Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism IV

Continuing a discussion from here inspired by F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’.

One central claim of Hayek’s essay is that American conservatism is not the same as European conservatism, as it is rooted in the classical liberalism of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. He notes that ‘European’ style conservatism exists in the US but claims it is an artificial import that looks odd. A really big problem here is Hayek’s assumption that there are native national forms of political culture which are authentic compared with alien intrusions. Of course national context and tradition are important, but that should not conceal understanding of pluralism, emergence from the margins of positions that have always been there, change, and influences across national frontiers.

Hayek’s talk of odd looking imports into American conservatism may cover Russell Kirk and William Buckley, both major influences on American conservatism in second half of the twentieth century and their influence lingers in central parts of US conservatism. Buckley’s conservatism was connected with his traditionalist Catholics. The founders of the American Republic were Protestants and anti-Catholicism has been a significant force in the United States until well into the 20th century.

Hayek himself was a person without religious belief from a Catholic culture who attributed great importance to the Catholicism of Alexis de Tocqueville and David Acton (see my comments in last post). He considered naming the Mont Pelerin Society the Acton-Tocqueville society, apparently because of the role Catholics played in the German groups resisting Hitler. This is all very strange, as it was certainly not only Catholics who resisted Hitler and there is no need to name a free market institution after a British and a French Catholic to get support from German liberals. Even leaving that aside there is an extraordinary tangle here with regard to how American conservatism relates to American and European religious traditions, along with the question of where Hayek fits.

Kirk brought Burkean conservatism into the US, where Burke’s most famous critic, Thomas Paine (what we might now call a left libertarian), is more associated with the early republican heritage. Of course, as I have pointed out, Hayek was a big Burke fan. So we see another tangle about how to connect American conservatism with Europe. In general the imports into American conservatism come from sources Hayek liked, Catholicism (though he was an atheist as well as divorced and twice married), and Burke. What was Hayek’s presence at the University of Chicago or his impact on US conservatives and libertarians then? Hayek was very much a late Habsburg in character, not at all American.

I also question how far US conservatism can be seen as an outgrowth of classical liberalism – distinct from a supposed European conservatism tied to non-liberal tradition and slowing down change. An account of American conservatism must acknowledge paleoconservatism along with paleolibertarianism, which are both outgrowths of neo-Confederate thought idealising the slave-holding and then white supremacist societies of the southern states, turning Abraham Lincoln into a villain. There is also southern Agrarianism, an idealisation of southern rural society. Most significantly for party politics, there is the tradition which goes back to the Bourbon Democrats (that is southern pro-slavery and segregationist Democrats) which became the Old Right of the Republican Party from which Ron Paul emerged.

We cannot go very far in discussing American conservatism without running into nostalgia for pre-liberal societies and organicist rural tradition, which looks remarkably like traditionalist conservatism in Europe. The early foundational documents of the American Republic are great things, but do not in themselves stand in the way of local illiberal communities undisturbed by the federal state. This is how slavery and then Jim Crow (segregationism and white supremacism) survived.

The story of an American system with a truly individualist, equal rights way-of-thinking enforced by the federal state for all only really starts with Abraham Lincoln (main text here is the Gettysburg Address of course, which in essence advocates ‘a new birth of freedom’ as the transformation of the union of states into a democratic nation), followed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery, gave the Federal state a bigger role in enforcing constitutional protections, and created a federal guarantee for voting rights.

Sadly the triumph of southern ‘Redemption’ over Congressional Reconstruction after the Civil war prevented proper protection of basic rights for African-Americans until the 1960s. Of course most American conservatives now see the slavery and Jim Crow periods as the wrong kind of conservatism, based on a failure to apply the best parts of constitutional and natural law thinking.

There are many other aspects to American conservatism, the important point is to emphasise that significant parts of it have been based on traditionalist admiration for pre-liberal communities and the violent state imposition of social hierarchies (often accompanied by illegal violence tolerated, or even encouraged by the state) denying basic rights to humans of the wrong ‘race’. This has also influenced the more ‘paleo’ forms of libertarianism.

However many good things we can find in the US constitution, it was not applied so as to guarantee citizen and personal rights for all more than a century and a half after its adoption. Its initial design incorporated measures to allow the persistence of slavery. Whatever one might think about its proper meaning, the reality is that veneration for it was not a barrier to slavery or Jim Crow, along with many other abuses.

Hayek was no doubt sincere in wishing to distinguish his thought from conservatism and I certainly do not think his best insights can be applied within a conservative framework, but clearly he prefers conservatism to the more radical republican end of liberal thought (which did have an impact on some of the best moments in American politics) and it is not a surprise that conservatives have found it easy to digest a version of Hayek. Hayek’s thoughts about European conservatism are inadequate and he becomes stuck in an extraordinary tangle in his view of American conservatism.

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