Tag Archives: Friedrich Hayek

Nietzsche von Hayek on Merit

17 Apr

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow:

The value of work.—If we wanted to determine the value of work by how much time, effort, good or ill will, compulsion, inventiveness or laziness, honesty or deception has been expended on it, then the valuation can never be just; for we would have to be able to place the entire person on the scales, and that is impossible. Here the rule must be “judge not!” But it is precisely to justice that they appeal who nowadays are dissatisfied with the evaluation of work. If we reflect further we find that no personality can be held accountable for what it produces, that is to say its work: so that no merit can be derived from it; all work is as good or bad as it must be given this or that constellation of strengths and weaknesses, knowledge and desires. The worker is not free to choose whether he works, nor how he works. It is only from the standpoint of utility, narrower and wider, that work can be evaluated. (§286)

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty:

In a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit…

The value that the performance or capacity of a person has to his fellows has no necessary connection with its ascertainable merit….

The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty. It is because we want people to use knowledge which we do not possess that we let them decide for themselves. But insofar as we want them to be free to use capacities and knowledge of facts which we do not have, we are not in a position to judge the merit of their achievements. To decide on merit presupposes that we can judge whether people have made such use of their opportunities as they ought to have made and how much effort of will or self-denial this has cost them; it presupposes also that we can distinguish between that part of their achievement which is due to circumstances within their control and that part which is not.” (157-159)

Conservatives: Who’s Your Daddy?

20 Nov

In his column this morning, David Brooks has a roundup of young conservative voices we should be listening to. He divides them into four groups: paleoconservatives, lower-middle reformists, soft libertarians, and Burkean revivalists. I want to focus on the last, for as is so often the case with Brooks, he gets it wrong—but in revealing ways.

Burkean Revivalists. This group includes young conservatives whose intellectual roots go back to the organic vision of society described best by Edmund Burke but who are still deeply enmeshed in current policy debates.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs is one of the two or three most influential young writers in politics today. He argues that we are now witnessing the fiscal crisis of the entitlement state, exemplified most of all by exploding health care costs. His magazine promotes a big agenda of institutional modernization.

It just so happens that I was reading yesterday a piece by Levin from the summer 2012 issue of The New Atlantis (h/t the kind reader who sent it to me; I can’t now find who you are) on the problem of health care and entitlement spending.

After the usual heavy breathing and hortatory throat-clearing that are characteristic of such think pieces on the right—”Our weaknesses and problems, no less than our strengths and advantages, are reflections of the society we are, and so to understand them we would do well to reflect upon the question of just what sort of society that is.”—Levin sets out the boiler-plate, one part Straussianism, two parts bullshit.

The ancients sought virtue, a life of excellence lived in and through the polis; the moderns (Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke) perpetrate “a lowering of aims.” The moderns see “the preservation and protection of life and of health as the primary functions of society.” Motivated by “safety and power,” they care nothing for the higher goods of religion or morality. Instead, they “assert for health a place at the very top of the heap of human goods.”

It’s the usual hash of modern political thought that you find in certain precincts of the Straussian right. What’s interesting about it is how Levin connects it to our health care debate and the market, and whom he draws inspiration from in doing so.

The health care challenge we face, insists Levin, is not merely the narrow economic problem of ballooning costs; that would be too pedestrian. It’s that we have so lost sight of other goods—excellence, justice, and so on—that we are willing to spend every last dime, and our children’s dimes, on staying alive, the world be damned. Because of “our disproportionate and even reckless elevation of health,” we have become the small people—our society the “vessel for self-absorption and decadence”—that we are.

That concern with self-absorption and decadence should tip us off to where we stand with Levin: not under the bright sun of the ancients or the Founders—or, pace Brooks, Edmund  Burke—but in the shadow of Nietzsche. (Setting aside the connection between Burke and Nietzsche, which I allude to in The Reactionary Mind.)

I’ve argued before that Nietzsche is the master theoretician of the modern right, but Levin makes it especially clear.

In understanding that liberal temptation, our best guide is not Descartes but Nietzsche, who described what could become of us in an age beyond responsibility, an age he believed was the inevitable destination of liberal societies. The degeneration of virtue in such societies, he argues, will atrophy our ability to plan for the future, our drive to work, and our interest in governing. In such a state, people will lack the noble aspiration to a virtuous life, setting their aims far lower, as Nietzsche writes. “One has one’s little pleasure for the day, and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.”

Our regard for health, it seems, can easily coexist with a society that we would not otherwise be proud of. Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods, such regard can become a vessel for self-absorption and for decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert present pain.

What makes Levin’s invocation of Nietzsche even more fascinating is that he sees the market as the antidote to this culture of decadence. Where Nietzsche loathed the culture of the market and of capitalism, modern conservatives who walk in his path have found a way around that hostility. They see the market as the proving ground of the heroic self, as the crucible from which a being of ancient excellence and moral virtue—or, if you’re jonesing for a more modern version, a tragic chooser of incommensurable goods—can arise. In Levin’s case, the market is the instrument by which our ravenous desire for health at any cost will be forced to confront the constraints of cost, leading us to prioritize our values—and creating a space, he hopes, for other values to emerge.

It’s not at first clear why Levin thinks such other values would emerge, given that he thinks we’ve lost sight of them, but at the end of his essay he draws what seems to be an unearned distinction between the people and the government, claiming that it’s not the citizenry that’s corrupt but the state. The institutions of liberal democracy can’t make hard choices, tied as they are to the base drives of politicians. But the market can.

After all, markets don’t just make expensive goods cheaper — they are also extraordinarily effective prioritizers, allowing many individual decisions to be made close to the ground. In the case of health care, that would mean having more critical decisions about spending made by patients, by families, and by doctors, and creating a strong incentive for those decisions that have to be made by insurers to be made in ways that will be perceived as fair by their customers.

Market solutions would by no means eliminate all the grave difficulties involved in prioritizing health care. There would still be rationing, there would still be times when being out of money means you are out of options, there would still be decisions made by insurance company bureaucrats that strike patients and doctors as unjust. But there would be far fewer than under a system that assigned rationing decisions to public officials and gave patients far fewer choices and far less control.

In a properly regulated but competitive insurance market, we would have a much better chance of actually prioritizing health among the goods we value. Because while liberal political institutions are unsuited to such prioritization, we liberal citizens are often up to it. Families, which after all are not liberal institutions, can make difficult choices — balancing the needs of different generations and the importance of different needs and wants — in ways that democratic political institutions often simply cannot.

Read that last paragraph carefully: “We liberal citizens are often up to it.” Why? Because we live in “families, which after all are not liberal institutions.” It’s the family, by which Levin means the anti-liberal or illiberal or non-liberal parental authority unit, that makes the difficult choices. So we have the market as the disciplining agent working with whomever controls the finances in the family (and we all know who that is) to create the conditions for a society that cares about something more than its health.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a project that seeks to explore the elective affinities between Nietzsche and neoliberalism, the hidden dialogue between the German criticism of decadence and the Austrian School’s celebration of capitalism. In the coming months, I hope to be publishing an article about this, but I’ve already given some hints of my views on that connection in various posts on Tumblr.

In the meantime, I urge you to take a look at Levin’s essay insofar as it gives you a good sense of the Nietzschean dimensions of contemporary conservatism, especially that “Burkean” conservatism which gets praised by the likes of David Brooks.

Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism

27 Sep

Charm QuarkOn Thursday next week, the CUNY Center for the Humanities, The Nation, and the Roosevelt Institute will be hosting a public conversation about The Reactionary Mind, featuring me and Chris Hayes, host of the excellent new program Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC.  The details are here, but if you’re feeling link-fatigue, it’ll be on Thursday, October 6, at 7 pm, in the Martin Segal Theater of the CUNY Graduate Center (365 5th Avenue, between 34th and 35th).  Make sure to get there early as seating may be limited. And if you do come, please make sure to say hello or, if we haven’t met personally, introduce yourself. And if you can, please share this information widely.

In anticipation of the event and the book’s publication, Mike Konczal asked me to do a guest post for his blog Rortybomb, which Time Magazine calls one of the top 25 financial blogs in the country. Readers of this blog probably know Mike already, since he’s become one of my must-reads for information about the economy and appears frequently in our discussions; as Paul Krugman writes

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, whose blog has become essential reading for anyone interested in financial reform…A number of people have asked for my own list of top finance/economics/whatever blogs. …I read Calculated Risk, Econbrowser, Rortybomb…

Mike also gets a ringing endorsement from James Kwak. In addition to being another major writer and commentator on all things financial, James went to the same high school I did. He was in the class behind me, but we worked together on the school newspaper. It’s been nice to run into him again in these parts.

I should add that Mike is also a genuine intellectual, interested, it seems, in virtually everything, with interesting things to say about virtually everything.

Anyway, here’s the blog I posted over at Rortybomb, which was also posted at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 blog. I’m also posting a slightly longer version of it below.

* * * * *

Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for the New York Times Magazine, who stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“Reality-based community” soon became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era—a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page—an affirmation of everything the left ever thought about the right: that it lives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions, that it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate, that it’s activist rather than accommodating, that it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar.  They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley once said, the “politics of reality.”

That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It’s also how many liberals who may have read Edmund Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.

To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.

Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

When Krugman talks about “modern conservatism,” he means anything from the last ten years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above.

It’s a pretty common notion: modern conservatism—however it’s defined—is different from the conservatism that came before it. Here’s Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely read The Death of Conservatism:

What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke….Burke’s conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies…

The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.

Reaching a little less deeply into the well of history, Sidney Blumenthal wrote at the high tide of the Bush administration.

Bush also claimed to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and Republican presidents alike in his pursuit of a radical and often fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities, Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator prepared for compromise…

Nothing like Bush’s concerted radicalism has ever been seen before in the White House.

As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul.  Since then, he’s pursued it time and again, pillorying the conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke’s supple traditionalism, Hayek’s critique of utopianism, and more.

So powerful is this meme of conservatism-betrayed-by-conservatives that the blogger P.M. Carpenter has recently declared a ban on any use of the word in reference to the modern conservative movement. Commenting on Krugman’s column, Carpenter writes:

Why, then, do modern commentators persist in referring to modern conservatism as “conservatism”? While Krugman’s statement is perversely unimpeachable — “modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement” — it also contains a colossally unconcealed contradiction, which is way overdue for journalistic retirement.

To posit that “conservatism” is a “deeply radical movement” is to untether oneself from intelligible language and customary comprehension. By definition, conservatism is anything but deeply radical. Indeed, authentic modern conservatism arose from Edmund Burke’s revulsion of the French Revolution’s butchery of political order (such as it was), cultural tradition, social institutions, and human life; that is, modern conservatism arose in reaction to modern radicalism.

So, to Mr. Krugman et al, please cease perpetuating the contradiction. Stop calling conservative pols what they are not: conservative. They are pseudoconservatives, they are reactionaries, they are radicals, and in some instances they are merely lunatics. But they are not conservative.

I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show—contra Carpenter, Sullivan, Blumenthal, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more—that today’s conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn’t betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan: she has fulfilled them.

Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I’d like to make a novel suggestion: let’s read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory refers to—but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace. For Carpenter is right: modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, did arise in reaction to modern radicalism. But what Carpenter doesn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know it, is that something funny happened on the way to the counterrevolution.

As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilization, putting themselves into the driver’s seat of history, threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.

Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between “ability”—the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob—and “property,” the aristocrats and their clients. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why: “As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the” state. Without the protection of the feudal state, property would lose.

By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke’s concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views,” he now wrote of the revolutionaries, “the Jacobins are our superiors.”

But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries’ superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances. The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, “they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour….They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”

It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite—as well as the other monarchies of old Europe—could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate. Where the Jacobins had “conquered the finest parts of Europe” with an “annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce,” the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.

At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment.  We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it.  But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments.

They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident.

In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy.  Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.

Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:

They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.

These “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour,” Burke complained, charged with defending the old orders of Europe, “had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes.”  They lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism.”

The other negative consequence of an inheritance that’s assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor—whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate—quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition. This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke’s writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.

“Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut,” Burke declared at the outset of his Regicide Peace.  The laws of the state, ancient and “full of reason, and of equity and justice,” were a “dead letter,” producing “no more than stubble.” Their very ancientness, he concluded, made them weak.

Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects.

Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.

It wasn’t just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced.  Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first order.

There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem.  “Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.”

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation—all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table—would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast.  In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

 Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

 To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe.  England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.” ““No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)

This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”

I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism—and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.

In the twentieth century, one finds a similar move in Friedrich Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defense of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. There, Hayek says, among other things, that the “successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency” and that

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read.  Likewise, Hayek and the rest of the conservative canon.  Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.  That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?

If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they’re great, which they are. But also because we’re having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about. If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice.

So here’s my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em. Then let’s talk.

Norwegian Terrorist Knows His Conservative Canon

24 Jul

Anders Behring BreivikAnders Behring Breivik, the guy who’s confessed to the Norwegian terrorist bombings, doesn’t just have ideas about multiculturalism and Muslim immigration (in case you haven’t heard, he’s not crazy about either)—though you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage, which focuses almost exclusively on Breivik’s identitarian interests.  Breivik also has a fair amount to say about capitalism and its critics.  In his lengthy manifesto, he proffers opinions about Naomi Klein (dislikes) and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (likes). He also seems more than passingly familiar with some of the leading figures of conservative thought like Roger Scruton. I haven’t had time to immerse myself in Breivik’s statement—it’s 1500 pages!—but from the bits I’ve read, it’s clear that there’s more here than Islamophobia.

When Conservatives Read Conservatives

3 Jul

Andrew SullivanA few weeks ago Andrew Sullivan complained—and not for the first time—that contemporary conservatism has grown too ideological and fundamentalist, abandoning the tradition of Burke and Hayek. You know, the tradition of prudence and restraint that abjures fanaticism and counsels moderation, that eschews the grand designs of the left in favor of the evolutionary, piecemeal reforms of the right.

Friedrich HayekYou know, that tradition that says this:

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 61)

And this:

“Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 65)

Edmund BurkeAnd this:

“Acquiescence will not do.  There must be zeal.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 104)

And this:

“Distemper is still the madness of the wise, which is better than the sobriety of fools.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 142)

And this:

“Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 185)

And this:

“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 216)

Cherry-picking, you’ll say. Perhaps, but from where I sit, there’s an entire orchard waiting to be harvested.

Conservatives like Sullivan—and a great many other writers, on the right and the left—like to invoke the great and the good of the conservative past against the yahoos and yobs of the conservative present. But if you actually read the canon, you’ll see that the distance between the grand old texts and the Grand Old Party ain’t so, um, grand.

So here’s an idea for Sullivan and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,632 other followers