The Folly of Ideology


Ideology is not the same as principles, writes Will Church.

Ideology provides sham religion and sham philosophy, comforting in its way to those who have lost or never have known genuine religious faith, and to those not sufficiently intelligent to apprehend real philosophy.” – Russell Kirk

 Many posts on this blog have referred to “ideology” and so called “ideological purity.” Some of my associates and friends within the Liberal Party of Australia and its federated affiliate wings often refer to this “ideology”. It appears to me that what they often mean to express is simply a belief in principles, further it’s my private suspicion they’ve been unwitting victims of the growing emphasis on critical pedagogy in education – patently evident in school syllabi, and prevalent throughout the universities. However, I don’t think a loose use of the word “ideology” is excused by the fact that the individuals in question meant “principles”.

Principles must not be conflated with ideology; ideology is the ascription to principles of a certain character that’s in my view unintelligible. The problem with ‘ideology’ identified by Oakeshott is that of “category mistake”, and the dilemma that arises from this has serious consequences. That said I think it’s necessary to say something of “ideology” and its origins before dealing with the substantive issue.

Ideology is a Marxian idea; thus conservatism is rightly described as the negation of ideology. Originally coined by Destutt de Tracy in Eléments d'idéologie or the ‘science of ideas” ideology described a branch of zoological study that followed an empiricist method of investigation divorced from theology and metaphysics. The term did originally enjoy brief scientific currency; however by the mid nineteenth-century, thanks to Marx and Engels, it acquired a socio-political context. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels referred to ideology as the cultural superstructure and an instrument of social control by the material elite; the ruling classes reinforce their control via the mass propagation of ideas. According to Marx and Engels the dominant ideas of the age are those that reflect the ideals of the ruling classes, and these ideals are intended to foster a false consciousness whereby the lower-classes become alienated from reality and accept their inferiority.  This was to be integral to Marx’s later concept of commodity fetishism, whereby the proletariat happily accepts the shackles imposed upon it by industrialism. Antonio Gramsci extended ideology to the concept of cultural hegemony – and the growing emphasis on critical pedagogy and analysis in schools and tertiary institutions is a palpable reflection of the posthumous influence of Gramsci. It’s not an understatement to condemn speak of a ‘conservative ideology” as heresy!

In his essay, “Conduct and Ideology in Politics” Oakeshott explains how ideology falls in to the trap of Gilbert Ryle’s “category mistake”. For the sake simplicity a “categorical mistake” is the error of ascribing to an object or word a property it cannot possibly possess. If we have two apples we have an apple and an apple we don’t have also have a “two”. To use Ryle’s example a “category mistake” reveals itself when a foreigner being shown around Oxford or Cambridge; after seeing various colleges, libraries, playing fields, laboratories and administrative offices asks 'but where is the University?' The folly is speaking of a university as if it “stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members.”[i] Likewise, the ideologue ascribes to abstract nouns like “freedom” and “democracy” a concrete meaning like say “table” and “fence” or “building” as if those abstractions correspond to something specific in the world. It’s no wonder that the ideologue applies principle in spite of practical consideration and at times to the point of reductio ad absurdum. People often insist on policy prescriptions that are abstract and totally divorced from practical consideration. An example that easily springs to mind is the insistence on supporting free-trade agreements on mere principle. Though we all understand and appreciate the economic principles behind free-trade, that is no licence for failing to consider practical political consequences, such as – free-trade agreements often have the effect of eroding sovereignty and simply facilitate the formation of multilateral ‘trade blocs’. As Oakeshott says:

“As I understand it, in politics, as in everything else – in astronomy, in business and in moral life – we do not begin with an abstract idea but with an activity. We do not begin with the idea of ‘astronomy’, or ‘honesty’ or ‘justice’, and then try to find out what object or condition of things is referred to in this ‘idea’ and then set about pursuing it, because in fact we can’t begin in this manner. Instead, what we do is give way to an impulse to take a certain direction in activity, not knowing at all where it is leading us, and without necessity of supposing that it is leading us to any specific condition of things. Nobody could know, a priori, or by any amount of enquiry, what ‘astronomy’ is, or what ‘justice’ is; each of these is an activity – the activity of an astronomer or the activity of a high-court judge – not an ‘object’ to be understood and achieved.”[ii]

Ideological politics constitutes a misunderstanding of the relationship between principles and the activity of politics; it makes as much sense as using satellite navigation when trying to find justice.

In summary I wish to impress the following three points:

Firstly, “ideology” is a term originally intended for the natural sciences. It was misused by Marx, Engels and their contemporaries.

Secondly, it’s prevalence in the political vernacular, even apparently within right-wing circles, is perhaps evidence of the growing and corrupting influence of critical pedagogy. However, that does not excuse such heresy as “conservative ideology.”

Thirdly, ideology is nonsensical by reason of Ryle’s “category mistake.” In Short: it ascribes to abstract nouns a meaning that is not possible, leading to an irreconcilable yet unwarranted dilemma between principle and practice.

Let’s have our principles but not fall into the folly of ideology!

William Church is a qualified lawyer and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Queensland. He resides in Brisbane and is Secretary of the Liberal National Party Policy  Standing Committee, elected representative to the Young Liberal National Party Management Committee, and a member of ACM QLD Committee. 

[i] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson of London, Great Britain, 1949; p16.

[ii] Michael Oakeshott, “Conduct and Ideology in Politics” in “What is History?” edited by Luke O’Sullivan, Imprint Academic, UK, 2004; p250-51.

Libertarian and Conservative Controversies: Revisiting the Traditionalist v Individualist Debates


Conservatives and libertarians can learn from revisiting past debates, writes Will Church.

Much can be learned from revisiting past debates. This being most pertinent when parallels can be drawn with current debate. In my time as a member of the youth wing of the Australian Liberal Party I’ve been both spectator and participant in many debates taking place at the fault line of the party’s conservative/classical-liberal divide.

I approached the editors with my intention to cover the debates from the Post World-War II American intellectual right for three reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s demonstrative of how conservatism is in a constant state of internal debate. These debates should be expected because conservatives are thinkers by nature, and these debates revolve around the nature of conservatism and its philosophical coherence. Secondly, it was largely from the debate between the individualists and traditionalists that modern American conservatism took its form. A fact that tends to inspire confidence that conflict can yield intellectual synthesis – though perhaps not along the lines of Hegelian dialectics for that implies a “progression.” Thirdly, I believe there are obvious parallels with ongoing debates within our party – particularly within its youth wings.

The dispute between traditionalists and individualists may not have happened were it not for the liberal humanist hegemony of the 30s. In the words of the great historian of conservatism George H. Nash:

“The intellectual roots of anti-conservatism, like so much else in the intellectual traditions of the American Right since 1945, lie in responses to the 1930s. To the classical liberal wing of this heterogeneous movement, the 1930s were a time of collectivism and Big Government. To traditionalists the era was one of philosophical nihilism, totalitarianism, and the disturbing emergence of mass culture.”[i]

In terms of a modern parallel the individualists were closest to what are now called “libertarians.” Before philosophers such as Robert Nozick[ii] and John Hospers enunciated a lucid and compelling libertarian philosophy there was the individualists – some of whom preferred to be called “classical-liberal.” Their idols were the Austrian economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises and the polemicist and author Albert Jay Nock. They opposed the New Deal, Keynesianism and government interference in both personal and economic spheres of human affairs. They tended to rail against foreign entanglement and US military involvement abroad, on this point they continued the isolationist legacy of the “Old Right.” Their ideological mercenaries were an eclectic bunch who tended to be journalists rather than academics but were often émigrés and ex-radicals. Their anti-statism and extreme individualism often bordered on anarchism. Prominent figures within the individualist camp were Frank Chodorov, Henry Hazlitt and Frank Meyer. Meyer was an ex-communist radical turned Libertarian; he had an association with William F. Buckley Jnr with whom he co-founded the National Review. Meyer was somewhat more moderate than his fellow-travellers, and was to be the creator of “fusionism.” “Fusionism” was the philosophy that sought to unify the individualist and traditionalist philosophies, laying down the principles now broadly accepted as those principles embodying American conservatism.

The traditionalists were united in their conviction that American society was facing a moral and intellectual abyss, though they often differed as to the culprit. Professor of English literature and avowed Southern-Agrarian Richard M. Weaver traced the decline of modern civilization to medieval Europe and the philosophy of William of Ockham.[iii] Weaver blamed nominalism for the gradual decline of civilization manifested by a denial of transcendental universal values for relativism and materialism.[iv] For Leo Strauss the wreckers of civilization were to be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. His genealogical account started with Machiavelli reaching a critical point with Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan.[v] The Moderns from Hobbes through to Locke through to Rousseau and Burke had abandoned reason – the source of contemporary nihilism and relativism. (Strauss was to be a key influence on predominantly Jewish thinkers like Irving Kristol who later became the intellectual architects of the so-called “neo-conservative” movement.) The Germanic émigrés Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Peter Viereck blamed moral decadence on the rise of democracy, egalitarianism and the triumph of humanism at the expense of Christianity. Despite their apparent intellectual diversity the traditionalist right were all in concordance that modern society had revolted against its cultural heritage. Their intellectual leader was without doubt Russell Kirk. Kirk’s conservatism was the prudential politics of Edmund Burke and the realisation of “Jeffersonian principles.” In 1953 he published his cri de Coeur for a “new conservatism” The Conservative Mind..”[vi]

Meyer took issue with Kirk's The Conservative Mind. The debate that ensued was perhaps the most important debate in the intellectual development of Post World-War II American Right. Meyer argued that traditionalism lacked any clear or distinct principles and carried with it, “no built in defence against the acceptance, grudging though it may be, of institutions which reason and prudence would otherwise reject, if only those institutions are sufficiently and firmly established.”[vii] In other words traditionalism stands to protect institutions and customs merely because they are established, thus it fails to be a real antidote to the liberal collectivist hegemony.

Kirk responded by dismissing the “social atomism” of "individualism." For Kirk conservatism was not an “ideology” with principles that could be expounded in the abstract. Instead it is tried and tested institutions, prescription and established custom that provide the pillars of a successful society. Furthermore, freedom cannot exist outside an ordered society where human conduct is governed by authority and respected prescription; “without just authority and respected prescription, the pillars of any tolerable civil order, true freedom is not possible.”[viii] Kirk’s writings are very reminiscent of Burke. He revered Edmund Burke and sought to claim the statesman for conservatism. Kirk attacked the idea that by rejecting political theories based on “abstractions” Burke had rejected theorizing – thereby rendering Burke of little relevance to those interested in crystallizing a conservative theoretical framework.  Burke rejected “‘bad theory’ – that is doctrinaire, speculative, abstract, and without adequate reference and relevance to political practice.”[ix]

Meyer was predictably less than complimentary about Kirk’s revival of Burke. He excoriated Kirk’s tendency to treat Burke’s suspicion of rationality as if it were an essential ingredient of conservative philosophy:

It is absurd, therefore, because one conservative voice in one period showed an underlying hostility to reason, to maintain, as is today so often done, that Edmund Burke’s attitude to reason is an essential element of any definition of conservatism. True no conservatism can accept utopian reliance upon the limited reason of one generation (or one school of thought within that generation), which ignores the tradition and builds upon arrogant confidence in its own experience ratiocination. But conservatism is not antirational. It demands only that reason operate upon the foundation of the tradition of civilization, that is, upon the basis of accumulated reason, experience and wisdom of past generations.[x]

F. A. Hayek entered the debate with his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” which was published in his summa The Constitution of Liberty and in an anthology of essays edited by Meyer What is Conservatism. Hayek agreed with Meyer and the individualists that conservatism lacks principles and fails to inspire confidence as a bulwark against the rising collectivist tide. Hayek held that conservatism fears or at least distrusts change given its “fondness of authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.”[xi] Connected to this fondness of established authority is the sentiment that arbitrary power is tolerable so long as it is for those ends or purposes the conservative approves of.[xii] Flowing from this he adds that conservatives tend to: (i) defend privilege and hierarchy without reason; (ii) blame democracy for the ills of society; and (iii) exhibit hostility towards new ideas. Of the latter Hayek finds that conservatism is anti-intellectual because it rejects, “well-substantiated new knowledge because of some of the consequences which seem to follow.”[xiii] This he believed is part of the reason for the tendency of conservatism to embrace nationalism; “strident nationalism” provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism.[xiv] Readers of Hayek’s numerous works might find his rejection of conservatism difficult to reconcile with the obvious parallels between his theory of “spontaneous order” and his rejection of rational design and the political writings of Burke. (Not to mention the critique of rationalism offered by conservatives like Michael Oakeshott.[xv]) Whilst Hayek’s protestations against conservatism were strong we do well to note in that same essay his reservations and criticisms regarding ‘liberalism” and even its applicability to his own (Old Whig) philosophical creed, “however reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Moser, or Donso Cortes may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, laws, morals and conventions.”[xvi]

Naturally, not everyone agreed with Hayek’s analysis. However, there was a strong sentiment from many in the Right that conservatism was lacking at a theoretical level. Meyer shared this sentiment but increasingly started to distance himself from a doctrinaire individualist position. In What is Conservatism Meyer compiled an anthology of essays from various antagonists across the individualist/traditionalist spectrum in which he made his case for a fusionist philosophy.  He felt that the clash between the two comes from a failure to delineate between the moral and political realm. The individualist penchant for libertinism and the traditionalist preference for legislating morality both stem from forgetting that, “in the moral realm freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end, which is virtue…in the political realm freedom is the primary end.”[xvii] Flowing from this failure to dichotomise the individualist falls into the trap of libertinism and denies the inherited moral capital of Christendom.[xviii] Whereas, the traditionalist deprives himself of the classical-liberals empirically grounded economic theories, “in his reaction against its unsound metaphysics.”[xix] He also tends to conflate a respect for tradition with a mindless and arid repetition of what others have done before him. Having distilled the errors of each Meyer called for a dialectical synthesis to bring into fruition a reconstructed conservatism. His vision was somewhat realized in the political doctrines of politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It’s fair to say that modern conservatism has taken a course of fused liberal and conservative principles; however, a blue print for a new philosophy along the lines Meyer describes has yet to emerge. The ingenuity and creativity of Meyer is to be admired but we must face the actuality of the dynamics within the intellectual right:

“Conservatives often say their movement is a fusion of libertarianism and traditionalist conservatism. That was in theory. In practice it worked something like this: libertarians quoted Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman while taking care of economic issues like tax cuts, privatisation, and free trade. Traditionalist conservatives quoted Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot, and handled more abstract ideas like God, authority, and tradition.”[xx]

Kirk’s essay “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” published in Freedom and Virtue provides a very powerful case against both the possibility of an individualist/traditionalist fusion and “libertarianism” as a creed. For the sake of avoiding repetition I will not review all the arguments but I find a few of them quite compelling.

Firstly, libertarians are located on the same spectrum as Marxists by reason of their inherent materialism. The libertarian political ontology erroneously divides the world into totalitarians and individualists. Instead the schism is between those who believe in a transcendent order and those that, “mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.”[xxi] Irrespective of whether one believes in a universal moral order there is a truth to this statement. The Marxist denies God and substitutes a universal moral order[xxii] with so-called “scientism” grounded in the material dialectic. Likewise the libertarian slides towards crude utilitarianism denying transcendent morality for maximal individual freedom. 

Secondly, flowing from different concept of the individual is a fundamental disagreement about the state and civil society. The libertarian sides with the Marxist in calling for the withering of state – though they each have a very different ends in mind. For Burke the state and civil society are conjoined in a partnership that’s beyond the ephemeral individual:

“the state ought not be considered as nothing better than a partnership in trade…………..It is a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”[xxiii]

It’s clear that there’s a fundamental impasse at the conception of the state, the individual and civil society – and the libertarian is inclined to paint a rather superficial picture.

Thirdly, Kirk presents the case for why the libertarian is utopian. He believes that the libertarian sees human nature as fundamentally benevolent; corruptible only by institutions and the state. Thus, the libertarian is inclined to believe that if people are left to their devices the market will take care of the unfortunate and society will naturally self-order.  Of course conservatives with their pessimistic view of human nature consider this naive. 

I believe libertarian folly is more often than not rooted in a belief that we are essentially by nature rational decision makers.  However, thinkers such as Hayek possibly provide an isthmus between conservatism and classical liberalism here. Hayek’s defence of the market is tied in with a “spontaneously ordering” account of human nature – and not inherent rationality. Hayek does not deprive us of Burke’s ‘little platoons,’ nor does he deny us the state or those traditional institutions essential to conservatism. Perhaps we can have the market and conservatism?  This issue deserves far less superficial treatment than it has been given here but alas there is not space here to elaborate.

I think there are many lessons to be learned for our party from these debates of bygone decades. Particularly as much debate with our party concerns the keeping of conservative and liberal elements within the same tent. I think there are a few points for reflection:

We do well to strike down where ever it rises the totally fallacious conflation of nomenclature with principle – that it’s being the “Liberal Party” therefore precludes us from being a inclusive of conservatives. Just as no one holds that a Magnum Ice Cream belongs in the class of things that possess “greatness,” neither do our American counterparts hold their Republican Party hostage to the philosophies of Jean Jacques Rousseau or James Harrington.

We do well to step back from the ubiquitous trumpeting of “freedom” without locating the term in a context.

We do well to note that there is a tension between liberalism and conservatism, but that does not mean aspects of them cannot cohere.

We do well to remain suspicious of rational design. For it’s here that conservatives and classical-liberals sing from the same page.

William Church is a qualified lawyer and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Queensland. He resides in Brisbane and is Vice-Chair of Brisbane Central Branch of the Young Liberal National Party and a member of ACM QLD Committee. He has strong personal interests in politics, philosophy, history and constitutional issues.


[i] George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Basic Books Inc., 1976; p86.

[ii] See Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia, Blackwell Publishing, 1974.

[iii] See i; p 40.

[iv] Ibid;

[v] For a thorough overview and analysis of Strauss’s criticism of Hobbes see Michael Oakeshott, “Dr Leo Strauss on Hobbes” in Hobbes on Civil Association, Basil Blackwell/Oxford, 1975; p132 -149.

[vi] See i. Ibid; p73.

[vii] Frank S. Meyer, “Collectivism Rebaptized,” The Freeman Vol 5, July 1955; p560.

[viii] Russell Kirk, “ Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom,” Chapter 2, What Is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p23.

[ix] See vi. P 165.

[x] Frank Meyer, “Conservatism” in Left, Right, Center: Essays on Liberalism and Conservatism in the United States, ed Robert A. Goldwin, The University of Chicago, 1965; p 2-3

[xi] F.A. Hayek, “Why I am not a Conservative” in What Is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p94.

[xii] Ibid; p93

[xiii] Ibid; p96

[xiv] Ibid;

[xv] See Michael Oakeshott “Rationalism in Politics” in Rationalism in Politics and other Essays, Liberty Fund Inc, 1991.

[xvi] See xiv. Ibid; p91

[xvii] Frank S. Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism” in What is Conservatism?, ed. Frank S. Meyer, University of Chicago, 1960; p15.

[xviii] Ibid;

[xix] Ibid; p14

[xx] Don Arthur, “Defusing The American Right” in Policy Magazine Vol. 24 No.4, Centre for Independent Studies, Summer 2008-2009; p19.

[xxi] Russell Kirk, “ A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” in Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate ed. George W. Carey, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998; p182-183

[xxii] Ibid;

[xxiii] Edmund Burke, Reflections on The Revolution in France, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Is Hayek a Conservative?

Will-Church Will Church considers Hayek’s true political persuasion.

I’ve often pondered this question and consider it important for those in right-wing politics for three reasons. Firstly, I believe that Hayek is a conservative thinker.  Secondly, considerable confusion persists as to the philosophical heritage of our party. Many insist it’s ‘a progressive party’ and conservatives are imposters. These people tend to locate Hayek within the liberal political tradition, perhaps not realising the obvious philosophical similarities between Hayek and conservatives like Burke and Oakeshott. Thirdly, while I accept that people can never agree, disagreement might be partially mitigated by an appreciation of how aspects of classical-liberalism and conservatism philosophically cohere.

In locating Hayek within the conservative tradition I find the following decisive:
   (I)    A scepticism about rationality and human affairs;

   (II)   A reverence toward grown or evolved social institutions;

   (III)  Flowing from (II) a preference for inherited and established traditions and institutions;

   (IV)  A view of rights or freedom as rooted in social convention, as distinct from the usual liberal insistence on inherent, universal or divine rights.

I also feel it incumbent upon me to respond to the view (even by Hayek himself) that he’s simply an “Old Whig;” liberalism untainted by the 20th Century collectivist epoch.

The Limits of Rationality:

The litmus test for conservatism is the belief that reason plays a limited role in the coordination of society. Societies are not the products of human thinking but an unintended outcome of ‘suprarational’ factors; values, beliefs, institutions and languages are all tied up in a complex matrix of spontaneity. Further, to the conservative it is past human experience and the accumulated wisdom of established institutions that one turns to in deciding what provides a “workable” framework for civil social order. We arrive at the solution to our problems through trial and error over years, not through the genius of any one person or school. There’s an obvious logic to this. Just as it would be impossible to construct without reference to some other authority an aeroplane or computer we can’t from inside a philosophical vacuum think up the ideal society. The conservative is never surprised that radical and revolutionary political systems fail so miserably – radicalism is inspired by ideology and contempt for inherited wisdom.

Hayek was influenced by the sceptical empiricist tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith who refuted that the human mind can understand the totality of human activities. Hayek’s philosophy and economic theory stressed ‘evolved reason’ as distinct from the ‘constructivist rationalist’ mindset that derived from Descartes and Bacon. This ‘constructivist rationalist’ thinking links in with Kant and the Enlightenment idea that society can be re-organised rationally. Congruent with Hayek is the critique offered by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism and Politics; that the rationalists with their causally mechanistic mindset fail to comprehend the value of inherited wisdom.

Hayek’s scepticism about the power of rationality in coordinating human affairs ties in directly with his theory of the “spontaneous ordering” nature of human societies.

Spontaneous Order:

Hayek’s social and economic theories build upon the problem of economic calculation as identified by Ludwig Von Mises in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. Mises argued that socialism fails at a systemic level because it ignores market price signals and therefore can only result in a misallocation of resources. In contrast the beauty of free enterprise is that market signals indicate where resources are to be distributed according to people’s willingness to buy something. Influenced by the abovementioned Scottish Philosophers Hayek developed his theory of ‘spontaneous order’ that the free price system is not a product of design but of human action; the market just like language, law, morals, customs and the institution of private property are all the product of undirected human activity.

The conservative emphasis on the value of society as guided by unconsciously acquired habits, intuition and inherited wisdom can be easily extended to Hayek’s account of free-enterprise as a system of tacit or dispersed knowledge that finds communication via the market price signal. There’s also congruency with Burkes warning that government ‘meddling’ always tends to a ‘subversion’ of the market.  However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Hayek shares the conservative view of grown social phenomena, in contrast to The Enlightenment Liberal tendency to insist on abstractions and rational design.


Hayek’s traditionalism flows from his belief in grown or evolved social phenomena. I think two palpable examples are his defence of British common law and his reservation about democracy.

Take for example his reverence for British common law. Hayek saw the traditional common law system as another example of an organically grown institution. The system relied on cases being brought before a court with each case decided on its merit according to the doctrine of stare decisis – the judges in making their decisions are constrained by the adoption of principles applied previously to analogous cases. Common law represents gradualism where principles are developed gradually over many decisions. Like other ‘spontaneously ordered’ institutions the common law is the creation of human action and not rational design.

His preference for the conservative over the new is also reflected in his suspicion of democracy. While considering himself a democrat he deplores unconstrained democracy; tending towards a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and socialism.  In New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas he postulates the ideal hypothetical democratic model as one where all men who are forty-years of age voted once every fifteen years to elect a ruling legislative assembly. His criticism that democracy has a centralizing, socialistic and collectivist nature mirrors the suspicions of conservatives like Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Hayek’s vision for a free society was not that freedom is democracy; but rather that freedom is constitution, the instrument by which democratic power is constrained.

Perhaps a logical corollary of Hayek’s account of “spontaneously ordered” institutions is an inclination towards traditionalism – once again locating Hayek within the conservative camp.
Rights & Freedom:
Hayek is more restrained in his concept of rights & freedom than most liberals. His defence of freedom is again tied in with his epistemology, scepticism and this theory of ‘spontaneous order.’ In Hayek’s own words “the case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning the great many of the factors on which achievement of our ends and welfare depend.”[i] Moreover, it is merely “general universalizable rules” that circumscribes state power, whilst sounding grand it’s clear from The Constitution of Liberty that what is meant is simply an impersonal rule of law. 

Importantly Hayek tended to shy from talking in terms of ‘rights’ contrary to the usual liberal dialogue of rights. Two points must be made here: Firstly, Hayek is quite critical of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Law, Legislation and Liberty Volume Three:  He points out that rights imply duties. If we speak of a right to life an implied corresponding duty not take another’s life applies. Through the imposition of duty rights in fact have the unintended consequence of limiting our freedom – something that in my experience vocal proponents of rights seem seldom aware of. It is for this reason that Hayek tends to talk in terms of “freedom” instead of “rights.” And by this he means simply “freedom” in the negative sense. Secondly, Hayek contextualizes rights within the Western political tradition. These rights have come about by adjudicatory process and take the form of conventions. This is most congruent with Burke’s preference for rights understood as prescriptions or customs. For Hayek freedom is in a context.

Without speaking of liberalism in monolithic terms there’s certainly a tendency of liberals to place strong emphasis on ‘rights.’ Liberal thinkers such as Grotius, Locke, Voltaire and Paine all speak boldly in terms of rights – be that divine, natural or civil. During The Enlightenment liberals wrote tomes advocating political and civil rights and often supported there transposition into grandiose documents and declarations.  Liberalism today is largely associated with the aims of universal human rights and with political efforts to enshrine rights at a legal or constitutional level. And yet with Hayek we find a hesitance to use the discourse of rights. Instead we have an understanding of freedom within in the Western tradition, and a belief that societies are better off free left to grow in an undirected manner.
An Old Whig?
Having covered why I think Hayek should be regarded as falling squarely within the conservative tradition I find it necessary to address charges that he’s simply an “Old Whig.” His essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” has in my opinion been much overemphasised in most literature on the topic.  Perhaps this is because most people that define themselves as “liberals” have read his essay and have wanted to provide us with a skewed reading. He notes in that same essay that: (i) he stands in contrast to the continental liberal tradition; and (ii) during the late 19th century the Whigs moved irretrievably towards collectivism – this being profoundly so by the time of Lloyd George. In distilling his “true” brand of liberalism he finds Lord Acton and the “Old Whigs” such as Burke and Gladstone closest to this tradition.  Burke is widely accepted as the father of the Anglo-conservative tradition, and the term ‘burkean liberal’ is now somewhat arcane. While Burke’s essential philosophy has been realised and appropriated by many thinkers few of those thinkers would go by ‘liberal.’ I find much of Hayek’s criticism true, broadly speaking, of continental conservatives more often than it is true of conservatives from the Anglo-tradition.  It’s my personal conjecture that perhaps given socialist sympathies in his youth Hayek found the label still left a bad taste – so instead he’s persisted with an arcane sense and usage of liberal.

Having made the case for why I think Hayek is a conservative I wish to return to a point raised in the beginning. I noted a tendency of some members of the Liberal Party to misunderstand the political heritage of our party, and to claim Hayek as their own without realising that apparent contradiction. In my view Hayek provides a conceptual isthmus between the free-market and conservative values of ordered liberty and traditionalism. Those that appeal to Hayek in order execrate conservatives are like the emperor without clothing. When one scales away rhetoric and looks at Hayek’s actual ideas it reveals a profoundly conservative philosophy. I contend there’s no thinker who has done more intellectually to revive and develop the Anglo-conservative tradition than Hayek.

     [i] F.A. Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press, 1960; p29.

William Church is a qualified lawyer and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Queensland. He resides in Brisbane and is Vice-Chair of Brisbane Central Branch of the Young Liberal National Party and a member of ACM QLD Committee. He has strong personal interests in politics, philosophy, history and constitutional issues.