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F A Hayek was in fact a Conservative

Summary:
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication, by Chicago University Press, of F A Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty.” It remains a classic defence of personal liberty as that which makes civilization and progress possible. Hayek says that the legitimate role of government is to protect that freedom by laws that apply to all, including itself. At the end of that book is an essay, “Appendix: Why I am Not a Conservative,” in which he asserts that he seeks liberty, rather than the preservation of any current state of society. If society is not liberal, he supports changing it to make it so, rather than opposing changes, which is what he takes Conservatism to stand for. He uses ‘liberal’ in the way people outside of America do, to mean supportive of freedom.Hayek was writing in the

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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication, by Chicago University Press, of F A Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty.” It remains a classic defence of personal liberty as that which makes civilization and progress possible. Hayek says that the legitimate role of government is to protect that freedom by laws that apply to all, including itself. 

At the end of that book is an essay, “Appendix: Why I am Not a Conservative,” in which he asserts that he seeks liberty, rather than the preservation of any current state of society. If society is not liberal, he supports changing it to make it so, rather than opposing changes, which is what he takes Conservatism to stand for. He uses ‘liberal’ in the way people outside of America do, to mean supportive of freedom.

Hayek was writing in the late 1950s, when some of the limitations on liberty that had been necessary to win the Second World War had not been fully removed, and when parties in the UK had accepted the ‘postwar consensus’ of a mixed, largely centrally-directed economy. Hayek did not want to conserve such societies, but to transform them into more liberal ones. 

In 1987, the Adam Smith Institute published the book, “Hayek - on the Fabric of Human Society,” a tribute work containing essays on Hayek by many distinguished scholars. My own essay at the end of the book was somewhat bravely entitled, “Appendix: Why F A Hayek is a Conservative.” 

I put the case that there is a small “c” conservatism that denotes an aversion to change, and the desire to hold on to familiar things and ways for the comfort and security they bring. There is also a large “C” Conservatism that denotes a political tradition rather than a character trait. 

That political tradition does not oppose all change, but is against attempts to impose deliberate change to remake society into a preconceived order. Instead it wants such change as takes place to be spontaneous and organic, the product of people interacting, and perhaps reacting to changing circumstances. It opposes utopian attempts to make society correspond with one dreamed-up in theory, as opposed to one that develops naturally in practice. 

What the political tradition of Conservatism seeks to conserve is not any given state of society, but rather the process by which society changes. It seeks to conserve a process, not an outcome. Crucially, I pointed out that Conservatives seek not only to preserve that spontaneity, but to restore it if it has been lost. This brings Margaret Thatcher into their ranks. She managed to restore a degree of spontaneity that had been lost by decades of state controls and central direction. 

She was once confronted by an interviewer with Hayek’s claim that he was not a Conservative, and replied that she thought he’d approve of what she was doing. He did indeed, and had dinner with her twice a year when he came for meetings of the British Academy. He approved of the fact that she had restored a large measure of spontaneity, and in doing so had extended opportunities for people to exercise freedom and creativity that were previously denied. 

In the properly understood meaning of the political tradition: F A Hayek was indeed a Conservative. 

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