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.

RCH: “10 Places That Should Join the U.S.”

That’s the title of my weekend article over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

9. Puerto Rico. Officially an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico was acquired by Washington, along with Cuba and the Philippines, in the course of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Not quite an annexed state and not quite a colony, the island has been in legal limbo since the war with Spain ended. In 2017, a referendum was held on the issue of statehood (the fifth of its kind since 1952), and an overwhelming majority of those who voted preferred statehood to independence or the status quo.

Unfortunately, “those who voted” only accounted for about 23% of the island’s population, and referendum was popularly-held, meaning that the legislature didn’t vote on the matter (which is what the federal congress would require in order to consider a Puerto Rican application). Despite the odds being stacked against a Spanish-speaking state, there has never been a better time than now to join the union, especially if representatives could work in tandem with representatives of Jefferson. The history of American statehood is one of balance in the Senate. If Maine could join as a free state, then Missouri could join as a slave state. If Hawaii could join as a blue state, then Alaska could join as a red state. If Puerto Rico joined the union it would be as a blue state, and Jefferson could be the red yang to San Juan’s yin.

Read the rest.


  1. Zombie history: a bleak vision of the past and present Sophie Pinkham, the Nation
  2. Pakistan’s elections and the precarious future of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Andrew Small, War on the Rocks
  3. Populism in less developed countries is somewhat different Pranab Bardham, 3 Quarks Daily
  4. The BRICS hit the wall Guy Sorman, City Journal


  1. Eugenics in the Progressive Era Patricia Williams, Times Literary Supplement
  2. America’s debate between scientific innovation and caution Patrick Allitt, Law & Liberty
  3. The tyranny of language Francis Wade, NY Review of Books
  4. Higher intelligence predicts left-wing social views and right-wing economic views Ludeke & Rasmussen, Intelligence

Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.


Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.