The postscript to Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty is an essay entitled ‘Why I am not a Conservative’. In the New Statesman, John Gray explains why Hayek’s self-assessment was entirely correct:
“Having abandoned his youthful socialism under the influence of the doctrinaire market economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Hayek came to believe that a process of social evolution would impel humankind in the direction of the values he favoured. His legacy to liberal thinking has been a type of scientism – the mistaken attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences when examining the human world.”
As well as scientism, Hayek’s outlook can also be seen as a type of historicism – which Karl Popper defined as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim.” This wasn’t, of course, the historicism of Marx and Engels (in which the rise and fall of classes led to the inevitable triumph of communism) – but a more subtle form of the same delusion:
“Underpinning his defence of the free market was a belief in what he called ‘spontaneous order in society’ – the idea that, if only human beings were not subject to oppressive governments, they would evolve in ways that allowed them to live together in peace and freedom. This was not a view held by Hayek’s friend and LSE colleague Karl Popper, who gently demolished it when I talked with him, or by the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, also a colleague at the LSE, who dismissed it – accurately – as ‘rubbish’.”
For the conservative, the foundations of liberty are something that must be conserved within institutions and traditions. If, however, one is a liberal and not a conservative – and therefore seeks freedom from institutional and traditional constraints – then the temptation to regard liberalism as a spontaneous order or a historical inevitability has an obvious attraction:
“Hayek’s belief that vital freedoms can be enshrined in law and thereby taken out of politics is ultimately delusive. But it is not an aberration peculiar to the brand of right-wing liberalism that he professed.”
In this respect, the liberals of the right are much closer to the liberals of the left than to conservatives. This is why right-wing liberals – including Hayek himself – fell for the European dream:
“…throughout his writings Hayek invoked the mirage of a legal order in which vital freedoms are protected by being insulated from the political process… He was always sympathetic to the attempt to build a European federal union – a fact that only confirms his blindness to political realities.”
Ever the provocateur, Gray suggests that, in certain key respects, conservatives have more common with that other giant of 20th century economic thought, John Maynard Keynes:
“Hayek may have shown the unreality of left-liberal visions of egalitarian capitalism, but it was Keynes who understood fully the vanity of liberal rationalism. In ‘My Early Beliefs’ (1938), a talk later published as a memoir, Keynes mocked the philosophy held by himself and his friends before the First World War: ‘We were not aware that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust… only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved.’”
This is not say that Keynes was a conservative, but then neither was Hayek.
What one can say for the latter is that he at least knew he wasn’t – unlike many who idolise him today.