Friedrich Hayek Conservatism and Libertarianism, Hayek Knowledge

Socialist critics of Hayek have always regarded him as a conservative because he has denied that political action, from centralised authorities, can improve upon the outcomes of a spontaneous market. However, he has stressed that he is not a conservative (1960, pp. 397-406), and indeed his individualism makes him hostile to all forms of collective action. His position is, if anything, anti-political. But it is also a position that makes his social philosophy curiously invulnerable to any argument that might derive from 'facts'. For example, market economies and systems of rules may not develop in desirable ways, even from the liberal point of view, yet it is unlikely that the 'evidence' would alter Hayek's belief that the attempt to improve matters is likely to make things worse. This is perhaps less important in relation to the market since the effects of monopoly and other alleged examples of market power' have been exaggerated. It is also true that such market power is almost always the product of legal privilege granted by the state. However, all this is much less true of legal orders which rarely spontaneously develop in ways that advance individualism. In fact the single institution in Britain which has contributed most to the gradual undermining of the common law and market economy is the sovereign Parliament, a product of spontaneous evolution. Indeed, the legal system that is required to service an economic order may, as Hayek concedes in his recent constitutional reform proposals, have to be created politically. There is, of course, a difference between the creation and maintenance of those conditions which are required for the evolution of a social order and steering the system in some particular direction.

It is the case that at least a part of Hayek's distrust of intervention derives from his desire to minimise coercion. The only legitimate coercion, he says, is that used by the state to prevent coercion by others (Hayek 1960, Chapter 9). Since coercion, even that 'legitimate' form of compulsion exercised by democratic states, ought not to be used to advance economic and social goals, his system would permit, for example, the persistence of massive inequalities even if the removal of some of them required only a little centralised action. The presence of extreme inequality will, however, make the market order more unac­ceptable and lead to the charge that it embodies a form of coercion which can only be alleviated by political means. While the latter charge is certainly dubious it will gain plausibility to the extent that Hayek's prohibition on the use of 'politics' to bring about change appears to entrench privilege.

Curiously enough, cogent criticisms of Hayek's doctrines can be made from the market standpoint itself. While Hayek (1960, p. 60) has deliberately rejected anarchy, and even laissez-faire, a 'property rights' version of anarchism has been derived from a philosophical position similar to his. The followers of Mises in the USA, led by Murray N. Rothbard (1973), do indeed maintain that the market can satisfy any want, including protection, so that a private enterprise police and jury system is feasible. Also, 'anarchists' say that all cases of external 'bads', such as pollution, could be 'internalised' via a properly-constituted legal code with an extended concept of property. Radical libertarians have been in the forefront of compaigns against narcotics laws, welfare, conscription and income tax, all of which are permitted (logically) by Hayek's account of liberty and law (see Hamowy, 1961).

Furthermore, Hayek's market order is not as abstract as it sometimes appears, since he is prepared to countenance restric­tions on immigration, for the reason that people of different cultures find it difficult to live under the same rules (1976b, p. 58). This is a statement which has collectivist overtones. Despite Hayek's objections to pragmatism and opportunism in politics his own agenda of government is less strictly libertarian than is often thought (Barry, 1979, Chapter 6). His reasoning permits, for example, subsidies to the arts and the provision of civil amenities.

Despite these problems, however, Hayek has undoubtedly constructed the most coherent defence of traditional liberal political economy this century and many of his warnings of the consequences of collectivist policies have turned out to be well-founded. His major intellectual achievement has been to re­integrate economics into the main body of social science and to remind us that so many of the benefits of civilised living are the product of spontaneous evolution. Now that people are becom­ing more sceptical of the intellectual foundations of planning and fearful of politicians acting without the restraint of rules, Hayek's social philosophy is, deservedly, reaching a wide audience.