Sunday, July 11, 2010
Friedrich A. Hayek on the Fundamental Weaknesses of Conservatism
I was just reading Friedrich A. Hayek's essay "Why I am not a Conservative." It is an exemplary statement of the travails of someone who, having rejected modern liberalism, finds he is unable to stand with conservatives. There are a number of passages I thought worth sharing with readers. As Hayek sees it, the fundamental weakness of conservatism is that it is an intellectual non option.
[Conservatism] by its very nature … cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. (The Constitution of Liberty pg. 398.)
The ideological bankruptcy of conservatism plays itself it in how it confronts new ideas.
Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose to them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality. (Pg. 404.)
Hayek specifically castigated conservatives for their lack of imagination concerning evolution:
I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called "mechanistic" explanations of the phenomena of life simply because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irreverent or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. (pg. 404-05.)
I find Hayek's call to take part in the intellectual discussion of the day particularly noteworthy. If you are not an active part of the discussion, offering serious alternatives, then you have no grounds to offer a word of criticism even to begin with.