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

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.

The promise and peril of blockchain distributed governance


I was very fortunate to learn that my essay ‘Markets for rules‘ has won the Mont Pelerin Society’s 2018 Hayek essay competition for young scholars (one of the perks of academia is being defined as young well until your 30s). I am now looking forward to presenting at MPS’s famous conference, originally organised by F.A. Hayek to build the post-war intellectual case for liberalism.

The essay is an attempt to explain the governance possibilities of blockchain technology through the lens of new institutional economics and more specifically private governance. Blockchains allow people to develop rules that can then enforced autonomously by the participants that use them without further central direction. This could allow communities to rely more on common rules and less on formal coercive authorities to achieve widespread social cooperation. I am cautiously optimistic about the technology (it could also turn into a dystopian nightmare) though not any particular currently existing blockchain.

Here is the abstract: Classical liberals seek the paradoxical: government powerful enough to protect individuals from preying off each other, but limited enough to prevent it becoming a fierce predator itself. The emergence of blockchain technology heralds a potential revolution in our collective capacity to implement limited government. Blockchains offer a more secure and transparent way of implementing rules while permitting individual choice between rulesets that can co-exist at the same time and place. What this could ultimately mean is that a great deal of what we have traditionally conceived to be governance might be disintermediated from the territorially defined monopolistic coercive authorities that classically define states.

What is the proper role of government?

Former Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff publicly lied by saying that she had a M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economics. The lie was discovered in 2009, when she still wasn’t Brazil’s president. Maybe that’s the problem with Dilma: she would even lie to say she was highly competent in economics.

Nobody in the 19th century believed that the role of government was to control the economy. This notion only became strong in the 20th century and to a great degree thanks to Keynesianism. It was Keynes who popularized the notion that the free market is inherently unstable, and that government should exercise some oversight on it.

Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian presidential candidate ahead in the opinion polls, has no problem admitting he doesn’t know enough about economics. For me, this is one of his main strengths. In the past, Bolsonaro was more statist. Today he shows signs of becoming more inclined towards free markets. He is clearly willing to delegate the economic policy of his government to people who are strongly favorable to the free market. In other words, Bolsonaro doesn’t know a lot about economics and he is not ashamed of admitting it. But he knows that too much government control ruins a country’s economy.

Dilma is arrogant. Part of her arrogance is to believe that she would be able to control the economy politically. Bolsonaro seems to be humble enough to admit that’s impossible. Keynes believed that the economy is inherently unstable. Contradictorily he advised governments to try to control it. Hayek’s answer to Keynes was that economics is not a science you can master in college. There are simply way too many variables for any human to control.

Bolsonaro’s focus is on public security. Criminality is on the rise in Brazil. People are afraid of walking on the streets, especially in big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. That should be the role of government: to guarantee we can go out for work, come back, and not get killed or robbed on the way. If the government is doing that, it is already doing a lot. People freely and willingly interacting with one another can do the rest. Guarantee that evildoers will be punished, and watch the economy fly. And before I forget: contrary to cultural Marxism (and Rousseau), criminals are not victims of the society. Society is the victim of criminals.

Cities in capitalism are more beautiful

The other day I wrote about some of the reasons why I love capitalism. One of them is that cities in capitalism are more beautiful. I am convinced of this when I think about some cities I am more familiar with, including their geography and history.

Most foreigners I know have difficulty to answering correctly, when asked, “What is Brazil’s national capital?”. Most people answer Rio de Janeiro, but it is actually Brasilia. Many people say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but I am very inclined to say that this is not so. I am still not 100% sure about this, but I believe that there is something objective about beauty. Maybe it is not something so strict, like a point. Maybe it is something broader, like an area. But still, I am inclined to say that there is something objective about it. At least for me, Brasilia is one of the ugliest cities conceivable. I am really glad to say that. Its architecture was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Growing up in Brazil, questioning that Niemeyer was a genius is almost anathema, almost like saying that Maradona was better than Pelé or that Ayrton Senna was not the best Formula One pilot ever. Because of that, I was always happy to say that Niemeyer’s buildings are among the ugliest things on the surface of this planet. It was like shouting that the king is naked.

Brasilia is very beautiful from the sky. Its shape resembles an airplane or a cross. But that is the problem: the city is beautiful from heaven, but not for the people walking in it. It was made for God to see from up there. But, as Niemeyer was a convinced atheist, I am not sure who is watching his creation. My guess is that Niemeyer thought that he was a god. A very mean god, who didn’t care about people having to spend lots of time in cars driving long distances.

Niemeyer was also related, with Lucio Costa, to Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where I spent lots of time growing up. Lucio Costa, as far as I’m concerned, was not a communist. I believe he was closely connected to the Brazilian version of positivism. Because positivism and communism are basically the same, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Barra da Tijuca is very similar to Brasilia: very beautiful if looked at from the sky, but very unpleasant for the pedestrian. Very long distances to walk. Cars are mandatory.

The most pleasant neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are the result of spontaneous order. As Hayek noticed, spontaneous order is one of the central features of capitalism. People usually contrasted between planned economies (such as the USSR) and unplanned economies (such as the US in some moment of its history). But Hayek observed that all economies are planned. Some are centrally planned. Others are planned by several individuals who are not following a specific central plan.

I am convinced that cities that follow no plan, or a very simple plan, are more beautiful than cities that follow a very specific central plan. New York, as far as I know, followed a simple plan, a grid. But other than that, there was a lot of freedom in the use of the space for much of its history. It’s a city that I just love. I am more comfortable talking about Rio de Janeiro. It is a city that was at its best before modern architecture, positivism, socialism, Developmentalism, and other isms. It was better when Brazil had a little more classical liberalism.