MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

TGIF: True Liberals Are Not Conservatives

Posted by M. C. on May 23, 2022

by Sheldon Richman

As he closed his essay Hayek confessed that since the word liberal had been corrupted, thanks to the French Revolution and other forces, by “overrationalis[m], nationalis[m]” and socialis[m],” it had ceased to a good label for his political outlook, which he shared with Tocqueville and Acton: “What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.” 

https://libertarianinstitute.org/articles/tgif-true-liberals-not-conservatives/

The relevance of F. A. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” the postscript to his important 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty, is demonstrated at once by the opening quote from Lord Acton:

At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition. [Emphasis added.]

Who among true liberal advocates of individual liberty and free social evolution — aka libertarians — would deny the truth of that observation?

Hayek had European conservatism in mind when he wrote his essay, and for years, American conservatives, who still had affection for true liberalism, hastened to point this out. As Hayek wrote:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.

Later in his essay, he elaborated that “in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.”

But he noted that “This already existing confusion [over labels] was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.” The confusion was compounded, Hayek wrote, when socialists began to call themselves liberals.

Many still suffer from this confusion today. But change has been afoot because the illiberals of the left and right increasingly want no part of true liberalism or the label — and in a way, that’s good. Those on the left who call themselves progressives or socialists don’t like the label liberal (or neo-liberal) because they associate it with the current permanent bipartisan prowar regime beholden to special corporate interests (so we liberals still have work to do), and virtually all conservatives eschew the label because they don’t want to be mistaken for libertarians. That’s also good.

So Hayek’s essay has new relevance for America. Would Hayek have been surprised? He would have distinguished national conservatism from neoconservatism because of the latter’s cosmopolitanism. But how could he embrace as bonafide allies people who view imperialist war as a way to create “national greatness” and social solidarity, as the neocons do? Hayek would have agreed with Abraham Bishop who said in 1800 that “a nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free; beneath national greatness sink individual greatness, honor, wealth and freedom.”

Let’s look at Hayek’s problem with conservatism. For him, the “decisive objection” is that “by its nature,” conservatism can do no more than slow down the change that progressives have initiated. That’s not good enough: “What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move.” He acknowledged that although the liberal’s differences with the “collectivist radical” are greater than his differences with the conservative, the latter “generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time.” Thus “the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.”

See the rest here

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