September 13, 2010


Hayek's true political persuasion (William Church, 9 September 2010, Online Opinion)

What is Hayek's true political persuasion? I’ve often pondered this question and consider it important for those in right-wing politics for three reasons. First, I believe that Hayek is a conservative thinker. Second, considerable confusion persists as to the philosophical heritage of the Liberal 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. Third, 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:

1. a scepticism about rationality and human affairs;
2. a reverence toward grown or evolved social institutions;
3. flowing from (2) a preference for inherited and established traditions and institutions; and
4. 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 co-ordination 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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2010 6:14 AM
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