Sunstein on Hayek
By Alberto Mingardi
Anticipating the Republicans’ victory in the U.S. mid-term elections, on Monday Cass Sunstein wrote a passionate plea to the new Republican majority. His appeal can so be summarized: be libertarian, not conservative. For bloggers and readers at Econlog, he is bringing vases to Samos.
Sunstein is a very shrewd writer, and he is using Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” a postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, to make his argument appealing. He persuasively writes:
Hayek had some admiring words for conservatives: He endorsed their skepticism about rapid change and about social engineering. He drew attention to “their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions,” and in particular their emphasis on how law, language and morals often grow up spontaneously, through the decisions of countless people rather through the actions of any social designer.
But most of Hayek’s assessment was scathing. Too often, he argued, conservatives foolishly object to novelty as such, because they “lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavor will emerge.” And he complained that they are far too fond of established authority. “The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it used for what he regards as the right purposes.”
Most damagingly, Hayek said, the conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from their own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” Sounding a lot like those who argue for the right to same-sex marriage, Hayek complained that conservatives insist that government should enlist their own moral convictions as a basis for law.
The whole piece is well written and persuasive.
Sunstein rightly maintains that “Republicans will be under increasing pressure to define themselves affirmatively rather than by opposition. One of their chief goals should be to identify freedom-promoting initiatives that might attract support from people who cannot, by temperament or otherwise, be counted as conservative.” The last sentence is both interesting and revealing of Sunstein’s goals.
It seems to me that he sees libertarians as being more aligned, culturally speaking, with American liberals than conservatives. This might be true, though I think it is a half-truth: libertarians and liberals may agree on matters that do not explain their own voting behaviour. As a libertarian, I may be in favour of legalised gay marriage but this doesn’t mean that I vote on that issue. I may prefer a candidate that believes in intelligent design, who nonetheless wants to balance the budget, over one that shares my views on social issues but wants to stimulate the economy by pumping taxpayers’ money into new “innovative” green energy ventures. Of course, political identities are far more complex than this simplistic sketch. I suppose that, on practical grounds, a good politician is more aware of how different intuitions and beliefs are mixing in his constituency than most theorists are.
The idea of “freedom-promoting initiatives that might attract support from people” from the left, thus, is kind of too good to be true. To get there, you would need a consistent group of legislators who think that such freedom-promoting would help them in building consensus. But will be more innovation, cheaper prices, better services, something that convince people to do something as dramatic as switching parties? I hope so, I fear not.
If not, it would be more effective to suggest to Republicans that they should embrace market-oriented reforms not to win votes on the other side, but to consolidate their own consensus: to make their own people happy. In writing such an article, however, you should at first respect Republican voters and consider their views, right or wrong, legitimate. It seems to me that Sunstein is basically suggesting to new Republican Congressmen and Senators to do something good, so that even more decent people could come to like them. Again, if it was a compelling argument for more “freedom-promoting initiatives” it would be great–but I fear it is not.
On Hayek, I think Sunstein is reading him fairly. But what the readers of Sunstein’s column are missing, is the fact that those very problems Hayek resented in conservatives in that essay, you can find in social-democrats. Aren’t modern liberals likewise committed to enlisting “their own moral convictions as a basis for law”? Aren’t they as unwelcoming to “undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavor will emerge,” i.e. technological innovation that often makes regulations obsolete?