more liberty, for Burke they are a reason to uphold hierarchy, tradition, and royal authority along with endless war against the French.

While addressing comments to the last post, I should refer to my fellow Notewriter, Edwin van de Haar, though thinking just as much of a previous social media conversation as his recent comment. As far as I understand, he advocates a definition of conservative liberalism that corresponds with F.A. Hayek’s views in The Constitution of Liberty and a share of GDP devoted to public spending substantially below the the average in advanced industrial countries. I’m not aware of anywhere in which Hayek used such a term, though he was certainly more sympathetic to Burke than I am here.

My argument is that there is nothing inherent to conservatism that makes it opposed to expanding the state in terms of welfare intervention or in terms of the police power of the state. Otto von Bismarck is just one particularly notable conservative from history who had a great belief in an intrusive state in various ways, including measures designed to take voters away from the strong Marxist-socialist current of the time, through incorporating socialist-friendly policies. Conservatism is a doctrine of order, state power (where national or imperial), and tradition.

Where conservatives have favoured market-friendly and relatively small state polices, they have done so in order to preserve order, the core of state power and tradition. Economically liberal conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were also great believers in narratives of restored national grandeur, the security state, ‘law and order’ and ‘war on drugs’ polices expanding state power, while sucking an increasing number of people into the extreme state-socialist institution of prison.

As far as I can see Thatcher and Reagan are the heroes of ‘liberal conservatism’. With all due respect to their valuable economic reforms, the liberalism seems to me to be very subordinate to the conservatism. As I pointed out in the last post, ideas of aggressive populism are growing in the conservative world, ideas which have deep precedents in the ways that Bismarck figures have mobilised nationalism, statism, and reactionary identity politics against liberals.

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