Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism III

I am continuing from here, where I mainly discussed definitions of liberalism and conservatism. This sequence of posts was inspired by F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’. I am happy to share Hayek’s sentiment that market liberalism is not the same thing as conservatism, but I find some of the argument rather unsatisfactory. What I have concentrated on so far is what I see as the inadequacy of Hayek’s view of conservatism as just a position of slowing down change. What I am getting on to is firstly his view of European liberalism and then of American conservatism.

Hayek’s essay seems to me to contain rather odd claims about the difference between British and continental European liberalism. He suggests:

the majority of Continental liberals stood for ideas to which these men were strongly opposed, and that they were led more by a desire to impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern than to provide opportunity for free growth. The same is largely true of what has called itself Liberalism in England at least since the time of Lloyd George.

I certainly sympathise with his suggestion that British (unfortunately Hayek makes the common place but still highly incorrect error of substituting England for Britain, particularly absurd here because David Lloyd George was Welsh) liberalism went to much in the direction of top down rationalism (i.e. statism) from about the time of Lloyd George in the early 20th century. It is of interest here that LG (as he was frequently know) split the Liberal Party and was Prime Minster with Conservative support, wishing his faction of the Liberal Party to merge with the Conservative Party, while advocating statism at home and foreign policy adventurism abroad (in Ottoman Anatolia, shortly before it became Turkey), topped by a rather Caesarist personal style.

Returning to the main issue, the sweeping views Hayek indicates of continental liberalism are rather reductive. He equates continental liberalism (or at least a very large part of it) with what comes out of the French Revolution. He can only be thinking of neo-Jacobin currents in France (known as ‘radicals’) and related national-republican currents elsewhere. There is certainly also a history of more individualistic market liberalism on the continent along with what could be called a kind of liberal moderate constitutional royalism.

It would be better, I suggest, to think of continental liberalism as tending to split between the poles of national-republicanism and constitutional royalism. Hayek concedes in this essay that conservatism can be aligned with nationalism, but claims he cannot follow this up because he is not sympathetic enough to nationalism to be able to talk about it. This does not stop him from a more unrestrained attack on the nationalist tendencies of neo-Jacobins, though frequently such people had a desire for a union of European nations. The Italian national-republican and admirer of British liberalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, is a good example.

It seems clear enough that Hayek leans in the conservative direction of the two pole distinction I mention above. We can see this in his list of liberal heroes in the essay: Edmund Burke, Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay, Alexis de Tocqueville, David (Lord) Acton, and William Ewart Gladstone. Burke is a hero of conservatism and my last post explains why I think he stands for conservatism rather than liberalism, calling Benjamin Constant as my prime witness.

Macaulay was a Whig Liberal, deeply attached to the landowning classes and the empire, the sort of people who abandoned Gladstone when he started to emphasise the rights of the Irish. Macaulay ought to be read by liberty advocates. He was a great historian and had some admirable pro-liberty sentiments, but we cannot doubt that he leaned towards the conservative imperial state end of liberalism.

Tocqueville is someone popular with conservatives, but then there are also many left leaning Tocqueville admirers. It is part of the character of his writing that there is something for almost anyone. There was certainly an aristocratic and imperial side of his thinking, with strong criticisms of the Jacobins during the French Revolution and after. However, it should also be noted that he was at least happy to work with moderate republicans in French politics, that is those following a toned down Jacobinism and preferred them to the strong royalists. He saw the world as taking a democratic turn, which he thought had some dangerous aspects, but which he said should be followed in a way foreign to Burke and Macaulay.

Acton’s view of liberty leaned strongly in the direction that any restraint on central power was a good thing, to an extent that meant disregarding universal rights. The most famous example of this is his support for the slave states during the American Civil War and his correspondence with Robert E. Lee, which expressed gushing admiration for this prominent Confederate general and slave holder. Acton had some very pertinent things to say about the dangers of democracy, but failed to see that the danger is unrestrained majoritarianism rather than democracy as such, or at least failed to see that democracy constrained by constitutionalism was a better corrective for democratic vices than his attempts to cling onto non-democratic forms of government, or at least very attenuated forms of democracy (as in indirect elections). We can safely place him on the extreme right of the liberty movement.

Gladstone was a friend of Acton and was strongly influenced by him for many years. However, Gladstone, who started off as a High Tory (traditionalist conservative), ended up as a radical promoting home rule for Ireland and Scotland (to the horror of the Whig, that is conservative, Liberals) and extension of the suffrage beyond the property owning classes, who restricted the rights of Irish and Scottish landowners when he saw how they were treating their tenants against natural justice. These measures led him to be condemned as a dangerous socialist at the time, which is of course nonsense. He had an understanding that traditional property rights could become abusive and oppressive over time and that it was the legitimate role of the representative state to use its law making capacity to to challenge such abuse despite the protests of traditional landowners. Though he was influenced by Acton in his view of the US Civil War, he took a rather more national-republican leaning view of the Risorgimento (Italian movement of unification), and his later policies certainly suggest a less Burke-Macaualy-Acton oriented approach.

Hayek’s views of 18th and 19th century liberalism show a strong inclination towards the conservative end of liberalism (even if we assume that we are only concerned with individualistic market based liberalism here) and a very strong reaction against any national-republican elements of liberalism, while evading the issue of conservative-nationalist affinities.

To be continued

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