Tag Archives: John Quiggin

If you’re getting lessons in democracy from Margaret Thatcher, you’re doing it wrong

16 Jul

Here’s a photo of a letter Margaret Thatcher sent to Friedrich von Hayek on February 17, 1982, in which she draws a comparison between Britain and Pinochet’s Chile.  I wrote about the letter in chapter 2 of The Reactionary Mind.

It now turns out, according to Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell, that there is no No one has yet to discover—not in the Hayek or the Thatcher archives—a preceding letter from Hayek to Thatcher, even though, as many of us have wondered about this letter before.assumed. So we don’t know what exactly it was that Hayek said that elicited this response from Thatcher. Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell speculates, in an email to John Quiggin that I was copied on, that Thatcher may have been remarking here upon comments that Hayek might have made—about the need for Thatcher to abolish the “special privileges” of trade unions in Britain (as Pinochet had done in Chile)—at a dinner on February 2. But the Thatcher letter does refer to a February 5 letter from Hayek, so it’s difficult to say for sure.

Here’s the text of the letter:

My dear Professor Hayek,

Thank you for your letter of 5 February. I was very glad that you were able to attend the dinner so thoughtfully organised by Walter Salomon. It was not only a great pleasure for me, it was, as always, instructive and rewarding to hear your views on the great issues of our time.

I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons.

However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure.

Best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Thatcher

Update (10:40 am)

Brad DeLong raises a good question in the comments (as did my mom in an email to me). This is also a question I’ve had myself.  I’ve made some inquiries; will report back on what if anything I find out.

Update (5:25 pm)

In the comments (and in an email to me), John Quiggin explains that he checked back with Caldwell about that February 5 letter. Caldwell, who’s the editor of Hayek’s collected works, doesn’t have a copy of it, and others who’ve looked in the Hayek archive at the Hoover Institute have not found it. John did a quick check of the Thatcher archives and didn’t find a copy of it there either.

Conservatism is Dead…Because It Lives

7 Nov

In the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind, I claimed that conservatism was dead. I wrote that in the wake of the 2010 congressional election, at the height of the Tea Party euphoria, when just about everyone was saying the opposite.

Last night, a Harvard professor defeated a faux-populist. A coalition of blacks, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, and white working class voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, defeated the most retrograde versions of homophobia, sexism, racism, and anti-intellectualism (notice I say only “the most retrograde”). For the second time in four years. I think (hope?) it’s safe to say that The Real America, The Heartland, The Silent Majority—choose your favorite kitschy cliche of the last five decades—no longer governs the land. Obama’s coalition, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted a decade ago, is the wave of the future.

That said, last night Barack Obama claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration. There’s a history to this, as I’ve pointed out. But it also confirms another thing I said in the conclusion to The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.

Here’s the entirety of my conclusion to The Reactionary Mind:

Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years. Just as the Republican administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon demonstrated the resilience of the New Deal, so have the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama demonstrated the resilience of Reaganism.

The conservative embrace of unregulated capitalism and imperial power still envelops our two parties. Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.

The success of the right, however, is not an unmixed blessing. As conservatives have long noted, there is a dialectical synergy between the left and the right, in which the progress of the former spurs on the innovations of the latter. “It is ironic, although not historically unprecedented,” wrote Frank Meyer, the intellectual architect of the fusionist strategy that brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of modern conservatism, “that such a burst of creative energy on the intellectual level” on the right “should occur simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of Liberalism in the practical political sphere.” Across the Atlantic, Roger Scruton, a more traditional type of British Tory, wrote that “in times of crisis . . . conservatism does its best,” while Friedrich Hayek observed that the defense of the free market “became stationary when it was most influential” and “progressed” when it was “on the defensive.”

True, these were intellectuals writing about ideas; conservative operatives might be less sanguine about the prospect of trading four more years for a few good books. Even so, if the ultimate fate of a party is tied to the strength of its ideas—not the truth of its ideas, but the resonance and pertinence of those ideas, their cultural purchase and ability to travel across the political landscape—it should be a cause of concern on the right that its ideas have so roundly succeeded. As Burke warned long ago, victory may simply be a way station to death.

Several recent books of conservative introspection suggest that many on the right are indeed concerned about the state of conservative ideas. But most of these attempts at self-criticism seem motivated by a simple fear of defeat at the polls. Oriented as they are to the electoral cycle or to the pros and cons of particular policies, they don’t see that conservatism, like any party, can lose elections yet still control public debate. More important, these writers don’t understand that failure is the wellspring of conservative renewal. They imagine that conservatism can simply be reinvented or retooled to meet the needs of a changing electorate or the hobbyhorses of its theoreticians.

But that is not how conservatism works. Conservatism requires defeat; failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Not failure in the brooding, romantic sense that Andrew Sullivan articulates in his paean to loss, but failure in the simultaneously threatening and galvanizing sense. Loss—real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.

What the right suffers from today is not loss but success, and until a significant dominant group in society is forced to suffer loss—of the kind experienced by employers during the 1930s, white supremacists during the 1960s, or husbands in the 1970s—it will remain a philosophically flabby movement. Politically powerful, but intellectually moribund.

Which leads me to wonder about the long-term prospects of the Tea Party, the latest variant of right-wing populism. Has the Tea Party given conservatism a new lease on life? Or is the Tea Party like the New Politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last spark of a spent force, its frantic energies a mask for the decline of the larger movement of which it is a part?

It’s impossible to say, but this much is clear: So long as there are social movements demanding greater freedom and equality, there will be a right to counter them. With the exception of the gay rights movement, there are today no threatening social movements of the left. Once they arise, a new right will arise with them—not a right that needs to invent bogeymen like Obama’s socialism but a right with real monsters to destroy. Until then, we can chalk up the current state of the right not to its failures of imagination or excess of spleen—as some have done—but to its overwhelming success.

Modern conservatism came onto the scene of the twentieth century in order to defeat the great social movements of the left. As far as the eye can see, it has achieved its purpose. Having done so, it now can leave. Whether it will, and how much it will take with it on its way out, remains to be seen.

Update (10:45 pm)

On an unrelated note—to this post, though not to this blog—a commenter writes:

Also, there’s an aspect to the weed legalization initiatives that Corey should be interested in. Neither Colorado’s nor Washington’s laws prohibit employers from firing employees for testing positive for smoking off-duty. Colorado’s legislature and courts haven’t explicitly taken a side, but employers interpret the law in a way favorable to them, so people will probably be fired in the near future for testing positive. Washington explicitly allows firing those that test positive, even for medical marijuana patients.

So state legalization means you can smoke or you can have a job. Freedom!



Hayek von Pinochet

8 Jul

It’s no secret that Friedrich von Hayek was a warm supporter of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody regime. As I wrote in The Nation a few years back:

Hayek admired Pinochet’s Chile so much that he decided to hold a meeting of his Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar, the seaside resort where the coup against Allende was planned. In 1978 he wrote to the London Times that he had “not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.”

Greg Grandin, Naomi Klein, Brad DeLong, John Quiggin (twice), and Michael Lind also have written about the Hayek-Pinochet connection.

By contrast, Alan Ebenstein, Hayek’s biographer (sympathetic doesn’t quite capture the tone), does not mention the connection at all. Ebenstein does, however, quote Hayek making the rather astonishing claim in 1981 that there were not “any totalitarian governments in Latin America. The only one was Chile under Allende.”

I had thought there wasn’t much more to say about Hayek in Chile, but a new article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology—”Preventing the ‘Abuses’ of Democracy: Hayek, the ‘Military Usurper’ and Transitional Dictatorship in Chile?” by Andrew Farrant, Edward McPhail, and Sebastian Berger—provides some fresh details.

Here is just a taste:

For instance, Hayek—writing to The Times in 1978 and explicitly invoking Pinochet by name—noted that under certain “historical circumstances,” an authoritarian government may prove especially conducive to the long-run preservation of liberty: There are “many instances of authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under many democracies.”

[Hayek] noted that if “Strauss (who I met during a reception in Chile briefly)” had been “attacked for his support for Chile he deserves to be congratulated for his courage.” [Franz Josef Strauss was a right-wing German politician, who had visited Chile in 1977 and met with Pinochet. His views were roundly repudiated by both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Germany. Hayek apparently wanted to help Strauss become chancellor of Germany.]

Though Hayek’s 1981 interviews with El Mercurio have attracted much attention, scholars have ignored El Mercurio’s coverage of Hayek’s initial visit to Chile in 1977. In particular, El Mercurio notes that Hayek—quoted as saying that Chile’s efforts to develop and reform its economy provided “an example at the global level” (1977: 27)—had met with Pinochet: “At the end of his visit . . . Hayek . . . was received by President Augusto Pinochet. He [Hayek] told reporters that he talked to Pinochet about the issue of limited democracy and representative government. . . . He said that in his writings he showed that unlimited democracy does not work because it creates forces that in the end destroy democracy. He said that the head of state listened carefully and that he had asked him to provide him with the documents he had written on this issue.”

According to Hayek, Pinochet had requested copies of Hayek’s writings (“documents”) explaining why unlimited democracy would inevitably lead to the destruction of democracy (1977). Consequently, Hayek asked Charlotte Cubitt (his secretary from February 1977 until his death in 1992) to send Pinochet a draft of Hayek’s ‘A Model Constitution’ (Cubitt 2006: 19). Importantly, Hayek’s chapter—‘A Model Constitution’ (1979b: 105–127)—provides a three-page discussion of the conditions under which the adoption of Emergency Powers (124–126) and the suspension of democracy are supposedly justified: The “basic principle of a free society . . . [“the coercive powers of government are restricted to the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct”] . . . may . . . have to be temporarily suspended when the  long-run preservation of that order [the free society] is itself threatened” (1979b: 124).

When Hayek visited Chile in 1981 he “took time off from his official commitments to walk around and see for himself whether people were cheerful and content. He told me that it was the sight of many sturdy and healthy children that had convinced him.”

As Hayek notes, “democracy needs ‘a good cleaning’ by strong governments.”

The Pinochet junta “enacted a new constitution in September 1980. . . . The constitution was not only named after Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, but also incorporated significant elements of Hayek’s thinking.”

Farrant et al demonstrate that Hayek’s support of Pinochet was not contingent or begrudging—an alliance of convenience due to Pinochet’s embrace of free market economics—but was rather the product of two longstanding ideas and commitments.

First, a belief that welfare/socialist states of modern democracies have a tendency toward totalitarianism. This has been the subject of some debate over at Crooked Timber, but Farrant et al show just how consistently Hayek held this belief throughout his career: from The Road to Serfdom to volume 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, in which he describes his “growing apprehension about the direction in which the political order of what used to be regarded as the most advanced countries is tending” and his “growing conviction, for which the book gives the reasons, that this threatening development towards a totalitarian state is made inevitable by certain deeply entrenched defects of construction of the generally accepted type of ‘democratic’ government.” As Hayek put it in a 1981 interview with Renee Sallas of El Mercurio: “All movements in the direction of socialism, in the direction of centralized planning, involve the loss of personal freedom and end up ultimately in totalitarianism.”

In his defense of Pinochet (and elsewhere), Hayek invokes the oft-repeated distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian societies, and though Farrant et al don’t mention this, it struck me that this old saw—so beloved of figures like Jeanne Kirkpatrick—might have served as some of the glue holding together neoconservatives like Kirkpatrick and neoliberals like Hayek, especially in the 1970s.

Second, a belief in the virtues of temporary dictatorships as a means of saving these totalitarian-bound democracies from themselves. In 1981, Hayek told Sallas:

[A]s long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally, I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking in liberalism. My personal impression. . . is that in Chile . . . we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government . . . during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.

While critics have cited this quotation before, Farrant et al note that Hayek had been offering similar encomia to Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar as early as 1962.

Interestingly enough, Hayek had sent Salazar a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) in 1962 and Hayek’s accompanying note to Salazar is particularly revealing: Hayek hopes that his book—this “preliminary sketch of new constitutional principles”—“may assist” Salazar “in his endeavour to design a constitution which is proof against the abuses of democracy.”

Unlike most defenses of temporary dictatorship, Hayek’s was not framed around a foreign threat to the security of the state or a domestic insurrection (though he does offer a brief discussion of “emergency powers” in such situations in Volume 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty); his was explicitly designed to countermand the creeping tyranny of social democracy. If the visions of Gunnar Myrdal and John Kenneth Galbraith were realized, he wrote in Volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, social democracy would produce “a wholly rigid economic structure which…only the force of some dictatorial power could break.” Dictatorship, as he put it in his El Mercurio interview, was “a means of establishing a stable democracy and liberty, clean of impurities.”

As Farrant et al note, Hayek’s faith in the stewardship of good dictators flies in the face of his own warnings against trusting in the good intentions of government bureaucrats—not to mention his admonitions against an earlier generation of liberals and leftists, who were prepared to accept the allegedly temporary dictatorship of the Bolsheviks as a way station to the future.

Indeed, Hayek (1948: 207) took H. D. Dickinson—one of his opponents in the interwar socialist calculation debate—to task for defending the supposedly naive idea of a ‘transitional’ socialist dictatorship. Dickinson—like Hayek tellingly invoking the example of Oliver Cromwell—had argued that “[d]uring the . . . transition from a capitalist to a socialist society . . . [economic and political] liberty may be abridged, just as during the early phases of the struggles which made possible . . . political liberty those very liberties were temporarily eclipsed . . . Cromwell and Robespierre ruled arbitrarily, yet the ultimate influence of their rule was to establish civil liberty…. [Although] Lenin and Stalin have shown scant respect for the preferences of the . . . consumer . . . if they shall have been the means of establishing a classless society, their ultimate influence will be for economic liberty. After a socialist order has been safely established, the raison d’être of restrictions on liberty will have ceased” (Dickinson 1939: 235–236). As Hayek tartly noted, any adoption of transitional socialist dictatorship would more likely culminate in a permanent regime akin to that of Hitler or Stalin than in the “beautiful and idyllic picture . . . of ‘libertarian socialism’” painted by Dickinson (Hayek 1948: 207). Much the same criticism, however, can be readily leveled against the best case (or implicitly maximax) assumptions underlying the giant leap of faith that is implicit in Hayek’s own defense of transitional dictatorship.

But, it seems to me, in the course of defending Pinochet and Salazar—and the whole idea of temporary dictatorship— Hayek was prepared to entertain an even deeper betrayal of his own stated beliefs. As he said to Sallas in 1981, when any “government is in a situation of rupture, and there are no recognized rules, rules have to be created.” That is what a dictator does: create the rules of social and political life. (Again, Hayek is not referring to a situation of civil war or anarchy; he’s talking about a social democracy in which the government pursues “the mirage of social justice” through administrative and increasingly discretionary means.)

Yet Hayek is famous—arguably most famous—for his notion that the rules of social order are neither known nor made; they are tacit and inherited. As he argued in Volume 1 of Law, Legislation and Liberty:

The first of these attributes which most rules of conduct originally possessed is that they are observed in action without being known to the acting person in articulated (‘verbalized’ or explicit) form. They will manifest themselves in a regularity of action which can be explicitly described, but this regularity of action is not the result of acting persons being capable of thus stating them. The second is that such rules come to be observed because in fact they give the group in which they are practised superior strength, and not because this effect is known to those who are guided by them. Although such rules come to be generally accepted because their observation produces certain consequences, they are not observed with the intention of producing those consequences—consequences which the acting person need not know.

Hayek was hardly the first conservative intellectual to write paeans to the slow accumulated wisdom of the ages by day, only to  praise Jacobin interventions of the right by night. Edmund Burke, I’ve argued, did much the same thing. Hayek even went so far as to defend his preferred brand of politics as a kind of dogmatic utopianism.

A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.

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.

How one squares Hayek’s praise of dictatorship with his conception of a spontaneous order, I’m not yet sure. But with his vision of an unmoved mover knowingly and forcibly creating rules, by design, from a lawless firmament (not to mention his conception of democratic drift), Hayek puts himself within the orbit of Carl Schmitt, with whom he maintained a running dialogue, and who famously described the moment when a new order is brought into being—a new order of rules and routines—as a “an absolute decision created out of nothingness,” as the moment when “the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism [the democratic state] that has become torpid by repetition.”

Update (July 11, 10 am)

Here’s a pdf of the piece by Farrant et al.

Another prize! And other news of the blog and the book

5 Jan

Clio Awards 2011 - writerThe blog has won another award!  Cliopatra, the history blog at the History News Network, has awarded me its “Best Writer” award.  Here’s what the judges said:

Corey Robin’s new blog, CoreyRobin.com, has rapidly become a *tour de force*. Robin joins battle with contemporary issues by way of a deep engagement with the history of political thought. Although he is a passionate partisan of the left, he takes conservative thinkers seriously. Several of them have returned the favor, including Andrew Sullivan, who regularly uses Robin’s provocative posts as a launching pad for his own blogging, and Bruce Bartlett, who recently debated Robin at CoreyRobin.com. All that, and Robin’s words sparkle with a crafty combination of intelligence and wit. He is the quintessential public intellectual for the digital age.

Having majored in history as an undergraduate—my teachers included John Murrin, Lawrence Stone, Arno Mayer, Robert Darnton, James McPherson, and Reid Mitchell—and having always envied the ironic humanism of the historian’s craft (and wished we had more of it in political science, along with a greater sensitivity to time and historical context), I’m especially grateful to have won this recognition from the top blog in the historical profession.

This is the second prize this blog has won; the first was the 3 Quarks Daily 3rd prize (“Charm Quark”) for “best writing in politics and social science.”

More blog stuff

That Ron Paul post I wrote is getting a lot of attention and generating lots of discussion. Not only on the comments thread, which you should definitely check out, but on a Daily Kos post by David Mizner, the progressive writer and activist; in this Glenn Greenwald post; this Digby post; this rethink from Elias Isquith; and this acidulous—I’ve always wanted to use that word!—squib from Freddie DeBoer, whose blog you should also check out.  It’s also just been reposted at Al Jazeera English, where I suspect it will generate even more discussion.  And on Twitter, well, all hell has broken loose.  This is just one of the many tweets I received in response to the post: “your article is wrong on all accounts your a shill just regurgitating what the lame stream media keep feeding the Americ. public”.  There you go.


In addition to that appearance on “Up With Chris Hayes“—someone just alerted me to the eye roll, caught on tape at 16:20, that I did in response to the foolish claim of one of the conservative guests that Prussian aristocrats opposed Hitler—there’s a really good, if I do say so myself, two-part interview that Philip Pilkington did with me over at nakedcapitalism.com.  Part I is here, Part II is here. Thanks to Phil’s excellent questions, I manage to talk about some thing that aren’t in the book or that I haven’t discussed much in public: how I came to write the book, Burke’s thoughts on theater and costumes, the future of the GOP, and more.


Back in November, there was a mixed but generally positive review of the book in Times Higher Education. The reviewer—Joanna Bourke, a cultural historian (whose book on fear, in fact, I negatively reviewed in the New Statesman a long time ago)—said, “This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.”

John Quiggin, an Australian economist who actually knows something about political theory, did a nice post on the book, on his blog and at Crooked Timber. Lots of comments on both.

There’s also Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books. As I said in a previous post, I’ll be responding in due course, so I won’t say anything here. But in the meantime, as one young intellectual historian put it on a blog, “Bashing Lilla’s review of Robin’s book seems to be the newest internet meme.” He’s not kidding. Political theorist Alex Gourevitch weighed in at Jacobin; Henry Farrell, a political scientist with a strong interest in theory, at Crooked Timber; and intellectual historian Andrew Hartman at U.S. Intellectual History. There’s also been some further commentary on—or inspired—by the review, positive and negative, from Ben Alpers, Andrew Sullivan, Daniel Larison, Matt Yglesias, 3 Quarks Daily, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose interesting post prompted this response from me.  According to intellectual historian Tim Lacy, “I’m wondering if Robin’s book won’t also become something of an instant classic. I say this because you don’t attract high-profile ire from the likes of Mark Lilla unless you hit a nerve.” Here’s hoping.

And last, some further mentions of the book, in passing, from Andrew Sullivan, and, more substantively, from Paul Rosenberg.


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