Friday, August 17, 2012

Conservatism and mistrust of spontaneous order

A brilliant quote from Friedrich Hayek's essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (note that in Hayek's lexicon, "liberal" means what we today mean by "libertarian"):
In looking forward, [conservatives] lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about.

It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people's frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change "orderly."

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy.

Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks.
Many people are reluctant to trust the "market forces" probably because they envision them to be some chaotic combination of random vectors, like all the wind currents that propel a falling snowflake. But in reality, "market" is not just some chaotic forces; it's literally millions of individuals making decisions based on their needs and desires. Many of them do so as a part of their profession, in which they have been proven to be successful (by making profit both for themselves and their clients; and while I don't think that profit or money in general are "be-all and end-all", certainly, profit is a good evidence that an entrepreneur is successful at predicting public's desires).

On the other hand, government's regulations are a product of only a handful individuals (whose main skill is oftentimes simply oratory), themselves isolated from profit and loss or competition, making decisions (backed up by a threat of violence) on behalf of millions of people.

So, the market may "not be perfect" (whatever that accusation means), but it's definitely better than the government.

Another wonderful quote:
Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened, rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. 
In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his 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.

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he 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. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them.

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