HAYEK ON HOW WE DEFINE THE TERMS “LIBERAL” AND “CONSERVATIVE “

In the foreword of 1956 American edition of The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek, Hayek discussed the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative.”

The fact that this book was originally written with only the British public in mind does not appear to have seriously affected its intelligibility for the American reader. But there is one point of phraseology which I ought to explain here to forestall any misunderstanding. I use throughout the term “liberal” in the original, nineteenth-century sense in which it is still current in Britain. In current American usage it often means nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camouflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by the muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that “liberal” has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control. I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have allowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensable term but should even have assisted by beginning to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium. This seems to be particularly regrettable because of the consequent tendency of many true liberals to describe themselves as conservatives.

It is true, of course, that in the struggle against the believers in the all-powerful state the true liberal must sometimes make common cause with the conservative, and in some circumstances, as in contemporary Britain, has hardly any other way of actively working for his ideals. But true liberalism is still distinct from conservatism, and there is danger in the two being confused. Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.

So it is that many Americans who call themselves Conservative are actually Liberals — if we choose to use the classical definition of that word.

Unfortunately, as Hayek observed, we are muddleheaded. Therefore, we have allowed both our nation and our language to unravel.

 

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11 Responses to HAYEK ON HOW WE DEFINE THE TERMS “LIBERAL” AND “CONSERVATIVE “

  1. Lyn Leahz says:

    Amen! Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom and this book with us. I wholeheartedly agree with you. The same is also true with the word “Christian” today I feel. God bless you!

  2. Citizen Tom says:

    Lyn Leahz

    The same is also true with the word “Christian” today I feel.

    True.

    The enemy has always tried to define Christianity as something other than it is, but his success in our time should shame us.

    I know I am in part to blame. I allowed myself to become far too ignorant of the Word of God. And until I began to study the Bible, I was almost defenseless against the enemy’s deceit.

  3. There are other swaps that I am troubled about, and would like to reverse if possible.

    One is recent: Red versus Blue. In the US, colors were bandied about on electoral maps for decades (a phenomenon that arose with color printing and color television), but the settling in of red for Republican was not established until the Bush-Gore race of 2000. In prior elections, different networks used different color schemes, but the true-blue Republicans and red-leftist Democrats were so well identified in the 1980s that Ronald Reagan’s sweep of the states led to newscasters calling the dark-blue electoral maps “Lake Reagan.”

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

    • Citizen Tom says:

      Keith — Great post! When I observed what the news media was doing with the map color scheme, I rolled my eyes heavenward. However, even though I associated blue with our American republic and red with communism, I did not realize they were reversing tradition with respect to our political parties.

      The fact Republicans did not make a stink over the map color scheme is just another measure of how bad a job we do when we vote. If we elected people who stood for something — actually clearly explained their beliefs — then our Republicans would have derided and ridiculed absurdity of the color choices. When our opponents and their supporters have to pretend they are something they are not, doesn’t that mean we have an opportunity to correctly define them in the minds of the electorate?

      Unfortunately, when we select our leaders, we will never do a great job. Popularity contests just don’t work that well. Nonetheless, the news media periodically runs articles praising the accuracy of decisions reached by the magic of consensus, and politicians constantly laud the genius of the American people. Didn’t we choose them? We must be geniuses! Yet the fact that such praise from our leaders is self-serving goes right over most people’s heads.

      If only we were more humble… We would never have dared to give our leaders so much power.

      • Thanks. I suspect that if someone had asked Ronald Reagan about “red states,” he’d have been able to rattle off every country in the Soviet Union and the Soviet sphere of influence. He’d have been perplexed, I think, at its adoption by conservatives.

        Which brings me back to your point: As soon as I hit “post comment” I felt a little sheepish, as I was not responding to your excellent post at all.

        The original founders of our country generally fit the mold of classical Liberal, and the term has been so altered in the past century or so that this usage is probably irretrievable, except among us history buffs.

        You and I aren’t exactly interested in crafting some new form of government based upon the best of “modern” notions — we are trying to give strength back to the extraordinary system of checks and balances and Constitutional limits to power crafted by those eloquent founders. So, at core, we would qualify as Constitutionalists — or “originalists” in the judicial sense. I think you and I are alike in our pursuit of original intent in the founder’s debates, writings, and actions at the time.

        You are a devout Christian; I am a lifelong non-theist — but we would each agree, I think, that basing our notion of the relationship between government and church on a phrase in Jefferson’s private letter to the Danbury Baptists decades after the fact (and uncovered a century later) is just silly. The “Treaty of Tripoli” is similarly misinterpreted, in the absence of historical context. (We were paying a bribe and trying not to irritate the jihadists who were quite effectively threatening us. A shameful story, and one that Jefferson rectified ultimately.) The relationship between church and state was a comfortable, respectful acceptance and non-interference for nearly two centuries, not the hypersensitive antagonism that the Left pushes these days in the absence of historical precedent for it.

        I have no problem with the word “conservative” at this point. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are certainly worth conserving and restoring, and those inspired documents are deserving of a revered place in our lives and in our law. The different usage of “conservative” in the UK is somewhat unfortunate, but we really are more conservative than “right-wing” in the European sense.

        Hayek was writing at the beginning of the modern conservative movement, and his excellent and insightful economic analysis is not harmed by not seeing how this social phenomenon would develop and change the definition somewhat.

        “Liberal,” which did mean something rather different here, is perhaps an unfortunate loss. I tend to use “progressive” instead for our friends on the Left, though I think that “statist” may well be more apt and descriptive of the goal.

        I will post some of this and link back to you here. Best wishes, as always.

        ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  4. Citizen Tom says:

    Again, when you respond to one of my posts (in this case, mostly an excerpt from a great book), you add considerably to the content.

    Because such discussions help us understand what we believe, we debate semantics, word choices and the meaning of words. Yet what I think most interesting in your last comment are your references to religious freedom. The most fundamental right is freedom of conscience. Because the founders were determined to protect freedom of conscience, they crafted a government with limited powers, and they insisted upon adding a Bill of Rights, that list that begins by prohibiting Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    Words change. Nothing we create will stand eternally unchanged. The force of chaos, mindless though it may be, we cannot entirely resist. So when you point back to fundamental principles, principles we must respect and protect, that is righteous. If we would retain our liberty, then we must concentrate on that for which we fight.

  5. I had no idea that the idea of “Red States” being GOP was a new idea. Huh. It is kinda weird when you thing about it. The hijacking of the word “liberal” bothers me a great deal, and also “progressive” sounds too positive for what it really represents, and boy do some FB folks squeal in protest when I use the terms “statist” or “totalitarian,” altho both are less enflaming and more accurate than the names I see for my political philosophy. “Collectivist” seems to work best as a broad term with wide application. And like Keith, I am happy to sport the name conservative in its modern meaning, notwithstanding the prior European meaning which most Americans aren’t aware of anyway. Cheers!
    Linda

    • Citizen Tom says:

      Keith probably has few years on you. Since he grew up reading Heinlein, Niven, Clarke, I suspect he is a boomer. If that is the case, then he remembers when the news media unofficially in lockstep assigned the colors.

      Politics is ideological warfare. What determines victory? Which ideology can be made to appear the most appealing. Therefore, when people promote an ideology that uses the ends to justify the means, they will lie and twist the meaning of words to get what they want.

      What should we call Democrats? Like Keith, I think statist more apt than progressive, but totalitarian is where the Democratic Party is headed. Collectivist is word I fear too many people would not understand.

      With respect to politics, what do I call myself? Keith had it right. I usually use the word “Conservative,” and I sometimes I preface “Conservative” with with “constitutional.”

      On occasion, however, I also call myself a “classical Liberal.” I think we need to remind people there is nothing liberal about modern Liberals. To accomplish what they want to accomplish, they must do things even they will find repugnant. Unfortunately, they have yet to admit to themselves what they must do to do what they want done. When we would do evil, we begin with lies. The first lie we tell to ourselves.

      • *chuckle* Your guess as to my age is fair enough, though I’d note that my father was a coal miner (and several other things) during the Roaring Twenties. (He was not alive, however, when William McKinley was assassinated, the first Republican president to be killed in office.)

        That means that I am so old that I can remember all the way back to October, 2000, when the terms “red state” and “blue state” were first mentioned in the media during the Bush-Gore election. “Go get ‘em, grampa!” But indeed, during and after 2000, the current red-blue scheme became the standard. It would have been interesting to listen in to meetings between media executives discussing this plan.

        I am glad my guesses about your position were well-taken and did not offend. There’s an interesting subtlety in this part of your comment:

        Because the founders were determined to protect freedom of conscience, they crafted a government with limited powers, and they insisted upon adding a Bill of Rights, that list that begins by prohibiting Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

        Many of the founders felt that the rights of citizens were implicit, and need not be described. Their opponents, the “anti-Federalists,” felt that at least some basic ones needed to be enumerated, and agreed to support the Constitution only on condition that these rights be eventually set down and added as amendments.

        Thus, the United States existed for about two years with no Bill of Rights. The list did not “begin” with what we now call the First Amendment; that was originally the third proposed. The first two were approved by Congress, but did not get ratified by enough states to become amendments. (One did, much later.)

        This is not to downplay its importance — it is vital, crucial, and indispensable. I shudder to think what might have become of this country in the subsequent challenges to individual rights over the years. Even with the First Amendment, free speech was ended in law under Adams, and then more than a century later under Wilson. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson (a newspaperman, appropriately enough, and trained as a youth by Franklin) died awaiting trial for publishing material critical of Adams.

        ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  6. Citizen Tom says:

    Keith – Thank you for adding those additional details. I had not heard about Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. I suppose that even with the sneaky people we now have in charge, our republic still has less to overcome than the peril it encountered in those first few years. I just wish I had more confidence in the moral character of our people and our leaders.

    Not too long ago, I read a biography on James Madison (http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/?view=usa&ci=9780195181050). That book focused on Madison’s role in the approval of the Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights. Since you know that many of the founders felt the rights of citizens were implicit, and need not be described, you probably know the rest of the story. Nonetheless, for the sake of those who don’t….

    Madison was one of those the founders who originally felt the rights of citizens were implicit, and need not be described, but he encountered fierce opposition from Anti-Federalists who disagreed. To get the Anti-Federalists to soften their opposition sufficiently to allow the adoption of the Constitution, Madison reversed himself and promised to work to amend the Constitution with a bill of rights. Madison resolutely kept his promise. In fact, he worked so hard that his efforts produced a peculiar irony. Instead of crediting the Anti-Federalists for the Bill of Rights, we now identify Madison as the key champion and author of the Bill of Rights (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Bill_of_Rights).

    • Incidentally, the reference to Benjamin Franklin Bache should not be construed to make him a heroic person. I don’t think we’d like him much. He was a bit like the Danish Muhammad cartoonists: publishing something unpleasant, but whose right to do so needed to be defended. (And wasn’t, adequately, just as is the case now.)

      Bache’s attacks on Washington, with other critics, were what led early historians to describe Washington as “the most hated of the presidents.” That’s not a distinction you see every day about that George.

      Bache’s newspaper accused Washington of a variety of treasonous activities, of being ignorant, a poor military leader and worse president, and completely corrupt and controlled by foreign interests.

      It would be fair to say that Franklin’s grandson was not a prudential Bache.

      As to Madison, it helped that he agreed with foundational principles. The concern was whether, in naming rights, you implicitly disavowed ones not named. This has been a big issue since, of course, with approaches ranging from “penumbras” of rights to legislation that seems to say “Mother never told me that I shouldn’t paint the baby!”

      Unfortunately, some of these stick. So Madison was right, and his opponents were right, and the best solution was in the self-limiting nature of the Constitutional republic … which has been steadily eroding, sadly.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

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