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A Rebuttal to Dick Armey

By       Message Larry Brown       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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Mr. Armey, you wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Washington could use less Keynes, and more Hayek". I took you to be a conservative. Am I wrong about this? If you are a conservative I find it odd that you would be praising the views of Hayek who was not. Does this come as a surprise to you? As a critical rationalist from the Vienna school, Hayek had no use for conservatism. Perhaps you missed his essay entitled "Why I'm Not a Conservative", in the Constitution of Liberty. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960). He was certainly not a socialist but he was by his own admission a classical liberal, or as he described it, "an old Whig".

In his words: "Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments."

Hayek went on to say, "The admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge." This brings me to the first point on which the conservative and the liberal dispositions differ radically. As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. 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. So unproductive has conservatism been in producing a general conception of how a social order is maintained that its modern votaries, in trying to construct a theoretical foundation, invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal. (You've done that very thing with your Op-Ed)

"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."

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If you weren't aware of it sir, Hayek was a contemporary of the great 20th century scientific philosopher Karl Popper who formulated the philosophy of Critical Rationalism. Hayek subscribed to the concept of critical rationalism as the foundation of problem solving and obtaining knowledge. One of Popper's main contributions to political theory was The Open Society and Its Enemies. In it, he reformulates Plato's question of "Who should rule", into "How do we arrange our institutions to prevent rulers (whether individuals or majorities) from doing too much damage."

Hayek continues: "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. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as "concessions" to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire. To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires 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."

"It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion. This may also explain why it seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal."

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"In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people - he is not an egalitarian - but he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. While the conservative inclines to defend a particular established hierarchy and wishes authority to protect the status of those whom he values, the liberal feels that no respect for established values can justify the resort to privilege or monopoly or any other coercive power of the state in order to shelter such people against the forces of economic change. Though he is fully aware of the important role that cultural and intellectual elites have played in the evolution of civilization, he also believes that these elites have to prove themselves by their capacity to maintain their position under the same rules that apply to all others."

"Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called "mechanistic" explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts."

"Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries. But refusal to acquaint one's self with new ideas merely deprives one of the powers of effectively countering them when necessary. The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots."

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Clearly, Hayek completely rejected your conservatism. He describes conservatives as aristocratic and hierarchal among other things less flattering, and yet you cite him as a source to be admired and listened to. It's understood that conservatives desperately want to preserve their institutions. They were even willing to fight a civil war to preserve the institution of slavery. They fought against the woman's right to vote. They fought against civil rights. In fact they fight against every attempt at challenging the authority of an existing institution. They detest radical change. One must wonder when hearing them praise the founders and the establishment of this country and amazingly proclaim the conservative heritage of our nation just exactly how a conservative would handle a change as radical as a revolution against the existing institution of a monarchy? It would go completely against the grain of conservatism to endorse a break with England. It simply isn't in their DNA.

I would end with this thought; Conservatism as an ideology cannot demonstrate itself as being true. It is a formalized ideology as set forth by the likes of Russell Kirk and his 6 canons of conservatism, and more recently by the bizarre attempt by radio personality Mark Levin to establish a "manifesto for conservatives". Stepping outside of this construct is in the eyes of todays conservative, blaspheme. This reduces conservatism to a cult-like status akin to a religion, with its canons and dogma. It is therefore self limiting and looses any potential for anything great that lies beyond its borders. It also presents characters like Levin in the image of a raging buffoon, or media clown. One who negatively derides the president as an ideologue after publishing a "manifesto for conservatism"? How much more ideological can one get then that? The glaring hypocrisy of this doesn't go unnoticed, with the possible exception of Levin himself and those unable to think for themselves. How can anybody truly take him or the movement he promotes seriously? However, the more basic question is how can an idea constructed by fallible men, be infallible? Is it possible that you could be wrong? Or is that not in the realm of possibility? Unless you are infallible yourself the answer is obvious. Those that think they have all the answers have stopped growing, and they've stopped learning. They have no intellectual curiosity. Why would I entrust the future of my country to people that are mired in the past and fear what they don't know. A conservative viewpoint would not have gotten us to the moon. Obviously there are things that the government can do pretty well. Nobody has a monopoly on truth sir, and you haven't demonstrated any methodology that proves that conservatism is nothing more than another belief system with its own doctrine and rigid dogma. I have no reason to trust irrational and unreasonable people. There is far too much at stake and so much to be gained.


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I'm a professional musician and teacher with two cd's of acoustic guitar music. I live with my wife Kathryn and our two dogs Murphy and Dipstick in Birmingham, Alabama. I also write articles for the Birmingham Examiner, and contribute articles to (more...)

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