The Continued Relevance of F.A. Hayek’s “Why I am not a Conservative”
Because conservatism in the United States has, increasingly in the latter half of the post-war period, come to be synonymous with Republican politics, it makes sense for those devoted to the ideals of classical liberalism to explain their occasional opposition or support of Republican policies or candidates in the terms succinctly expressed by Hayek in his reflective “Why I am not a Conservative.”
As Hayek noted in the brief essay, included as a postscript to his opus The Constitution of Liberty, “At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition,” (Hayek 2011, 519). For this reason, Hayek went on to explain, the classical liberal or libertarian often found themselves supporting conservative parties of resistance in the face of increasing progressive demands for further government control.
In the case of the United States, however, this was difficult in the post-war era. First, there was the McCarthyite strain of anti-civil libertarianism, one quickly fused with the militaristic nationalism denounced by Rothbard in the 1960s. With the announcement by Nixon in 1971 that he too was a Keynesian, it was clear the extent to which Republican politics had become utterly transformed. Dominant throughout the Cold War period, playing key roles in initiating the invasive and destructive wars on drugs and then crime, the Imperial misadventures of the neoconservative Bush administration, and subsequent revelations of further flagrant violations of civil liberties, have since diminished the influence of such big government conservatives. Though the religious right, with whom the second Bush had formed increasing ties, emerged arguably the stronger and more dominant in the ensuing years because of this newly created vacuum within the Republican Party. Destabilized by the shock of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the free trade plank, already shaky after the United States’ difficult transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, was displaced as protectionism returned in full force. In its language, too, Republican politics under Trump had increasing resort, in its nationalistic ardor, to the collectivist language of “our” industry.
Fear, as Hayek wrote, not principle, is the driving force behind conservatism (522). In the case of the abandonment of free trade, modern American conservatism lacks the principled liberal attitude that, as Hayek put it, “especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance,” (522). Indeed, having suffered from detrimental changes in fiscal policy and the laws of corporate governance, free trade is now being offered up as a scapegoat to a white working class increasingly angry over their real and perceived economic and cultural dislocation.
Relatedly, in their opposition to increased immigration from Latin America, contemporary Republican politics eschew the benefits of adhering to what, it is argued by contemporary libertarians such as Jason Brennan, should be a core principle of modern libertarianism, the free movement of people (Brennan and Van der Vossen 2018). Apart from its theoretically demonstrated ability to alleviate the world’s poverty crisis without engaging in any of French economist Thomas Piketty’s imagined supra-state fiscal redistribution, to double total world GDP (22), it is precisely by means of such “voluntary and unhampered intercourse” in “tolerance” which is “an essential characteristic of liberalism,” that the libertarian favors (Hayek 2011, 527-8).
This unwillingness, this fear, to trust in uncontrolled social and economic forces is the epitome of the modern American conservative, which gives cause for leveling one of Hayek’s most severe rebukes at the Republican Party: its propensity to fetishize authority (522). His most severe rebuke, what Hayek finds most objectionable about conservatism, its “propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it,” is also an apt characterization (526). Arguably most prominently felt in the increased influence of religious conservatism in Republican politics, with its opposition to evolution and the pushing of publicly-funded creationist alternatives, it spills over to skepticism regarding vaccinology, as well as doubts about the existence of anthropomorphic climate change as, to whatever degree of significance, a reality.
It was perhaps inevitable given these correlations, that in the wake of the certified 2020 Presidential election overwhelming numbers of polled Republican voters either supported the attempt to throw out the results of the election or believe Trump actually won, this despite no evidence of voter fraud having been produced by Trump’s legal team in any court. While Hayek, writing when he did, could in relative safety opine, “In a country like the United States, which on the whole still has free institutions and where, therefore the defense of the existing is often a defense of freedom, it might not make so much difference if the defenders of freedom call themselves conservative,” (532); this is clearly not the case now.
Though it is obfuscated by the tumultuous years of his Presidency, prior to the emergence of Donald Trump as the dominant voice in Republican politics, there were intimations within the party that looked like they would initiate, or wanted to initiate, as Hayek recommended, “a thorough sweeping-away of the obstacles to free growth,” (121). Then there was the so-called 2013 Republican autopsy, an internal attempt by party leadership to find direction after what their internal polls had led them to believe was going to be a certain Romney win. It had advised outreach to the growing Hispanic community, forming strong cross-cultural and cross-regional relationships, further opening up and embracing the hemisphere of which the country is a part; this while remaining committed to free trade. What could have been is difficult to say, and many political imaginaries remain open, but it remains imperative that classical liberals, whether acting through the Libertarian Party or through some other channel, commit to offering a viable alternative to those who want smaller government, care about civil libertarianism, but fear the growing influence of the religious right – who in Utah just recently succeeded in passing a law banning cell phones and tablets sold in the state from accessing pornography.
Though the classical liberal may approve of certain deregulatory policies or tax reductions, Hayek’s critique of conservatism remains almost as poignant today as when it was written, and if asked to explain why you are not a conservative remains a good place to start—particularly as prominent Republican insiders, such as Oren Cass, are now publicly calling for Republicans to abandon their commitment to “free market orthodoxy” and its “obsession” with cutting taxes.
Brennan, J. and Van Der Vossen, B. (2018). In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hayek, F.A. (2011). The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 It should be noted, however, that this is not a consensus view among the various factions of the contemporary libertarian movement, with some prominent dissenters, such as Hans Herman-Hoppe, advocating restrictive immigration policies similar to those proposed by the recent Trump administration, and which has had a consistent base of support in conservative American politics.