When it comes to Austrian economist and political thinker Friedrich Hayek, conservatives and libertarians are at odds. While conservatives like Hayek’s opposition to big government, they may disagree with his views on social progress. In the same vein, libertarians agree with his theories about spontaneous order and decentralized knowledge, but they might not be so fond of his favorable views on social mores.
The trouble is, Hayek’s philosophical views are far from straightforward. University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen recently noted that Hayek is both a “traditional and a progressive thinker.” That’s an accurate description. While the Vienna-born economist celebrates the knowledge and customs passed down from previous generations, he also has a Mill-esque apprehension toward stifling traditions. This dismissive attitude of past convention is what fueled Hayek’s oft-cited essay “Why I’m Not a Conservative.” Conservatism, he alleges, “is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new” while classical liberalism is the “preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”
I bring up Hayek’s views because of the kind of militant approach modern day liberals are taking to social issues, namely gay marriage. Now, Mises Canada is a didactic organization that doesn’t weigh in on the culture wars. There will be no endorsement or condemnation of gay marriage here. Instead, I want to explore the nature of knowledge and tradition from the Hayekian view and apply it to the trends in thinking we see today. Hayek’s insights, while both illuminating but not totally congruent, show just how strange the times are we live in.
Two recent articles engendered this thought of mine. Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer penned a blustering piece in Politico urging political leaders to stop being so anti-science. With the sanctimonious reminder, “before the triumph of science, we burned witches at the stake and thought that kings ruled by divine right,” Shermer chastises conservatives for not bowing down before the all-powerful, all-knowing mantle of science. The American Revolution, he argues, was the product of the “Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.” Our politics should reflect these principles. Instead, “we are forgetting that it is scientific facts that should settle such issues, not partisan politics.”
For Shermer, ignorant conservatives are holding up all the “moral progress” wrought by science. His main point of contention is the supposed scientific consensus on global warming. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni feels the same, albeit on a different subject. In a recent column, he lamented the controversy ginned up by Indiana over religious freedom. Orthodox Christian understanding of homosexuality, Bruni argues, is wrong. He point blankly states, “homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.” It’s time to get over the New Testament teachings on sexual ethics “that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today.” Citing gay philanthropist Mitchell Gold, Bruni writes that “that church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’” By “must be made,” I’m assuming they mean the use of government force.
So what to make of all this? This is not the space to argue over whether homosexuality is wrong, or whether the government should play a role in recognizing marriage. I’m no climate scientist either, so I can’t speak to whether the planet is being warmed by human effort or by natural cause.
I bring up both articles because of the confidence that pervades the authors’ arguments. Each is wholly convinced of their position. If challenged, they would likely react with furious indignation. Something along the lines of “you’re just an anti-gay bigot” or “the science behind climate change is settled”. In their view, their cause is rock solid in terms of morality and reason. Nothing but the purest evil stands in their way.
This thinking is the equivalent to professing that history is on your side, as if such a thing can truly be known. Claiming the right side of history is horribly specious reasoning. As Michael Brendan Dougherty puts it, the accuser comes off as proclaiming the “arc of the moral universe is long, and those who disagree with me should be impaled on it.” That’s not exactly convincing. Or nice.
The truth is, history is complicated. Rarely are there total heroes and villains. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but waged deadly war to do so. The French Revolution was an attempt to liberate the working class but ended up spilling the blood of the innocent. Even the American Revolution was fought just as much for liberty as it was for the interests of the mercantilist class.
National unity, equality, and freedom were the reasons behind these periods of violence. But in many ways, the end result did not reflect the best intentions of the victors. Reconstruction left the American South bitter and resentful toward the North. France lost its crown but gained a stifling and intrusive democratic government. The American colonies tossed off King George III only to replace him with a far more tyrannical government.
These kinds of lessons should be looked to when confronting today’s most contentious issues. What we think we know now won’t necessarily be true in the future. And what we think is ahead of us may not come to pass. There is value in what our ancestors did. Their society shaped and formed our behavior more than we realize. To reject past tradition is to think we’re more enlightened than our predecessors. And if society is, as Burke said, “a contract between the past, the present, and those yet unborn,” then we would do well to treat our historic culture as a body of thought passed down for our benefit.
When you apply this reverence to the leading issues of the day, you can see what I mean. For at least two millennia, marriage was seen as a union between a man and woman that transcended earthly pleasure. Even in eras where homosexuality was more rampant than it is today, the idea of gay marriage was viewed as contradictory. Likewise, the planet’s climate system is ever-changing. The local weatherman has a hard enough time predicting if it will snow or not. Should we really put our entire faith in climate scientists who have a built-in incentive to warn us about global warming.
In his Nobel prize speech, Hayek said of hubris: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”
Overturning culture teachings that span back thousands of years is a tricky matter. In some cases, it can be helpful for human flourishing. Slavery was an institution that existed all the way back to the B.C. epoch. Only in the past century has the West fully abolished human bondage – and all for the better. The benefits of the left’s newest crusades are not so clear. Progressives would do well to heed Hayek’s admonition. There’s a reason prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues. And as the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton noted in a recent interview about the slow waning of Western tradition, “it’s always easier to destroy than to create.” The worry is that once what we know is gone, we won’t be able to replace it with something as stable or beneficial for society.