What will they have to say tomorrow?

Hayek's Message for Victorious Republicans

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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In tomorrow's election, the Republican Party seems poised to make significant gains in the U.S. Senate and the House, and might well end up with control of both. If so, how will it define itself?

It is tempting to answer by pointing to concrete policy proposals -- reducing regulation, promoting free trade, cutting the federal budget. But does any general theory, or approach to government, unify those proposals? In a magnificent essay, one of modern conservatism's greatest heroes, Friedrich Hayek, offered an answer. Published in 1960, Hayek's "Why I Am Not A Conservative" deserves careful attention today, perhaps above all from Republicans.

Hayek had some admiring words for conservatives: He endorsed their skepticism about rapid change and about social engineering. He drew attention to "their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions," and in particular their emphasis on how law, language and morals often grow up spontaneously, through the decisions of countless people rather through the actions of any social designer.

But most of Hayek's assessment was scathing. Too often, he argued, conservatives foolishly object to novelty as such, because they "lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavor will emerge." And he complained that they are far too fond of established authority. "The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it used for what he regards as the right purposes."

Most damagingly, Hayek said, the conservative "has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from their own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions." Sounding a lot like those who argue for the right to same-sex marriage, Hayek complained that conservatives insist that government should enlist their own moral convictions as a basis for law.

He also objected that conservatives are prone to embrace "a strident nationalism" -- and that conservatism tends to be associated with anti-internationalism. He thought that good ideas have no boundaries and that "it is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American."

Hayek worried that conservatives are obscurantists, prone to reject new knowledge merely because they dislike its consequences. "By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position." (Climate change, anyone?)

And he complained that conservatives define themselves solely by opposition -- and so cannot "offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving."

Instead of conservatism, Hayek argued for a principled commitment to liberty -- an approach that would sharply constrain government and "take an essentially radical position, directed against popular prejudices, entrenched positions and firmly established privileges." It's fair to say that in the current period, Hayek's "radical position" would entail a strong commitment to free trade, a rejection of protectionism, decreased regulation, deep skepticism about occupational licensing (and other barriers to entry), a firm commitment to religious liberty, and less frequent appeals to patriotism as a substitute for freedom-protecting reforms.

In his short essay, Hayek did not deliver a knockout punch against conservatism. But he did land some powerful blows, not least in his objection that conservatives cannot easily work with people whose values differ from their own.

It is true that committed conservatives could muster some rejoinders. They might argue that any "radical position," even in the interest of liberty, might be dangerous and destabilizing -- in its own way, a form of social engineering. They might add that a nation should be reluctant to reject longstanding traditions, not because of a mindless commitment to the past, but because of a principled belief that if traditions have persisted over time, there is probably a good reason for them. They might contend that a form of nationalism helps to inculcate enduring values, including a commitment to liberty itself.

In the coming period, however, Republicans will be under increasing pressure to define themselves affirmatively rather than by opposition. One of their chief goals should be to identify freedom-promoting initiatives that might attract support from people who cannot, by temperament or otherwise, be counted as conservative. They would do well to begin with a close reading of Hayek.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net