F.A. Hayek‘s essay ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative‘ is often misremembered as a defensive claim that says conservatives are invested in traditions while liberals want to move forward, and since Hayek considers himself a liberal, he does not want to be mistaken for a conservative. Because Hayek was an advocate of emergent orders who argued against remaking them wholesale, this argument would set him up to fail. But it’s not his argument.

‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as they’re used colloquially don’t fit Hayek’s definitions. As political identifiers, both are increasingly used as shorthand, along with “left wing” and “right wing”, for the two dominant political coalitions. As they’re used this way, they lose the substance of their original definitions. But these terms should be rescued—not because one is good and the other is bad, but because both are useful. Why I Am Not a Conservative isn’t mounting a defence against accusations of conservatism; it’s setting out definitions.

Liberalism isn’t defined in Hayek’s essay, but from his body of work we know that Hayekian liberalism is a social and institutional system that supports and protects the Great Society. Because Hayek worried that the word “liberal” had been poisoned by “overrationalistic, nationalistic, and socialistic influences”, (531 )* he tries on the label “Old Whig”. Since he refers to liberals and liberalism throughout the essay, using “Hayekian liberal” to talk about his views is less confusing. 

Hayekian liberals are politically agnostic about what sort of lives we ought to want, so they want few restrictions on the sort of lives we should be allowed to pursue. From this follows broad support for legal equality and for both civil and economic liberty. Hayekian liberalism emphasizes the rule of law, a set of rules that govern impersonally the otherwise open-ended change brought about by the actions of people who live under those rules. Also emphasized under Hayekian liberalism is the importance of the private property and market prices for making useful to each other the decentralized knowledge of the members of the Great Society and helping us to coordinate our plans. 

Unlike “liberalism”, Hayek’s conception of conservatism is laid out in the essay. Hayek wasn’t describing what political “conservatives” believed in 1960 or predicting what they’d believe now. If we were to point that out that he hadn’t accomplished either of those things, he might respond, “Of course not. That’s not why I wrote the essay. It has another purpose.” Conservatism, like liberalism, has real meaning, but it doesn’t imply a timeless set of concrete policy proposals. And that meaning rules out membership for Hayek. 

From the text:

“… conservatives have been guided by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes—with the result that they have shifted their position every time a more extreme movement appeared on either wing.

“The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends, therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies.” (520)

Hayek doesn’t think conservatism is a bad thing. He says that “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” (519) But conservatism’s alliance with the sort of liberalism Hayek advocated in opposition to socialism was coincidental, a result of “the direction of existing tendencies.” Again from the text:

“Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement.” (520)

Hayekian liberalism doesn’t depend on the existing state of politics, but always supports a political order meant to accommodate the open-ended change that comes from allowing people to pursue their own plans:

Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy.” (521, emphasis mine)

Don’t mistake this for Hayek claiming that conservatives merely want to stand still or go backwards, as is often claimed. He lays out a pretty clear (for Hayek) and robust definition:

“This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since [conservatism] distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks.” (522, emphasis mine)

Let’s unpack this, since Hayek presents it a bit backwards (as was his way, alas). He claims conservatives can be identified by:

  • their reliance on proof by experience rather than theory, and
  • their focus on specific outcomes as political goals

and because of this foundation, from a Hayekian liberal perspective conservatives tend to: 

  • be over-skeptical of economic theory and open-ended change, and 
  • be under-skeptical of authority and the use of government power. 

Hayek also makes an offhand comment about conservatism not possessing a basis for formulating principles. I’ll explain this last. First, look at how Hayek expands on his definition.

On proof by experience and a corresponding distrust of theory: 

“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 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.” (526, emphasis mine)

Conservatives’ respect for proven success explains why they try to replicate by purposeful design what were originally emergent processes when they believe those processes have shown they lead to desirable outcomes. Conservatives believe both that designing such a plan and having a vision to work toward is necessary and that change must be directed because they don’t trust change to be a positive force without oversight. There’s nothing overtly objectionable, insulting, or outdated and unrealistic about this description.

Returning to the text:

On requiring specific, outcome-based goals, rather than a framework of disinterested rules to govern change: 

“I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.” (526, emphasis mine)

On distrust of open-ended change: 

“But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.” (522)

On acceptance of authority: 

“In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others.” (524)

On the use of authority to direct change: 

“Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said 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 to be too much restricted by rigid rules.” (523, emphasis mine)

Hayek seems to unfairly claim that conservatives have no guiding principles on several occasions. But really, he’s just being persnickety with language. See here:

“When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.” (523–4, emphasis mine)

Conservatives can be pragmatic and choose to compromise, but it’s compatibility of ends, not a single, cosmopolitan political principle, that allows them to work with those who have different goals. When conservative goals are incompatible with Hayekian liberalism’s open-ended growth, we shouldn’t expect an alliance to hold. Conservatives can and do act consistently according to the principles of their individual or shared beliefs, but they are individual or shared, not political or general, and the people who hold them have specific ends in mind, not a principle meant to accommodate the myriad goals of as many people as possible.

To summarize and lay to rest the claim that Hayek oversimplifies the issue (and admits his own conservatism in the process):

“There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension…There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”” (522)

Defining ‘conservative’ this way breaks it free of the left/right distinction, just as Hayekian liberalism defies that distinction when it pursues a late 20th-century ‘right-wing’ goal like liberalizing trade and also a ‘left-wing’ goal like liberalizing drug policy.

Conservatism on the left tries to direct economic change by following a mid-20th century economic model that supported relatively high security and pay even for low-skilled workers. Conservatism on the right pursues social stability by trying to enshrine social institutions like the nuclear, heterosexual-parent family or to replicate western political success in the developing world with foreign intervention. This spectrum-straddling conservatism explains skepticism about global trade, the globalized food supply, GMOs, and modern medicine on both the left and right.

So it’s true. The language in the essay is not always contemporary—but Hayek wrote this essay because he knew the language would not remain contemporary! The essay is more relevant, not less, because terms like ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ have devolved to pejorative and because most modern use of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ refers to policies that self-identified liberals and conservatives like or dislike, rather than to more abstract political philosophies.

We should push back against vacuous and pejorative terms so we can stop talking past each other. We can use ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ to talk about ideas without talking about partisanship. If we can, we might be able to break down some of the hostility across those lines, identify the potential for issue-by-issue coalitions, and improve the quality of the public debate that forms the backbone of successful liberal democracy.