Vigilance in the Name of Freedom

I recently was sent the following quotation by Friedrich Hayek, the economist and political thinker.

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it – or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into or prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

The quote is from an essay titled “Why I am Not a Conservative.” Hayek is still today labeled a conservative (for whatever labels are worth). Here Hayek rejects the label, while also disdaining the modern conceptions of both liberalism and socialism. His efforts to stake out a position that defends freedom is as honest as it is relevant. It deserves to be read.

Hayek’s quote is making the rounds not because of an interest in Hayek. Rather, the quote is being used (dare I say abused?) because it is thought to show the anti-science obscurantism and thoughtlessness of those who refuse to believe in evolution or global warming. The duplicitous refusal of politicians to even acknowledge the now undeniable scientific consensus about global warming is just the kind of obscurantism Hayek disdains. But it is a mistake to find in Hayek’s attack common cause with efforts to enlist the government in the environmental cause.

Hayek’s chief complaint with conservatism is its often uncritical defense of authority. The “main point” he takes issue with is the “characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds.” In other words, the conservative is willing to put so much trust in authority and leadership that he tends to overlook those instances when government exceeds its authority and impinges on individual freedoms.  This is why Hayek argues that conservatives are often closer to socialists than to liberals. Like socialists, conservatives are willing to excuse governmental action they agree with, even when such action impedes on liberty.

It should be clear that many who go by the name liberal today are not liberal in the sense Hayek means–which is closer to libertarian, although he also rejects that label and what it represents. His problem is with all those who would excuse government overreach for particular ends, when that regulation will restrict individual liberty.

Hayek’s thought warns about the political dangers for freedom posed by both conservatism and socialism, two forms of increased respect for authority, one in the persona of a charismatic leader and the other in the rationality of bureaucracy and the welfare state. On both scores, Hayek’s impassioned defense of freedom shares much with Hannah Arendt, although she undoubtedly disagrees with Hayek and liberalism’s location of freedom in the private sphere. 

For Arendt, liberal constitutional government is absolutely essential insofar as it is the best way to protect the realm of private liberty Hayek values so highly. For Arendt, however, it is not enough to protect freedom as a private citizen. Freedom includes not simply the right to do as one will in private, but also the right and the ability to act and speak in public. Freedom—human freedom—is more than the freedom simply to live well. Freedom also demands spaces of appearance, those institutionally protected realms where free citizens can engage in the debate and action about the dreams and hope of their life together. It is this freedom to be participate and act directly in government that is too frequently forgotten by those like Hayek.

That said, few thinkers better call us to vigilance in the cause of freedom. You can read the entirety of Hayek’s “Why I am Not a Conservative” here.


Posted on 27 January 2012 | 11:55 am

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