I’ve spent several blog posts summarizing the argument Yoram Hazony makes in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery. So, what to make of Hazony’s case? 

To begin with, do Hazony’s definitions of conservative and liberal make sense? One might say this is a moot question – Hazony is free to stipulate what he means by “conservative” and “liberal” and make his case according to those definitions. And in a sense I agree – as Hazony correctly notes, many people have used the term “conservative” to refer to many different worldviews, and for Hazony to make his case for conservatism effectively it is necessary to make clear exactly what he means when he speaks of conservatism. That said, his definitions are not without issue. 

One issue is that it makes for some odd classifications. For example, if asked to put together a list of the most influential conservative thinkers in academia, one name that is almost guaranteed to be on anyone’s list is the Princeton professor  Robert P. George. Yet Robert George argues for religious freedom on the grounds that religious freedom is a universal human right, and the existence of this right is knowable by consulting reason – the kind of rationalist argument Hazony says is characteristic of liberal thought. So, by Hazony’s reckoning, we would have to classify Robert George as a liberal, not a conservative.

If your definition of conservatism commits you to saying “Robert George isn’t a real conservative” you should expect a few people to raise their eyebrows in response. Perhaps that is a bullet Hazony is willing to bite – he briefly acknowledges this concern by noting “there are many writers who believe that conservatism should be based on something like Catholic natural law teaching, itself a form of philosophical rationalism.” But he also acknowledges this is a question he will leave unexplored, as “the book is already long enough, and an adequate treatment of this question would have taken me too far afield.” Fair enough – no matter how much we say on a topic, there is always more that could be said. But acknowledging that there are forms of rationalist thought like Catholic natural law theory (or secular natural law theory, for that matter) that also lead to conservatism undermines Hazony’s usual framing of secular/rationalist/liberal vs religious/empiricist/conservative.  

There are numerous other examples of thinkers who don’t fit Hazony’s classification. It’s not as though all liberal thinkers accept every liberal premise Hazony articulates, nor does every conservative thinker accept all of Hazony’s conservative premises. One example that jumps to mind is the economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek. Hazony does acknowledge that Hayek confounds his classification in a way, because Hayek’s work contained “the most sophisticated defense of inherited tradition to appear during the twentieth century. He added significantly to the theory of tradition and custom, in the process making the Enlightenment liberal rejection of inherited tradition look amateurish and ill-considered.” Nonetheless, Hazony says, Hayek is a liberal, not a conservative, because Hayek was excessively concerned with the liberty of the individual, declaring individual liberty to be the supreme principle. 

For Hayek to be a proper empiricist, Hazony says, “the status of the principle of individual liberty would have to be that of an empirically derived moral rule – which would have to be balanced out against similarly derived moral rules such as peace, justice, stability and permanence, national independence, and national cohesion, in an ongoing process of adjustment in light of experience.” Instead, Hazony says, “the freedom of the individual is not, for Hayek, an empirically derived moral rule which must be balanced against other such principles in seeking to steer the ship of state” but rather “appears to be a dogma or axiom that Hayek imports from Enlightenment rationalism.” 

As it happens, Hazony is simply mistaken in his characterization of Hayek. A closer reading of Hayek’s work reveals that Hayek does not argue that “individual liberty is the supreme principle” as Hazony claims, but rather that a stable and enduring political system requires that we act as if individual liberty is a supreme principle, which cannot be traded off for the benefit of other concerns. And Hayek does, in fact, ground this argument based on what he believes experience shows, arguing in the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty that, as a matter of experience, when “the choice between freedom and coercion is thus treated as a matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance”, and thus “freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages”[emphasis added], because the “progressive discarding of principles and the increasing determination during the last hundred years to proceed pragmatically” has shown destructive results.

Treating individual liberty as something to be traded off for the sake of other socially desirable goals is “something most of the Western world has indeed been doing for the past two or three generations, and which is responsible for the conditions of present politics”, and experience shows this “view which has now dominated politics for so long has hardly produced the results which its advocates desired. Instead of having achieved greater mastery over our fate we find ourselves in fact more frequently committed to a path which we have not deliberately chosen, and faced with ‘inevitable necessities’ of further action which, though never intended, are the result of what we have done.” 

So Hayek doesn’t argue as an axiom that “individual liberty is the supreme principle.” Hayek argues that we should act as if individual liberty is the supreme principle, because experience and history show that this approach works better than the alternative. Hazony is free to disagree with Hayek about whether or not this is really what experience shows – but he’s wrong to say Hayek treated the priority of individual liberty as an axiomatic premise. Hayek’s argument is firmly rooted in experience. 

Hazony has also shown a strange tendentiousness in how he interprets the importance of liberty among other thinkers. For example, when discussing his book in an interview with Michael Shermer on Shermer’s podcast, Hazony again reiterates the need to keep individual liberty in its proper scope. Repeating his point from the book that liberty is just one goal among many listed in the preamble to the Constitution, Hazony calls out that there are “seven different purposes of government” listed in the preamble, and that “the very first one is to form a more perfect union” while “only the last one is the blessings of Liberty.” He seems to be implying that coming last on the list says something about its relative importance – but why think that? I could just as easily (and just as arbitrarily) suggest that it being the last item mentioned signified that it was the most important of the values, because it shows liberty is the one to which all the others have been building up. He also points out in his book that these seven goals are very similar to a list laid out by Edmund Burke, thus connecting American conservatism to English conservatism. But liberty is placed much higher on Burke’s list – and there, Hazony feels no need to make a point about the ordering.

In the next post, I’ll focus on some of what Hazony says about philosophy and economics.