Refusionism

Conservatism is, once again, becoming a form of right-wing collectivism. Classical liberals and libertarians should stay away.

It’s not exactly a secret that classical liberals and libertarians are not very numerous. Indeed, in some quarters at least, it is our existence that has come as a surprise for some time now, and in the last few days it has been fashionable to claim that “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic“. In North America (and elsewhere) political parties that proclaim themselves libertarian tend to be minuscule and ineffective, even in comparison with the already small number of people who are at least broadly sympathetic with libertarian or classical liberal ideas. So it is unsurprising that, for decades now, the approach of many libertarians in the United States who have been interested in obtaining measurable political success has been to embrace “fusionism“: a convergence, if not quite literally a fusion, of ideology and political action with conservatives sympathetic to mostly free markets and to a considerable if insufficient measure of individual liberty and to the Rule of Law.

However, the nature of American ― and perhaps also Canadian ― conservatism has been changing in the last few years. If Donald Trump is the standard-bearer of an ideology, this ideology has little in common with that of William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan. Libertarians and classical liberals must ask themselves whether fusionism, assuming it was a defensible posture in the past, is still one now. Some conversations at the recent Runnymede Society Conference, in which I was fortunate to participate, and thereafter have prompted me to explain why I think that it is not.


Let me begin by describing what I take to be, in broad outline, the sort of conservatism with which I want to have no truck. This is no easy task, despite the proliferation of manifestos in the United States. For one thing, I have to admit that I do not keep track of them all. For another, they do not necessarily agree with one another ― that’s the point of having multiple manifestos. Besides, their authors and adherents are getting no less adept than social justice warriors at deploying what Scott Alexander once described as “motte-and-bailey” rhetorical tactics: switching between expansive-but-scary and banal-but-unobjectionable versions of their claims as suits the circumstances. More fundamentally, as Jonah Goldberg observed in a recent episode of The Remnant podcast, it seems to some substantial large extent to be reverse-engineered to justify the policies if not also the behaviour of Mr. Trump, and may yet be discarded once his political career ends.

That said, I am willing to believe that more than a few of the manifesto-writers are sincere, or will come to believe their own hype. Moreover, there is ― as I have come to realize ― a Canadian version of this ideology, presumably less beholden to Mr. Trump, but also less vocal and so, if anything, even more difficult to pin down. Still, I think one can identify three main themes in this incarnation of conservatism, and they are the ones I shall focus on.

First, there is a belief ― held especially by the Catholic, but perhaps more broadly by the religious, supporters of this doctrine ― in using the state to advance and enforce a conception of the greater good, or indeed “the highest good”. On this view, the relative neutrality of the state as between competing conceptions of the good life, or the state’s tolerance of people who drift along without such a conception are grievously wrong. The state must identify, and identify with, a particular understanding of how individuals, families, and communities ought to live, and incentivize, perhaps force, them to live in this way. The Catholic supporters of this view would, of course, wish to see the state embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church as to what the good life is like (a view known as Catholic integralism), but I suppose there are other possibilities in this regard.

Second, to a greater or lesser extent, this doctrine rejects free markets. Some of its supporters identify as anti-market; others may adopt an attitude that’s more reminiscent of Elizabeth Warren’s: ostensibly pro-market, but in reality deeply suspicious of any economic decisions people might make on their own, without the state’s intervention. (The motte-and-bailey tactic is likely to be deployed here, further confusing matters.) International trade is a particular object of suspicion, but not the only one. At least some large companies, deemed too disruptive or ideologically hostile, are also suspect and potential targets for severe or even destructive regulation. And beyond specific policies, there is a general sense that the state can and should intervene in the economy to ensure acceptable outcomes for favoured groups (such as manufacturing workers) or for a country’s citizens.

And third, there is nationalism and hostility to people and institutions deemed “globalist” in outlook. The interests of a nation ― considered as an aggregate, rather than as a collection of individuals with their own peculiar tastes, preferences, and needs ― must prevail over those of all others. There is also, to a greater or lesser extent, suspicion of or even hostility to immigration, in the name of, as Stephanie Slade (Mr. Goldberg’s interviewee in the podcast linked to above) writes in a recent Reason article, “preserv[ing] … cultural homogeneity (such as it exists) from the diluting influence of foreigners” and embracing “an anti-cosmopolitanism that seeks to throw up barriers to free markets and free trade”.

Having described its main features, I am left with the question of what this doctrine should be called. I initially thought of referring to it as a “new conservatism”, but in reality it is very old ― albeit not in North America. It is, indeed, more or less the same ideology that F.A. Hayek decries in “Why I am Not a Conservative“. A conservative, Hayek writes,

does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. … [H]is main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people. (4)

Perhaps it is the fusionist conservatism that at least purported to care about limiting government power that was an aberration, and the phenomenon I have been describing is simply conservatism tout court. But another label, which for reasons that I shall presently explain strikes me as appropriate is right-wing collectivism.


Whatever we call it, however, this doctrine is not remotely compatible with a classical liberal or libertarian worldview. The disagreement is not just limited, as it might have been, on some views anyway, between classical liberals and fusionism-era conservatives, to divergent interpretations of rights to which both groups were committed or ideals to which they subscribed. It is fundamental. Indeed, while they might not yet be promising us five-year plans, and will certainly never be singing “The Internationale”, the right-wing collectivists are just the sort of people whom F.A. Hayek had in mind when he dedicated The Road to Serfdom “to socialists of all parties” ― not just of the admittedly socialist ones.

Ms. Slade ― who writes specifically about nationalism but whose argument easily extends to the other aspects of this ideology ― explains that

[t]oday’s nationalists think the … government has an obligation to actively pursue what they call the “national interest”. Any agenda that assumes the existence of such a thing must begin by making a variety of determinations, from who should be allowed to join the polity to whether to privilege the producer’s bottom line over the consumer’s. And in anything short of a monolithic society, that means overriding some individuals’ preferences—and often their right to make choices for themselves.

As with the “national interest”, so with the “highest good” and with the “anti-market” approach to the economy. These beliefs are inherently incompatible with the primacy and autonomy of the individual ― in the individual’s right and ability to arrange his or her priorities and to live in accordance with them rather than with the diktats of authority. They are particular instantiations of collectivism, as Hayek understood it. As I explained here in the first part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom, for Hayek,

[c]ollectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own.

This is what the moralizing, anti-market, nationalist conservatism proposes to do. Just like the old socialists, its proponents think that they not only know what is right, who should trade with whom and at what profit, and which group of people is most deserving, but that they have the authority to organize the world on the basis of this supposed knowledge, or at least that a bare electoral majority would give them such an authority.

The right-wing collectivists are determined to ignore Hayek’s warning that there can be no agreement on a general scale of values ― not even on the highest good, let alone on the second highest, the third highest, etc. ― in a free society, and that any attempt to impose and implement such a hierarchy can only be accomplished by manipulation and force. It must result, ultimately, in the destruction of personal morality itself, because collectivism “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (50th Anniversary ed., 161) the state’s fiat being paramount. This might be an ironic result for the more religiously-minded of the new right-wing collectivists, but I’m not sure they will in fact notice the irony.

In “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, Hayek argued that an adherent to conservative ideology “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions”. (4) This applies also to the right-wing collectivists. Like their forbears, they lack “an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends”. (4) And, like socialists, they will come ― at least if they come anywhere near real political power ― to disparage the liberal view that “neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion”. (4)


The philosophically and morally right position, now as ever (and yes, the present pandemic notwithstanding, as I shall argue in another post), is liberalism based on individualism, understood, as Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom, as the “recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions”. (66) This applies in the personal as well as the economic sphere ― the choices of one’s conception of a good life as well as to the choice of one’s trading partners.

The right-wing collectivism being firmly opposed to individualism, so understood, there can be no fusion of liberal or libertarian ideas with it ― no merger, certainly, not a long-term alliance, not even a presumption of co-operation. No doubt there will remain particular issues on which the right-wingers will oppose their fellow collectivists of the left, and classical liberals or libertarians can work with them in these cases. But we should be under no illusions. The right-wing collectivists will not tolerate us if they take power, all the more so since, as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, it is “the worst” ― the most ruthless, the most unprincipled ― who “get on top” in any collectivist regime. A tolerant nationalist, “highest-good” conservatism is as much a delusion as democratic socialism.

Hayek’s prescription for our politics remains compelling too. He wrote ― as I put it the second part of my summary of The Road to Serfdom

we need … to accept that ends do not justify all means; that collectivist and a fortiori dictatorial instruments cannot be put in the service of the right ideals, or entrusted to the right people, without either corrupting them or being seized by the more ruthless and corrupt; that “power itself” is “the archdevil”, (159) and that power concentrated in the hands of the state “is … infinitely heightened” (159) in comparison with that wielded by private actors.

If standing on these principles leaves us politically isolated, so be it. There are worse things than political failure. Supporting those who would cheerfully trample on everything one stands for is one of them.

The Road to Serfdom at 75: Part I

An appreciation of a life-changing book

In the last 10 days, I gave two talks ― one to the Runnymede Society chapter at the University of Victoria and one at the Université de Sherbrooke ― on Friedrich Hakey’s The Road to Serfdom. In this post and one to follow tomorrow, I reproduce my notes for these talks. The page numbers refer to the 50th Anniversary Edition, which is the one I have in my possession.


Why is F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom still relevant—and not merely relevant, but compelling—75 years after its publication? It is not obvious that this should be so. It is a book written in a particular historical context, and in response to the intellectual climate of its day. It is a polemic; one is almost tempted to say, a pamphlet―and indeed Hayek himself, in a 1976 preface, refers to The Road to Serfdom in exactly this way, “a pamphlet for the time”. In this, it is unlike Hayek’s more general later works, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty.

And yet, while I wouldn’t say the two later books, especially Constitution, are obscure, it is still The Road to Serfdom that is the iconic one. It has changed the trajectory of my own intellectual life when I read it, probably in third year of law school. (It is one of those things that I find it difficult to remember not knowing, so I don’t recall the exact time or the reasons that made me read it.) And it has had a similar effect on any number of people since its publication. Clearly, it is rather more than a pamphlet, or even just a polemic. It might have began as a pamphlet for the time, but it is, as Milton Friedman described it in a different preface, timeless.

I will venture an explanation for The Road to Serfdom ongoing appeal. I will argue that it targets an evil that is enduring, and that we must confront today, with (almost) as much urgency as Hayek had to when he was writing. The defeat of the particular shapes that this evil took then—a defeat that looks much more provisional and uncertain than it did when I first read the book a dozen years ago—was important in its time. But the evil itself was not put to rest, and perhaps cannot be. It revives, shifts shapes, and must be resisted and repelled again and again, in the time that is given us.

(The reader may have noticed me echoing, and in the last sentence directly quoting from The Lord of the Rings. This is not an accident. I think there are echoes of the Lord of the Rings in The Road to Serfdom, or perhaps I should say it the other way around, since the Road to Serfdom was published much before The Lord of the Rings finally was. I believe that this is not at all surprising, since they were being written at the same time, and their authors saw—and in their very different ways responded—to much the same events, not just those of the then-ongoing war but also those of the previous one, of which both were veterans.)


So let me begin, very briefly, with the immediate context in which Hayek was writing, before moving on to the more timeless elements in The Road to Serfdom. The book was published in 1944, while World War II was ongoing, although it looks forward to the aftermath of an Allied victory. It was written, therefore, while Nazism was at or just past the peak of its power, while Soviet communism was already immensely powerful, and growing more so by the day. But the Western response to the two totalitarian ideologies was strikingly different. Even before war broke out, socialism and communism were prestigious in the way Nazism never quite was in the West; after 1941, communism was the ideology of an ally in that war. And, of course, the Soviet regime had long presented itself as the most steadfast opponent of Nazism, while the Nazis themselves employed much anti-Communist rhetoric (recall that the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan was officially called the “Anti-Comintern Pact”). The fashionable view was that fascism was the ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, development of unbridled capitalism, and that embracing socialism or communism was the only way to forestall the advent of fascism.

Hayek saw things differently. For him, Nazism and Socialism were denominations in the same totalitarian church, whose adherents had a great deal in common even if they professed unfailing enmity. (The enmity was, in any case, less constant than advertised: recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939, leading to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, and much of Eastern Europe.) What Nazism and Socialism had in common was collectivism. Both held that society had to be organized around the supposed interests of particular groups of people, and devoted single-mindedly to the pursuit of some alleged common purpose. Both rejected liberalism and individualism. Nazism simply defined the group that was supposed to define the purposes of political action differently, along racial rather than class lines. Despite this, it had, as the title of one of the chapters of The Road to Serfdom had it, “socialist roots”. Hence Hayek’s dedication of the book “to socialists of all parties”, on the right as well as on the left.


This brings me back to the timeless evil which The Road to Serfdom responds to. On the surface, significant parts of the book rebut arguments that were prevalent in the years preceding its publication about the desirability and feasibility of Soviet-style central economic planning and government ownership of the means of production. And of course advocacy of such policies is now unusual, although I wonder whether the ground is shifting even on this, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and, even more so, Elizabeth Warren, whose plans for telling companies exactly how to behave, what to sell, and for whose benefit, go nearer the central planning of yore than anything a serious candidate for office has proposed in decades.

But these are issues primarily of form. Look below the surface, and the impulse toward collectivism is no weaker now. What has changed is not its origin or orientation, but its direction. 21st-century collectivists are not only preoccupied with economic inequality, on which they forebears mostly (but not exclusively) focused in Hayek’s time, but (also) with the environment and, especially, with identity―whether it is the identity of groups purportedly defined by gender, race, sexuality, etc., or that of nations.   

What does Hayek mean by collectivism, and why is it, after all, such a bad thing? Collectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own. The attraction of collectivism is that it seems to make possible the realization of purposes on which we might all agree―say, racial or gender equality, or putting an end to global warming, or perhaps something more diffuse, such as simply “the public welfare”―by directing all, or at least some very significant part, of society’s efforts to them.

What’s the problem with this? Collectivists tend to forget that purposes that all appear desirable in the abstract can be in conflict, and that sometimes “any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others”. (59) If the efforts of society are to be centrally directed by government, a hierarchy of aims will need to be established to determine which will yield to others. Yet where is this hierarchy to come from? Comprehensive agreement on a scale of values does not exist in a free society, where individuals have their own moral scales. The hierarchy of aims must, and can only be, generated by the government; and not by a democratic process, which is bound to reflect the disagreements that exist in society. Indeed, it is precisely the failure of democracy to generate all-encompassing agreement that “makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough ‘to get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal”, (150) and is set up in a position of unaccountable technocrat or dictator, which amounts to more or less the same thing.

As for individuals, if they cannot be expected to agree on a common hierarchy of aims, they must still be made to agree to it. An official dogma, extending not only to values but even to “views about the facts and possibilities on which the particular measures are based” (170), must be spread, by means of relentless propaganda, by twisting the meaning of words, especially of words describing moral and political values, and by resorting to censorship and ultimately force, since dissent compromises the mobilization of society toward the chosen aims. Instead of truth, “[t]he probable effect on the people’s loyalty to the system becomes the only criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of information is to be published or suppressed”. (175-76) And people, like ideas, “more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’”. (106) Moreover,

[i]f the ‘community’ or the state are prior to the individual, if they have ends of their own independent of and superior to those of the individuals, only those individuals who work for the same ends can be regarded as members of the community. It is a necessary consequence of this view that a person is respected only as a member of the group, that is, only if and in so far as he works for the recognized common ends, and that he derives his whole dignity only from this membership and not merely from being man. (156)

Note, too, that aims do not exist in the abstract; they are those of individuals, sometimes of groups (that is, of individuals who agree). A hierarchy of aims imposed―ultimately at gunpoint―by the government is also a hierarchy of people. A collectivist government will choose whose interests to favour, and whose to subordinate. It might say it aims at fairness, but it will apply a particular standard of fairness: its own, not one of society at large, since the latter does not actually exist. Indeed,

it is easier for people to agree on a negative program―on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off―than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. (153)

Collectivism, whatever its initial aims, tends toward factionalism and nationalism, and this tendency is only exacerbated by “that glorification of power … which profoundly affects the ethical views of all collectivists”. (158)

Ultimately, collectivism is destructive not only of freedom―both political and personal―but of morality itself. A collectivist system “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (161) because the needs of the collective―as interpreted, of course, by the political leaders or technocrats purporting to speak on its behalf―are always regarded as more important than individual scruples. Collectivists

lack … the individualist virtues of tolerance and respect for other individuals and their opinions, of independence of mind and … uprightness of character and readiness to defend one’s own convictions against a superior … , of consideration for the weak and infirm, and of that healthy contempt and dislike of power which only an old tradition of personal liberty creates. Deficient they seem also in most of those little yet so important qualities which facilitate the intercourse between men in a free society: kindliness and a sense of humor, personal modesty, and respect for the privacy and belief in the good intentions of one’s neighbor. (163)

In The Road to Serfdom, this is a description of Germans, whom Hayek regards as epitomizing collectivism. But it applies, in our day, just as well to “social justice warriors” as to the supporters of Donald Trump. And it applies with double force to those in positions of political power in either movement, who more than all the others are required to  demonstrate “readiness [to] conform[] to an ever changing set of doctrines” laid down by the leader in the pursuit of his chosen goals (or, in a development Hayek did not anticipate, emerged more or less spontaneously in activist circles), whatever these doctrines may be, and to enforce such conformity on those over whom they rule.


Part II follows.