Hayek and Conservatives

F.A. Hayek is an unlikely conservative hero. After all, this is a man who titled one of his most famous essays “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” He self-identified as a liberal — in the original sense of the word, which more or less means what we would today call libertarian. Since liberalism took on an entirely different meaning during the 20th century, Hayek wrote that he would settle for being called an Old Whig. But he could not stand to be called a conservative.

For one, he believed that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not be too much restricted by rigid rules.”* Sounds an awful lot like the Bush years.

Sure, No Child Left Behind will radically grow federal involvement in education, which is properly a state and local issue. But we have good intentions! Sure, the PATRIOT Act could easily be abused. But it’s OK, because our guys are in charge! They’d never overstep their boundaries.

Conservatism, Hayek argued, is not a rigorous philosophy. It is “essentially opportunist and lacks principles.”**

That’s why I was surprised to see that the Heritage Foundation, a proudly conservative think tank, published an abridged edition of Hayek’s classic 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Heritage’s economic policies are reasonably free-market, at least when Democrats are in power. So it makes sense that they would be Hayek fans, even though they aren’t ideological soulmates. But I am wary that they are promoting him as a conservative thinker; he was not.

Still, popularization is one of the most important tasks a think tank can perform. It is also one of the most neglected. Kudos, then.

The heart of The Road to Serfdom is Hayek’s version of a slippery slope argument. It is an easy charge to level at the current administration, which could be another motivation for Heritage.

Hayek and Heritage would agree: government intervention tends not to get the results it seeks; intentions are not results. Frustrated economic planners believe the only solution is more intervention. When that fails, still more meddling ensues. And on, and on. Then one day the people wake up to find they have lost their freedom.

The lesson is to not give in to the urge to use the hammer of government to drive home the nails of social problems. There are better ways, and less destructive hammers with more precise aim.

That’s the popular understanding of The Road to Serfdom. But Hayek pointed out in 1973 that there is more nuance to his book:

What I meant to argue in The Road to Serfdom was certainly not that whenever we depart, however slightly, from what I regard as the principles of a free society, we shall ineluctably be driven to go the whole way to a totalitarian system.  It was rather what in more homely language is expressed when we say:  “If you do not mend your principles you will go to the devil.”

The Bush and Obama administrations have joined together to double the size of government in one short decade. Their spending and regulating has driven debt through the roof, slowed economic growth, and kept millions of jobs from being created.

Worse, this bipartisan binge of government activism is showing no signs of slowing down. Many people think we’re already well down the road to serfdom. It looks bleak. But it isn’t really. It is reversible; the road to serfdom is a two-way street. We can go back, so long as we remember the principles of a free society.

The trouble is that conservatives seem to forget the libertarian portions of their philosophy every time they win an election. That’s why I’m glad that Heritage is popularizing Hayek with an abridged, easy-to-read version of The Road to Serfdom. I just hope they don’t portray him as a symbol of an ideology he publicly rejected.

More people of all political stripes need to read Hayek and be exposed to his arguments. More people need to learn why government does harm, even when it tries to do good. More people need to learn how easy it is to go down the road to serfdom — and that our cars can go in reverse, too.

The more people realize this, the higher the odds that they will keep conservative politicians in check post-election. If the Bush-Obama disaster has taught us anything, it’s that the seduction of power makes even good men go to the devil.

I hope Heritage’s popularization of Hayek sends that important lesson far and wide — while acknowledging that he doesn’t fit into the progressive/conservative spectrum; Hayek was nothing if not an independent thinker.

*F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p.401.