Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why Hayek is not a conservative, again

This is an exercise in comparison, suggested by a Kenneth Anderson post on Volokh, in which the following passage from Burke's Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs is first quoted:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.
 And then the question of whether or not it's "consistent" with Hayek is posed. My answer, which I've largely copied from a comment on the post but expanded, is as follows:

The Burke passage deliberately runs together a couple of things that should have been kept distinct. First, as many have pointed out, he conflates a child’s duty to his parents with a citizen’s duty to her state, as though the state really were a kind of parent figure and the citizens permanent juveniles. And second, he mixes moral with legal obligation, as though the state could legitimately coerce any sort of good behavior.

Hayek, I think, would understand and appreciate the idea that there are many aspects of tradition, custom, even common law, that have evolved for reasons we don’t necessarily fully grasp, and that we should therefore be cautious about abandoning or overturning. But he would also say that we can’t stop there, because there are also many aspects of our cultural inheritance that are remnants of earlier superstition, ignorance, and bigotry. And he wouldn’t have made the sort of rhetorical confusions above, that Burke indulges too readily.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Burke offers an analogy--as child to parents, so citizens to state. While not "necessarily" true, it's not implausible, and eloquently stated (quite more so than the writing of any Austrian econo-men). The society does exist..a priori, as it were (at least in modern countries). So the child and later the citizen does have certain duties--taxes, what have you.

    your point that legal obligations are not moral obligations seems to be a common libertarian presumption but rather dubious on examination. "Thou shall not kill" or steal, etc seems prima facie moral, yet the law and specific penal code regarding murder or theft is ultimately moral as well. Someone like Locke did believe in objective morality, however, and not just laws for the sake of convenience. Evil occurs when the thief robs someone of the fruits of his labor, etc. Of course in a Katrina situation--or state of nature ala Hobbes, not to say Malthus or Darwin-- that wd be difficult to enforce--then the Ted Nugent sort of libertarian might prefer a Katrina-esque anarchy, that is, if he's got an arsenal of semis.

  3. The analogy linking citizens to state as children to parents isn't so much implausible as revealing -- it shows not only that conservatives of the time viewed citizens as subservient juveniles, but it also draws a parallel with the latter-day "liberals" of our own time, who look upon the state as a nanny-like authority.

    And the erasure of distinction between legal and moral obligation follows from a similar premise. Of course there is overlap between the two, as your examples of murder or theft make clear. But most people understand that there are large areas of life -- variously termed good manners, decent behavior, etc. -- that are or should be governed by free moral choice rather than law. Here, at least, conservatives like Burke knew this too. But modern liberals, showing again that propensity to look upon the state as a great parent figure, often seek to spread the force of law into ever more private and personal choice -- see, e.g., the slogan "the personal is political".

  4. Burke was a whig, and while considered conservative by Merican scribes, I'd say he was more of a moderate. He's not my favorite klassic, but his point on being bound by societal tradition is at least worth considering--though he was probably implicitly criticizing the jacobins/french revolutionaries, who obviously did not feel much obligation to preserve the Bourbon monarchy. So metamorf's with the Rev?! Egalite, liberte, Fraternite, M.

    Actually yr being a bit...disingenuous, if not just deceptive, m. Libertarians often want to suggest they're the real hipsters, sort of the real progressives or something--John Galt! Murray ROTHBARD lives! . Eliminate all those old liberal regulations, cut taxes, eliminate bureaucracy etc and lets celebrate Freedom and a new day! We the living! But in effect that's the older, retrograde politics. Ayn Rand didn't have a political vision--she just wants a return to the Czar

  5. Good point about Burke's Whiggishness, but as you say, times change. I actually like a lot of Burke, esp. vis a vis the French Revolution and its contrast with the American, but I also recognize he was a master of sweet-sounding rhetoric that can sometimes obscure more than it clarifies.

    As for libertarians, I was going to say they're a bit too geekish to be hipsters, but then hipsters are just yesterday's geeks anyway. And Rothbard is just over the top. But a more libertarian approach does indeed infuse a truly progressive politics, or neo-progressive as I like to say. Yes, indeed: "Eliminate all those old liberal regulations, cut taxes, eliminate bureaucracy etc and lets celebrate [f]reedom and a new day" -- and then let's get down to work. Unlike excitable latter-day liberals, neo-progressives tend to eschew hyperbolic caps and exclamation marks.

    Oh, and I really don't think you know much about Ayn Rand at all.

  6. I'm well acquainted with Miss Rand's pseudo-Aristotelian rhetoric (greatly misreading Ari.'s politics, where that ancient Toastmaster criticized usury and tyranny, for one), her Nietzsche-lite, her love of wealth and power, the attacks on unions (if Rand and her followers had their way, even collective bargaining would have been verboten).

  7. Sorry, J, but it doesn't sound like you know much about Rand apart from things you may have heard, and most of that seems wrong. She was, for example, influenced by Aristotle's logic and metaphysical realism (as opposed to Plato's idealism), but hardly by either his politics or economics, both of which were more typical of his time. She attacked compulsory unions, but was more favorably inclined to union leaders than to many business people. As for Nietzsche, here's about the most favorable thing she had to say for him:

    "Philosophically, Nietzsche is a mystic and an irrationalist. His metaphysics consists of a somewhat “Byronic” and mystically “malevolent” universe; his epistemology subordinates reason to “will,” or feeling or instinct or blood or innate virtues of character. But, as a poet, he projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness, expressed in emotional, not intellectual, terms."

    Maybe, if you're going to bring her up all the time, it would be good to actually, you know, read her? Try, e.g., just the first chapter of "Atlas Shrugged" -- it wouldn't take you long.

  8. I teach logic, m. Anyone who can produce a valid modus ponens knows more about logic than did Ayn Rand (and actually she misreads even the cliffsnotes to Aristotle); her praise of Reason was itself confused (and she first loved Nietzsche then turned against him when her advisors told her to).

    Ive read much of her political statements, and enough of her "novels" (including Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead, years ago) to know how bogus she really was. Not a philosopher or economist, merely a crackpot opportunist, like most libertarians (tho' of course she denied being a libertarian, even tho she was one).

  9. Ill amend that slightly--the aged Rand (like from 60s on) modified her views a bit, and began to praise the Founding fathers, Locke, etc. She even dissed Nixon once,and was not a supporter of Reagan and the "moral majority" (from what I read). So I don't think she was quite as crackpotty as she was initially in the 30s and 40s, etc.--but economically speaking still a crackpot.

  10. If you teach logic, J, then you'll know that generalities and insults, while easy, don't make much of an argument. There's a lot that could and should be said about Ayn Rand, both positively and negatively, but it would need to be on the basis of what she's actually written. This, though, isn't the place or time for it.

  11. No. I made substantive points (ie claims which can easily be...verified)--such as Ayn Rand's opposition to unions of all types, evident in the Fountainhead and other works.


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