Is Hayek a Conservative?

by on 24 March, 2010

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.

Leave a Reply