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.


Clarissa said...

I wonder why I never read this great essay.

Conservatism goes against human nature because everything both inside and outside of us changes is in a state of constant flux. Every cell in our body renews itself on a regular basis. Time flows. Blood courses in our veins. For beings who are as aware of time as humans are, ideological immanence is a perversion.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, there has to be a reason why the most conservative politicians in this country all look so constipated. :-) :-)

Christopher Smith said...

Scientists in several fields have observed that most people tend to exhibit a "status quo bias". One component of status quo bias is the "endowment effect": people value things they already own much more than things they might be able to acquire. Another, related component is loss aversion: people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. So, I try to be understanding toward conservatives, since they are just behaving according to our natural psychological programming.

But I also try to remind conservatives of another finding, which is that the rich and famous tend to be those who act as economic maximizers rather than loss-avoiders. Loss-avoidance may be understandable behavior, but it is far from optimal behavior from an economic and political point of view. We would all do well to get over our innate conservatism and start thinking like a Buffet or a Trump.

Vox Populi said...

Conservatives can have big shiny new ideas, developed in service to conservative-ish philosophy. I don't think there's anything necessarily retrograde or primitive about wanting a libertarian state, for example. I'm not sure why it is inevitable that the welfare state, for example, get bigger and bigger. If conservatives could find a way to come up with actual ideas to dismantle said state in a way that anyone who hears about this idea would not think the person was advocating the destruction of the world, that would be pretty radical.

Now, obviously, I don't think that will be successful, because most people do not actually want the dismantlement of the welfare state. But that is not so much an argument that the idea does not exist as it is that the idea is incredibly unpopular..