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  • Writer's pictureJosh Lewis

Providential Progress – Part 1 (Why Hayek Wasn’t a Conservative)

The ever-eloquent Abraham Lincoln gives us one of the most succinct definitions for conservatism I’ve yet to encounter: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”

Similar expressions are replete throughout conservative writings. “Conservatism is the philosophy of attachment,” Sir Roger Scruton assures us, “We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay. But we know that they cannot last forever.” The conservative sentiment, then, is grounded in what we love and chastened by the reality that the things we love are often breakable and prone to decay. Therefore, the act of conserving entails preservation and protection.

The conservative sentiment is an honorable attitude whereby civilization itself is preserved. “The essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity,” writes Russell Kirk. The term social conservatism—often derided in the mainstream as an oldfangled adherence to intolerant and narrow religious convictions—is, in actuality, a broad, rich endeavor to preserve the grand and glorious spiritual, philosophical, and cultural traditions of the Western world. Indeed, much of the beauty, truth, and goodness you and I enjoy today are thanks to the thankless efforts of this conservative sentiment at work down through the ages as men and women worked tirelessly to salvage what they loved from a world of decay for posterity's sake.

Conserving the Wrong Things

But surely all this vaunted talk of the conservative sentiment and how necessary it is takes for granted the darker side of conservatism. For the same impulse that holds to the good can also be resistant to letting go of the bad. As (conservative) poet T. S. Eliot chided, “conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things.”

Conservatism has been attacked by both the Right and the Left for conserving these “wrong things”. From the Right comes the charge that conservatives are guilty of conserving the cultural and political gains of the Left or of offering no real alternative vision. And from the Left the complaint is that conservatives are simply standing in the way of progress. We’ll deal with some of the attacks against conservatism from the Left later in this series. For now, let’s turn to the Right.

Why Hayek Wasn’t a Conservative

Perhaps the best case against conservatism from the Right comes—somewhat ironically—from conservative icon F. A. Hayek in his aptly entitled essay Why I Am Not a Conservative. To take a brief digression, Hayek described himself as “an unrepentant Old Whig—with the stress on the ‘old’”. Modern debates on the merits of Whiggism are usually about as boring as—if you’ll forgive me—reading Hayek. Suffice it to say, Hayek could probably best be described, in modern parlance, as a classical liberal or even a libertarian (though some libertarians say he doesn’t go quite far enough to satisfy them).

[End of digression]

Hayek’s essay appears—again, somewhat ironically—on the pages of Frank Meyer’s What is Conservatism? And, speaking as a conservative, I find myself mostly in agreement with Hayek’s arguments. Hayek juxtaposes the conservative attitude with the classical, Lockean liberalism he wishes to defend and writes that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” To Hayek, the conservative’s efforts are not motived by love and gratitude, but fear of—how did Lincoln put it?—the new and untried. As such, conservatism does not develop the sort of nimbleness of ideas necessary to combat destructive political change in the long run:

“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…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.”

Classical liberalism, to Hayek, is built on principles that proactively defend liberty through a political structure that tolerates differing points of view. Conservatism, meanwhile, is ultimately powerless against Leftist ideological attacks because all it can do is oppose change, not offer some better alternative. Conservatism 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.”

To be fair, much of Hayek’s argument against conservatism rests on how he’s defining “conservatism”. He even offers what appears to be a concession that the American variety of conservatism doesn’t exactly fit his definition:

“Until the rise of socialism [conservatism’s] 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.”

Hayek’s assertion that conservatism lacks the sort of political principles necessary to work with those of different moral values in the same political order is, again, entirely dependent upon how one is defining “conservatism”. After all, the sort of political order where those with differing views can work together in relative peace—what we might broadly call liberalism—isn’t something classical liberals with Lockean arguments for natural rights and social contract theories have exclusive interest in preserving.

Conservatism—at least, American conservatism—is very interested in conserving this political order. “Is liberalism…a theoretical discovery to be put into effect or a practical achievement to be reinforced and perfected?” asks Yuval Levin, “These two possibilities suggest two rather different sorts of liberal politics: a politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal or a politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance. They suggest, in other words, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism.” Where Hayek wishes to juxtapose the liberal and the conservative, the American conservative believes the actual battlelines are drawn between the progressive and conservative’s views on how liberty is to be realized and preserved.

Is Conservatism a Break or Medicine?

While it is entirely fair to criticize conservatism on the grounds it’s naturally bent towards applying the breaks rather than offering a course correction, the strength of that criticism depends on our political frame of reference. If we depict political reality as a speeding car heading in some kind of “direction” this analogy may hold. But what if we substitute the mechanical analogy for an organic analogy? Scruton counters that criticizing conservatism as merely “an attempt to escape the second law of thermodynamics” doesn’t invalidate conservatism.

Scruton’s prefers to analogize conservatism to medicine. At best, medicine can only delay death and reduce suffering. But that doesn’t make medicine useless. “Conservatism is the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.” Organic political analogies are often superior to mechanical ones as politics is not theory applied to robots, but practicalities applied to human beings. Scruton’s analogy incorporates the natural elements of political life.

A classical liberal society is not natural. Tribalism, despotism, and theocratic monarchies are “natural” but the ability to settle our political disagreements through democratic institutions that adhere to the rule of law and respect for individual liberties grates against our natural impulses. Civilization is the process of countering our “natural” tendencies so that we can come to terms with classical liberal institutions. But just as what goes up must come down, and all carbon-based life forms eventually return to the dust, Nature is always at work to reclaim what is Hers.

How much of American conservatism is simply the conservation of classical liberalism is a complex and sometimes heated debate (which you can read more about here). Suffice it to say for now, the problem with conservatism simply succumbing to whatever victories are won by the Left—as a sort of game where the conservative stands athwart history yelling “Stop!” and later, “you may come this far, but no farther!” and then, moments later, “OK, so you came a little farther, but now you must never cross THIS line!” and so, to infinity—has not escaped the attention of those comfortable calling themselves conservatives.

The Challenge of Developing Conservative Politics

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we pull back from the lofty plane of political theory and descend to the murky battlefield of political policy. “The problem of a conservative party in a democracy is not its inability to get elected,” begins Irving Kristol, “It usually does get elected, once the Left has made a mess of things (as it inevitably will). But the victory turns out to be a hollow one. The clock is neither set back, nor is it pushed forward according to some new mode of political reckoning. All that happens is that the machinery is tinkered with so as to make it workable once again.” Whether it’s healthcare, entitlements, or even tax policy, conservatives are usually far more willing to tinker with the programs enacted by the Left than to undo them.

As a neoconservative, Kristol was far more comfortable with the welfare state and proposals to expand government programs than most traditional conservatives. But even stalwart traditionalists like Russell Kirk bemoaned the tendency of the conservative sentiment to stand in the way of reform: “One of the handicaps of conservatives in politics is that a great proportion of their supporters, acting as they do upon prejudice and prescription, tend to shy away from bold ideas and vigorous talents.”

Conservative victories often follow Leftist losses. But if conservatives want to win victories despite, and not because of, the activities of the Left, they must offer better solutions themselves. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean they must offer alternative political solutions; but they must articulate an alternative vision that’s winsome, realizable, and true to their values. Where the Left offers expansive entitlements, promises of equality and justice, and freedom from restraints the conservative must proffer solutions to poverty and need that align with individual responsibility and market incentives, a pursuit of equality that celebrates variety and justice as rooted in a deep respect for common law and Natural Law, and the defense of liberty as a means of pursuing virtue and nobility.

Crafting a winsome conservative message is hard. Where most competing ideologies and worldviews come prepackaged with policy prescriptions wrapped in positive words and phrases such as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or “The rich should pay their fair share” or “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, the conservative often finds themselves reduced to simply opposing whatever change is offered. The challenge—and the only real opportunity for long-term progress—comes in translating the wisdom of the past to the problems of the present. That requires the sort of skills and knowledge historian Stephen Tonsor often found lacking in conservatives:

“The blunt truth is that most conservatives do not know what manner of men they are; they have no clear conception of the society they wish to create, have no organic relationship either to the present or the past, hold no grand design, entertain no enduring principles, and are responsible to no whole and healthy vision either of man or society. Their discourse consists of the platitudes of political criticism, and, however salutary and necessary this may be, it is neither a substitute for principle nor a guide for action.”

The conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans held a slightly more positive view in observing that conservatives “who wish to conserve value generally have some particular value in mind and must oppose any particular status quo which denies it.” In other words, the issue isn’t whether the conservative opposes change or opposes the status quo, but whether their opposition is part of a broader alternative vision of what kind of society they’d like to see, what kind of people we ought to strive to become, and what policies are likely to get us there.

Frank Meyer’s Fusionist Way Forward

Few conservative voices made a more forceful argument for conservative activism than the philosopher Frank Meyer. Meyer was never content with a conservatism that simply opposed the latest and greatest proposals of the Left. He advocated a true conservative mindset must actively roll back the cultural and political advances of opposing forces. “We cannot simply revere; we cannot uncritically follow tradition,” Meyer begins, “for the tradition presented to us is rapidly becoming—thanks to the prevailing intellectual climate, thanks to the schools, thanks to the outpourings of all the agencies that mold opinion and belief—the tradition of a positivism scornful of truth and virtue, the tradition of the collective, the tradition of the untrammeled state.”

To Meyer the conservative’s job was far more than simply conserving classical liberalism, for there was much to be rejected in liberalism itself—"its philosophical foundations, its tendency towards Utopian constructions, its disregard (explicitly, though by no means implicitly) of tradition”—that made the conservative’s task and endless quest of molding reason inside tradition, restraining, but never totally stifling, progression, and fusing together the natural tension between the libertarian and traditionalist points of view (a viewpoint that Meyer developed that later became known as Fusionism).

Conservatism as a natural impulse is susceptible to the sort of stagnation of thought and blindness towards the general progression or regression of the culture as a whole Hayek identified as problematic. This “conservative impulse” may serve us well when our culture and civilization is thriving and dynamic and healthy, but it is of little use when decadence or decline set it and all conservatism has to offer is to apply the brake. Worse still—as Hayek rightly criticized—when culture is progressing, but progressing in a direction that’s not conducive to liberty or human flourishing, applying the brake is hardly sufficient. In both instances, what’s needed more than applying the brakes is turning the car around.

But a steering wheel is of little use if one does not know what direction they ought to be heading. Are conservatives trying to return us to the way things were in some imagined golden years, or something more? “What the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happen to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades,” answers Meyer, “but the consensus of his civilization, of his country, as that consensus over centuries has reflected truth derived from the very constitution of being.” It seems Meyer’s “consensus over centuries” has in mind Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” or Burke’s generational linking between the living, the dead, and the unborn.

In other words, conservatism—properly understood—is not trying to take us back to the traditions and social mores of the 1950s. Its scope is much broader and its aim much grander than to Make America Great Again. Conservatism sees our culture as a shared project linking generations past to the present and beyond. And keeping this idea greatly informs the conservative how to think about change and progression and conservation, for it gives us a frame of reference whereby we can understand what changes are truly progressive, what we mean by “progress”, when conservatism is in danger of conserving the wrong things, and the natural tension between Permanence and Progress.

And this is where we’ll pick things up in Part 2.

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