Commentary Magazine


Perhaps Hayek’s Term Had Not Yet Been Invented

In this morning’s New York Times Book Review, Nick Gillespie reviews Joe Scarborough’s “The Last Best Hope:  Restoring Conservatism and America’s Promise.” The book is dedicated “to conservatives of all parties” — an apparent homage to F. A. Hayek’s 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom,” which was dedicated “to the socialists of all parties.”

Gillespie thinks Scarborough should have looked more carefully at Hayek:

[He] would have done well to grok more Hayek . . . In the essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Hayek noted that conservatism is a reactionary impulse that “by its very nature cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” At most, Hayek said, it might succeed in “slowing down undesirable developments.”

Instead, Hayek pushed a decentralist, libertarian line . . .

In his essay, Hayek actually disclaimed not only conservatism but liberalism and libertarianism as descriptive terms for his beliefs.  He wrote that he had “racked [his] brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term” for them:

[I]f one could still, with Lord Acton, speak of Burke, Macaulay, and Gladstone as the three greatest liberals, or if one could still, with Harold Laske, regard Tocqueville and Lord Acton as “the essential liberals of the nineteenth century,” I should indeed be only too proud to describe myself by that name. But . . . . what I have called “liberalism” has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today.

[T]he term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute.

For Hayek, the ideals in his essay were not encompassed in any of the above three political terms.  The ideals, however, had at one time been associated with a particular political party, which had in turn inspired the Founders:

It was the ideals of the English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in the whole of Europe and that provided the conceptions that the American colonists carried with them and which guided them in their struggle for independence and in the establishment of their constitution. . . .

It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the conservatism of Hamilton or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”

It would not have been a perfect fit, but Hayek might have favored the term given a later political philosophy – a philosophy that merged aspects of what Hayek viewed as true liberalism with a sense of national mission that had roots in the views of the Founders.  As Robert Kagan describes those roots:

Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the “gloomy regions of despotism” to rise up against the “tyrants” that oppressed them. James Madison saw as the “great struggle of the Epoch” the battle between “Liberty and Despotism,” and America’s role in that battle was inescapable.

Call it a philosophy of freedom, one applicable both in domestic and foreign affairs, a kind of fire in men’s minds.