Why Hayek was Wrong About American and European Conservatism I

The title of this post refers to F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’, which can be found as an appendix to his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty. What this post is really about is the deficiencies of American conservatism and the general idea of liberal conservatism or a natural alliance between classical liberals and conservatives. However, first a few words about Hayek’s essay as Hayek is an important figure for liberty advocates. The essay in question is well known and particularly easy to find online.

Hayek’s criticism of conservatism overestimates the extent to which it is just a limiting position, slowing down change. The relation of conservatism to tradition is seem too much as conservatism being too slow to accept changes to tradition. Traditionalist conservatism, however, has been a much more active and dangerous force than that. ‘Traditionalism’ as far as I know is a 20th century term used particularly in France (René Guénon) and Italy (Julius Evola) to refer to a spiritual based for politics of an extreme conservative kind which found natural alliance with fascism. It seems clear enough that it has precedents in late 18th and 19th century conservative monarchist thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donosó Cortes.

Carl Schmitt, who was maybe the greatest 20th century admirer of those thinkers, joined the Nazi Party in 1933, though found himself purged as not properly Nazi from his post as head of a jurists’ association in 1936. Not only did Schmitt admire the French and Spanish thinkers mentioned, he was a great admirer of Edmund Burke. Burke is a favourite of those claiming a conservative-liberty affinity. It would be unfair to suggest that Burke would have welcomed National Socialism (though the same applies to de Bonald, de Maiste, and Donosó Cortes).

It is a fact that a large part of conservative thinking of the time of the rise of Fascism, and allied forms of illiberal government such as corporatism, regarded it as a legitimate counter to Bolshevism and disorder. Even Ludwig von Mises defiled his own 1927 book Liberalism with generous words about Fascism as a counter to Bolshevism. The reality is that at the time such regimes came to power there was no immediate risk of Communist take over and this is a horrifying position, which cannot be justified by suggesting that Mises was writing in the heat of the moment as Bolsheviks stalked power in any particular country. Winston Churchill welcomed Fascism in Italy and even initially welcomed Hitler’s rise in Germany, before becoming acquainted with the reality of his regime. It is of course the case that Fascism and National Socialism had socialist roots as well as traditionalist conservative roots, but then a liaison between socialism and traditionalist conservatism as a counter to liberal individualism has a history going well back into the 19th century.

We can see right now in Europe the growing force of conservatism with a populist-nationalist emphasis targeting abnormals (as in everyone who does not fit their assumptions of a normal person in their country). This is not some new addition to the repertoire of the right. The strong man of the Northern League in Italy, Metteo Salvini, has aligned himself with Mussolini recently by tweeting a variation of Mussolini’s slogan ‘many enemies, much honour’ on Mussolini’s birthday. The Hungarian equivalent of Salvini, the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has rehabilitated the pre-war authoritarian leader Miklós Horthy. The Legue, Orbán’s Fidesz party, the Bannonite wing of the Republican Party and the like are stuffed with Vladimir Putin apologists, or at least as in Bannon’s case slippery arguments according to which he does not like Putin, but we should ally with him. In any case, Bannon is very active supporting the pro-Putin parties in Europe.

These parties draw on long traditions of conservative populism, monarchist anti-liberalism, and the like. The appeal to conservative love of monarchy, state church, and social conformity was a major weapon of monarchist conservative forces after the 1848 Springtime of the Peoples in Europe, helped by violent Russian intervention in the Austrian Empire to ‘restore order’. We see something like this now in the growing strength of a brand of conservatism which does not just limit change but fosters change in the direction of illiberalism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, Christian identity, free trade, liberal protections of the individual from state power, the rights of civil society organisations to stand up to the state, and economic protection, seeking inspiration from the kleptomaniac nationalist authoritarian regime in Russia.

Enthusiasm for Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan is less obvious, but Orbán has put him on his list of ‘illiberal democracy’ heroes, and we can reasonably say that the rhetoric and methods of Erdoğan have been an inspiration for the populist right throughout Europe, even as, like Órban, it puts Islamophobia at the centre.

The role of Donald Trump and Steven Bannon as friends of, and models for, European populists should give reason to wonder whether Hayek misunderstood US conservatism. More on this in the next post.

Nightcap

  1. How conservatives won the law Steven Teles (interview), Wall Street Journal
  2. Libertarians in the Age of Trump Ross Douthat, NY Times
  3. Political theory for an age of climate change Alyssa Battistoni, the Nation
  4. Nationalists versus empire: A brief history of the African university Mahmood Mamdani, London Review of Books

The Helsinki Follies

Myself, my wife, Rush Limbaugh, and a couple of others on FB, alone of those who express themselves publicly, have taken leave of their senses. The obvious has stopped waiving at the American intelligentsia (Russian word, on purpose).

Mr Mueller, in charge of demonstrating that Russia gave Mr Trump the election, announces three days before a president’s meeting with Mr Putin that he has charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with crimes (presumably, violations of American law).

Several things are wrong with this picture.

First, is it a surprise that Russian military intelligence is trying to mess with us? Is this new? Did they used not to? Why make a major announcement of it? It’s routine stuff. Catch them; slap them! Is it the case that US intelligence agencies never tried to mess with Mr Putin’s endless re-elections? What’s their excuse if they did not? Is it the case that our intelligence agencies are not interfering with, say, Venezuela’s political processes today? Really? I liked better the days when our CIA had balls and was the scourge of everything and everyone progressive and socialist.

Second, ignoring the futility of the charges, what’s the chance any of the twelve is going to show up to be tried in America? Not great? Reminder, tentative reminder: Kidnapping them on foreign soil to bring them to American justice would probably violate someone’s law. So, why bother; why indict them? What was the purpose? What was the purpose, a couple of days before President Trump was to meet Mr Putin publicly? Was the purpose other than satisfying justice? Was the purpose to cover up and distract from something more important? Did it have to do with Mrs William Clinton?

Mr Putin offered – short of extraditing the twelve – several compromise solutions so that Mr Mueller could interrogate the Russian intelligence officers named. Will Mr Mueller accept any of those offers? Why not? Give a good reason why he should not.

Reminder: Extradition treaties between countries are always reciprocal: I send you the people you charge; you send me the people I charge. There are really good reasons the US should not want to have such a treaty with Russia.

Does Mueller really want to interrogate the Russian intelligence officers he charged, really? Does he want the truth? (Isn’t it already known?)

How was Mr Trump supposed to respond to such a brutal and vicious attack on his honesty, proffered by Mr Mueller while he was going to be on foreign soil? Was he supposed to lower his eyes, smile sweetly and keep mute? I would not have! He should not have! Should he not have allowed doubt about our intelligence agencies pass his lips, after what the FBI, for example, did? Is he crazy; is he stupid?

Putin is a brutal dictator, a meddler, and probably a murderer. With its nuclear arsenal, his country is the only one really capable of hurting us irreversibly. Good reason to talk to him. We don’t have to be friends but some formal courtesy is required.

The collective reactions of the American political class to the Helsinki meeting tells me that it has lost touch with elementary reality. It’s folly; it’s in a state of collective hysteria. I remember being there before. That was in the eighties.

Warning: If you are sensitive, please, don’t read the next sentences.

In the 80s, the media were awash with denunciations of brutal sex abuse of small children by Satanic cults. People were charged, convicted and sentenced on the testimony of four-year-old coached by eager, man-hating social workers. I remember well, especially, a story in The Atlantic. A father of two confessed to nailing his small daughters to the floor of his living room so his buddies could rape them. The next day, the girls would go to school as usual. No problem! I believe no apologies were ever issued. The justice system was very reluctant to let go of the imprisoned.

A senior Wall Street Journal journalist, Dorothy Rabinowitz, had a solitary struggle of several years to get the wrongs righted.

Wake up, America; get a grip! Those are wooden nickels you are taking!

A Confession: I Voted for Trump

A younger friend of mine, an immigrant like me, keeps having trouble understanding why I voted for President Trump, toward whom she drips with hatred. She produces so much hatred of the president you might think she knows him personally. He might even be an ex-husband of hers. This is a little hard for me to understand. Here is my honest reconstruction of how I came to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. May it be useful to her and, if not, to others.

During the 2016 campaign, I was mostly sad and resigned. It looked like the Dems had the wind in their sails. The Republican contest between 16 viable candidates had ended in the victory of the least viable of them, Donald Trump. For the record, my candidate was Marco Rubio, who dropped off early.

Donald Trump was loud and ignorant, and loudly ignorant. His statements about international trade were those of a lazy undergraduate who has barely skimmed the relevant chapter, and got it all wrong. His project for a southern wall struck me as the wrong solution to the wrong problem at the wrong time. Illegal immigration through the Mexican border has been dropping for years. A good wall might even end up trapping more illegal Mexicans wanting to go home than keep illegals out. Besides, no wall would stop visitors from entering legally and then overstaying their visa. Finally, I don’t even think illegal immigration is a pressing problem although it must be stopped for reasons of sovereignty. Mr Trump wanted less immigration of all kinds; I think this country needs more immigration but better regulated.

There is no doubt, (there was none then) that Mr Trump has impossibly bad manners (although that makes part of me smile). I think he has a personality disorder (as I have) which causes him to speak out of turn, to think only after he opens his mouth, and to open his mouth even when his brain tells him he shouldn’t. He gives the cultural elite heartburn. I am not sure how I feel about this though because I know the cultural elite well since I spent thirty years in academia. They are mostly a bunch of half-literate pretenders who richly deserve the occasional heartburn.

At any rate, it wasn’t obvious I would vote for Mr Trump; I kept looking over the fence. I did this in spite of the fact that the Dems keep enlarging government against civil society, the reverse of what I want to see. I did it in spite of the Democratic Party’s promotion of identity politics which are bad for America, I believe, and bad even for the Democratic Party. (As I write, even African Americans are deserting the party.)

There, on the Dem side, for a while, it looked like Sen. Sanders had a fighting chance. I don’t like socialism – whatever that means – but here was an honest man with a clear record. Sanders is my age. I feel as if we had gone to college together. He has not changed since 1968. Everything about him feels familiar, even his college president wife with the short hair. I thought that if elected, he would only attempt modest reforms that would easily be frozen out by a Republican Congress. The result would be a kind of federal immobility, not the worst scenario, in my book. If Mr Sanders had become the Dem candidate, I would at least have had a serious talk with myself about voting for him. That’s at least.

Mr Sanders was eliminated from the Dem race in a way that revived all my aversion for the Democratic Party as an organization. The thoroughly dishonest manner of his removal would have been enough to ensure that I would not vote for the actual Dem candidate, pretty much whoever that candidate was. The fact that Sanders protested but feebly the gross cheating against him makes cold sweat run down my back because of what it implies about the Dem culture.

The actual candidate was not just anyone (“whoever”). Mrs Clinton was a caricature of the bad candidate. She was a feminist previously elected on her husband’s coattails, and a career politician with no political achievements of her own. Her main contribution as Secretary of State was to get the US militarily involved in the events in Libya. (I was in favor of such involvement myself at the beginning, I must confess.) She ran for president with no economic program – which normally implies the continuation of the predecessor’s program. But Mr Obama’s economics were very bad; what was not bad could be credited to the independent Fed. I did not want more of this. Then, there was the personal issue. It’s a little difficult to explain but I developed the idea in my mind that even her supporters did not like her. So, how could I?

Mrs Clinton’s campaign was naturally an embodiment of the Dem Party’s silly identity politics which I think are bad for American democracy in ways I won’t develop here: “Vote for me,” she said, “because I am a woman.” So, what? So are 52% of the adult American population; many of those are brilliant. Mrs Clinton is not brilliant, not even close. By contrast, take Prof. Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State, for example. (Plus, she is black; you get a two for one; plus, she is probably a closeted lesbian too, that’s a three for one!)

Donald Trump throughout his campaign was attacked for being a racist. I saw and heard many imprudent statements, some rude statements, and many goofy declarations but I did not notice racist statements. That’s if “racist” means attributing to a whole class of people negative moral qualities or objectionable behaviors based solely on their race (whatever race is, another story). My common sense also says you can’t live as a prominent New Yorker in various guises for a whole adult lifetime and not be called out for racism if you act like a racist. It’s jut a little late to do it when the man is seventy. It’s ridiculous, in fact. Or, perhaps, I have just stopped paying attention to charges of racism coming from the left. Leftists intemperate verbal habits may have trivialized racism the way they trivialized so many serious social problems, including sexual violence.

There was no doubt in my mind though that Donald Trump would be dangerous as president because he is unpredictable, does not readily listen to advice, and does not understand well how our institutions work. So, I was never enthusiastic about voting for him. I even took a detour through the Libertarian campaign. It was based on the assumption that any Dem, including Clinton, would carry California, where I vote, and that I could therefore afford the luxury of a symbolic ballot. However, after a short time, I became convinced that the Libertarian candidate was not even libertarian. So, end of story here.

During the period preceding the campaign, when Clinton was Secretary of State, and during the campaign itself, I paid increasing attention to the goings-on around the Clinton Foundation, including the pattern of donations. I came out convinced that Mrs Clinton’s eagerness to sell the Republic and her disregard for the law (30,000-plus lost emails) made her a political gangster of the same ilk and magnitude as Vladimir Putin.

So, you might say that I voted for Donald Trump because I thought he was unpredictable. Clinton, by contrast, was horribly predictable. It’s fair to add that I did not think my vote would carry the day. Like just about everyone else, I thought my side had lost until about 7 pm, Pacific Time on election day.

One year and a half later, I feel no buyer’s remorse; instead, I am pleasantly surprised. Pres. Trump has not really done any of the things I feared – such as dismantle the modern world system of fairly free world trade; he has not built a wall. When he does, I think it will be a small elegant one with viewing balconies over Mexico. Mexican tourists will gladly pay for the privilege of going up its exterior elevator. There will be a lounge and bar with overpriced drinks on the last floor.

Pres. Trump has done a couple of the things I wanted him to do, beginning with the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court Justice. He also instigated and carried out a major tax reform which will fuel good economic growth for years to come. (I am dissatisfied with the current rate. I think anything under 3.5% is not good enough. But, it’s a start.) The tax cut may even make up for the disastrous spending bill which he signed reluctantly but did sign.

Pres. Trump has also done the deliciously unexpected. I am not holding my breath (writing on 5/9/18 ) but I am amazed and delighted he has gone so far on the road to the denuclearization of North Korea. The fact that the thaw is largely a product of his bullying the North Korean bully makes this even sweeter.

After more than a year of unlimited investigation with limitless resources, the only Russian collusion in sight is that of the Clinton campaign buying from a shady international operative grotesque stories about Trump in Russia. The only shadow on this bright picture is that I am not completely sure that Mr Trump did not have sex with a porn queen several years before running for office. The horror!