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.

Order, Order, Order

In the conventional wisdom, as you become older, you tend to like order more and more. That is, with age, one is supposed to become more “conservative” in the traditional sense of the term. Personally, I have escaped the curse. Instead, I find myself resenting more and more the growing imposition of petty rules by public entities.

It began a few years back when the city of Santa Cruz banned sleeping. OK, let’s be honest, you may still sleep legally in your bed. The city made it illegal to sleep in public. It’s true that the homeless are a plague here. Many are in a near-constant state of NDUI (not driving under the influence). Many are poor lost souls who are a danger to themselves and occasionally to others. Thus, three or four years ago, a local shopkeeper walking to work was knifed to death in broad daylight. Her killer had spent the previous 48 hours in a shelter muttering about and to his Bible. No one reported him,of course because he had not done anything illegal until then. Next!

The ban on sleeping made me acutely uncomfortable at the time. First, it was plainly inhumane. Second, if you prevent human being from doing what their human nature demands, they will find another way to do it. So, informal camps proliferate in the wooded areas juxtaposing the town. Here, in Central California, we are in a period of prolonged drought. Do we need unattended campfires and campfires attended by people who don’t play with a full deck?

A petty use of power, municipal power, applied in a search for orderliness led to greater and far more dangerous disorder.

I don’t even know if there are enough night shelters for everyone who wants one. I know that there will always be sane but houseless people who don’t want to be in a shelter, by choice. A sizable part of me respects their choice. You may not force people in places where they don’t want to be without due process. The Constitution is completely clear on this. And, I am not in favor of more shelters anyway because I believe they attract the economically feeble to Santa Cruz thus aggravating the problem.

You don’t have to be a “soft” to want the Constitution respected.

Now, since then, there as been a multiplication of city rules. This happens while the crime rate plunges. The fewer crimes the more rules. The crime rate is tanking all over the country; Santa Cruz city rules can hardly take the credit. What am I to think?

Here is a quiz: The Santa Cruz City Council is dominated by:

a Republicans;

b Democrats;

c Leftists to the left of the Democratic Party

Not far is the independent harbor. I used to admire the Santa Cruz (Small Yacht) Harbor. It was the only government and quasi-government organization I knew that stayed clear of reliance on taxes. Harbor users -in their many guises- supported the maintenance of the harbor. They included boat slip renters like me, of course, but also beach goers whose coffee paid for the rent the coffee shop paid to the harbor in return for an excellent commercial location. Harbor users also included patrons of the good restaurant that dominates the harbor entrance with its million dollar view. The restaurant goers gladly paid solid parking fees, of course, and a portion is remitted to the harbor.

I also liked the way the harbor administration put to work underused resources such as the large general parking lot reserved for boat owners that tends to stand more than half empty after four pm. The harbor had an agreement with the self- same restaurant to hold musical barbecues once a summer week evening on the beach it, the harbor, administers. The restaurant got its profits from the sale of barbecued food and the harbor pocketed full parking fees from those not holding slip stickers. The arrangement drew crowds. It was all a little bit untidy but not much. Twice, on such a barbecue evening, I leaned spontaneously out of my truck to congratulate the officer directing parking and to assure him, unsolicited, that this particular slip owner, me, was not (NOT) inconvenienced at all.

And then, someone retired and there was a new sheriff in town. Under the new harbormaster, several things that were allowed became forbidden overnight. The harbor hired a full-time parking enforcer, like the town next door. Suddenly, the one harbor employee the average harbor user interacted with was the parking enforcement officer. This necessarily hostile and heartless functionary supplanted the traditional harbor officers who save boats, and sometimes lives, every weekend. The mood changed and not for the better. I am not speaking for bitterness about parking fines here; with my slip rental goes a permanent parking sticker permit.

Maintaining a stricter order often requires stricter rules that make most people unhappy. Eve if it’s only a little bit unhappy, the bad feeling accumulates.

Then, stand-up surfboards had to be segregated from boats. Boats are limited to 5 m/h inside the harbor anyway. Some boats under sail inside the harbor regularly exceed the speed limit. Those are steered by aces. How bad can a collision be under these conditions, really? Has there been a single collision involving a standup board? Did a boat owner complain about stand-up boards being in the way? Maybe. Did ten complain? I doubt it. (I have not asked; I don’t trust I would get a valid answer I could cite.) My point is that one can always find a complainer or two. If you handed out free ice cream to poor children and cleaned carefully afterward, there would be some curmudgeons to object. I am sure there are boat-owning slip renters who complain even about the ocean swells. But everyone knows that good harbors are bustling with activity. Those who detest the corresponding moderate disorderliness have no business in a harbor at all. They should be reminded of the fact that there is a long waiting list for their slips instead of listened to.

The art of civilized administration requires that complaints be ignored up to a point. It also includes remembering the second most important American maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it until it is.”

Then, there are the new signs that shout at you that fishing from docks is “prohibited.” For as long as I remember, 20 year-plus, children fished from the docks. It was an excellent, healthy, commendable form of leisure for kids, including poor kids, if you ask me. Were there ever any accident as a result, even one? I don’t think so. The signs affirm further and vengefully that the prohibition is: “strictly enforced.” No joking with serious matters here! We are not kidding. Don’t even think of enjoying yourselves!

The posted “minimum” fine is $174. Think about it: Your otherwise well-behaved 12-year old gives you the slip to try to catch a sardine or two. He gets caught. You are into it for about twenty hours of minimum wage. This comes close to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, I think. There may also be here a subtle breach of contract involved here. When I first rented a slip in the harbor, fishing from the docks was common practice. The locked dock that was part of the rental gave me special access to a pleasant fishing spot. Then, after twenty years, the contract becomes unilaterally modified to my detriment. The harbor did not bother to re-negotiate the contract.

I agree that this is a very small kind of tyranny but it’s tyranny all the same. The habit of being oppressed nearly always begins small in democratic countries. Our tiny liberties are eroded slowly until we don’t even remember we ever had them.

In the same period, I have heard the crew of one of the few remaining commercial fishing boats left in the harbor complain that they are made to feel unwelcome. I have no proof that their allegation is correct but, I wonder, why would they make it up? It jibes with the other forms of turning of the screw I mention. There is no doubt that the harbor would be neater without fishing boats. Fish smells and the rushed commercial fishermen drop the occasional dead fish into the harbor water. And, well, it’s a yacht harbor, after all. And, by the way, if slips only went to middle-aged nuns who work as librarians, the harbor would be even neater.

Occasionally, I take my grand-daughter to buy live crabs directly from a boat. It’s an expedition for her. It’s unforgettable. It shows her that some food does not come from the supermarket. But who am I to lay claim to such privilege? And who the hell are the commercial fishermen to insist on making a living from a harbor originally created by the Army Corps of Engineers with tax money?

On 2/3/14, coming out of a restaurant, my family and I were treated to a wonderful geyser-like spout of water reaching much higher than a three storied building. No, it was not a whale; the scene was a couple of miles inland, on a busy commercial artery, at a street intersection. We watched in utter fascination for more than fifteen minutes. (I posted a still picture of the event on my Facebook. Look for it.) I am obviously no expert, but I believe that while I looked on several hundreds of thousands of toilet flush- equivalents of city water were lost forever. I know, I know, accidents happen; no system is perfect. But why did it take so long to cap the leak? There is a fire station five or six blocks away.

I almost forgot to tell you: At the very same time, the same evening, there was an important meeting of the Santa Cruz Water Commission to make recommendations about water rationing to the City Council in view of the current drought.

Would I make this up? Would I dare? Do I have the talent?

In my immediate surroundings, the only rule or law I have seen abolished in the past twenty years or so concerns dogs. They used to be prohibited on the main commercial drag of Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue. The prohibition has been rescinded. Dog owners are numerous and determined. Their victory renews my faith a little in democracy. I wish I could cite more examples though.

Sometimes, the ugly thought crosses my mind that public entities are increasingly run for the benefit of their nominal employees. Karl Marx was almost right about classes, maybe . (See, on this topic: “Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much)“)

More on local government action: “Coyotes: How Government Bureaucrats Think