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.

“Does Russia own a piece of the US?”

That’s the title of my latest piece over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

The Russian-American Company was run through Saint Petersburg and thus had a strict racial hierarchical code in place, in conformity with the latest beliefs about race at the time. The neighborhoods of Fort Ross were segregated, but an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Kent Lightfoot, has produced excellent research at Fort Ross, showing how the Company’s racist charter was unofficially ignored, with miscegenation widespread (“creoles” was even created as an official race for documentation purposes) and interethnic activities commonplace. The people inhabiting Fort Ross preferred to follow instead something the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle calls “mestizo logics.”

Please, show me some love.

Kent Lightfoot can be found at NOL here. Jean-Loup Amselle can be found at NOL here. I also give a shoutout to Andrei Znamenski‘s work in the piece, so be on the lookout for that.

I didn’t get to delve as much into this piece as I’d have liked to. I wanted to get more into the inner workings of the Russian-American Company and compare it to the Dutch East India Company, but that sounds like a tall task even for a PhD dissertation.

I don’t think I did a good enough job of highlighting just how rich Pacific Rim trade was in the early 19th century. I tried in vain to sneak a reference to Hawaiian laborers that could be found throughout the Pacific world at the time of Fort Ross’ founding, but I’ve got a 600 word limit.

Also, I wanted to highlight the fact that Native Americans weren’t losers in the opening up of the Pacific to the world. They were active participants in the globalization of the Pacific Rim trade. They were powerful. I don’t know if I’d focus on California Indians to highlight Native American actors. I’d probably focus on an area a little further north, in the Puget Sound-Vancouver area.

At any rate, hope you enjoy the piece!


Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

I had my first revolutionary encounter at another Cub Scout camp near a different lake. We were organized in squads of six, as I said, each with its appointed leader. One day, my squad leader gave me an order I did not like. Or maybe, I just did not like his tone. I said “No.” He insisted. Our voices rose. His authority contested publicly, he shoved me lightly. I shoved back and I called him out formally. We repaired out of sight to the lakeside. It was not the Clash of the Titans because I must have been nine and he, eleven. The leader must have lacked faith in his own charisma, or else, I got lucky because I gave him a bloody nose. This stopped the fight in accordance with the ancient dueling rule of “first blood drawn.” He washed off the blood in the lake. We walked back to our tent separately. It was sunset; everyone went to bed. Nothing more was said.

I remember the fight clearly and I remember well that the squad leader was the furthest thing from a bully. He was not a bad guy and I did not even dislike him. I just did not like hierarchies. I was a natural anarchist in the true, etymological sense of the term: I did not want to have a chief, or a leader, or whatever you call them these days. This trait never changed. I am just the same as I was at nine in this respect. I have never had any desire to exercise power over others either. Most exercises of power repel me viscerally. I suspect many or most are unnecessary. Moreover, I now think coercion is the worst way to obtain the orderliness that is necessary to a good society. I am pretty sure coercion causes more disorder overall than it eliminates or avoids. Its costs are usually too high.

“Growing up” did not help me in that department either. I never “learned through experience;” life did not “beat it into me.” In this respect, as in many others, I keep marveling at the constancy of individual characters from childhood, perhaps from infancy. I don’t know why there isn’t more mention of this constancy except that it contradicts the namby-pamby liberal faith in environmental determinism. If you believe religiously that societal influences – such as poverty, emotional abuse, being deprived of cookies, being fed the cookies of the wrong color – decide what the adult’s character will be, it’s hard to notice that much of the character was already in the child, or even in the toddler. It’s difficult to even imagine that it was possibly already in the zygote. This possibility was an academic taboo subject for the best part of forty years. Hardly anyone felt free to study it.

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?

Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.

In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.

But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.

People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.

If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.

When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.

The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.

The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.

We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.

Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.

The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.

The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”