Friedrich Hayek spent most of his life being hailed as a darling of the Right. His stardom reached its peak in the 1980s, when Thatcher was said to carry around The Constitution of Liberty in her handbag and Reagan was smoothly translating Hayek’s dense tomes into marketable slogans. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” became the motto of the Hayek-inspired age of ‘neo-liberalism’, and the Left was quick to turn its guns on the Austrian economist himself.
The latest left-wing critique comes from Michael Sandel’s thought-provoking book, The Tyranny of Merit, which blames Hayek among others for promoting free markets and individual achievement at the expense of equality and shared civic life. But in recent years, Hayek has also been re-evaluated on parts of the Right. Social conservatives like Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari would argue that Hayek’s notion of freedom, by unmooring us from, as Hayek put it, “customary and prescribed” ways of being, is just another form of corrosive liberalism. It may have been some use to conservatives when the challenge was Communist Russia, but in this post-Soviet age of globalist ‘woke’ capital and chronic inequality, Hayek is increasingly criticized by the Right for promoting untrammelled individualism at the expense of national loyalty and the common good.
Indeed, Hayek’s case for free markets was not primarily moral, but based on practical considerations. Hayek argued that the complex array of free market transactions, taken as a whole, embodies a wealth of information far superior to the limited knowledge of the socialist planners sat on a central committee. Socialist planners take on the enormous burden of micromanaging the economy through the exercise of their own necessarily narrow intellects. They forget that the economy only functions when the prices of goods and services are determined by a system of decentralised free exchange, such that these prices can accurately reflect the dynamic nature of human wants. This sort of information cannot be calculated a priori by even the most intelligent mind. Entrusting one individual, or even a central committee, to run the economy without the indicators of supply and demand to which free markets give rise is therefore destined to fail. Much like Burke, then, Hayek believed the organic order—in both its social and economic forms—was more trustworthy than the sweeping, top-down schemes of radical intellectuals, be they Jacobin or Marxist.
However, Hayek made no secret of his belief that, while economic organisation is more efficient within a capitalist system, the results to which free markets give rise do not necessarily reflect moral deserts. Hayek conceded that they were instead purely arbitrary, changing with the contingent values of supply and demand as they mutate from moment to moment. This is why big casino tycoons take home larger salaries than care workers—something that is unlikely to change until betting clubs outnumber qualified nurses or the practice of gambling itself joins duelling as a thing of the past. Burke’s love of society was based on reverence for the way in which cultural norms express, if not always clearly, the accretions of human wisdom across history. As enduring forms of cultural knowledge, traditions allow us to avail ourselves “of the general bank and capital of nations and ages,” rather than rely on our own “small private stock of reason.” Hayek’s love of the market, meanwhile, lacked this traditional flavour. It amounted to a morally neutral acceptance of whatever fashions enjoyed the consumer spotlight from moment to moment, regardless of whether bishops or commissars approved.
Thus, while Hayek made a Burkean-style defence of the free market, the totality of free transactions under a capitalist system, while tampered with at great risk, cannot match the historical pedigree of an enduring set of social norms. Hayek’s liberal economy may be superior to the socialist option, but it lacks the roots of Burke’s traditionalist society, being little more than an ephemeral snapshot of our appetites as they move from one craze to the next. Even Hayek himself displayed a strong tendency to glorify appetite, at one point celebrating the power of human beings under liberal capitalism “to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire.” It should not surprise us, then, that the free market has become a less conservative force as our cultural norms have broken down. At best, the Hayekian vision of moral life was thin and transactional; at worst, it encouraged people to shirk duties out of slavery to desire.
But today, the main threat to equality, civil association, and community-building is not Hayekian individualism. It comes instead from a fanatical tendency to value one aspect of public health—that is, reducing COVID-19 cases and deaths—to the exclusion of all other practical concerns. Hayek’s powerful defence of freedom and responsibility, whatever its shortcomings, is a vital antidote to the notion that governments must rush to suspend basic freedoms whenever the pursuit of ‘safety’ is deemed to require it.
Published in 1944, Hayek’s fear in The Road to Serfdom was that the sweeping powers exercised by the British Government to fight the Second World War would be expanded for socialist purposes once the war was over, setting Britain on a path towards a managerial, bureaucratic prison-state. His aim was to ween people off their newfound addiction to state control, to give them the language to re-assert their liberty.
During the pandemic, there has developed an even stronger craving in people to give up freedom for security. As such, Hayek’s strong case for individual liberty has never been as urgent as it is now. We have slid rapidly into a world where the state feels entitled to outlaw all that makes life precious in order to make it ‘safe’, despite their poor record in actually achieving this desired result. The Road to Serfdom is a much better diagnosis of the current state of free societies than anything that took place under post-war governments in Western Europe.
Over a year since the arrival of effective vaccines, governments continue to treat us like conscripts in their perpetual war against a virus that will not be eradicated anytime soon. For the moment, the UK remains one of a small number of exceptions. His authority weakened by backbench rebellion, a high-profile resignation, and the news of countless mid-lockdown parties held in Downing Street, Boris Johnson has quietly repealed most restrictions in England (although emergency legislation remains on the books, with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland lifting restrictions at a slightly slower pace). Continental governments are being more heavy-handed. France has upgraded its pass sanitaire to a pass vaccinal, barring the unvaccinated from civil society regardless of whether they have tested negative. Austria’s lockdown for the unvaccinated, in force since November, is being lifted, although the jab will nonetheless be made mandatory and ‘refuseniks’ fined up to €3,600.
This is only a snapshot of the current measures—rules which can as easily be relaxed as intensified by the powers that be. But while the restrictions themselves can be tweaked, the authority which they represent is yet to be renounced by world leaders. There is nobody more valuable than Hayek when it comes to understanding how we reached this new normal and making a case to restore the old way of things.
First, Hayek was a master at exposing how authoritarian levels of power creep up on societies. Advanced democracies do not lose their freedoms overnight. They are unlikely to see tanks deployed in the streets or guerrillas storming the capital. More often, freedoms vanish when governments condition people to believe their serfdom is the only way to achieve some apparent ideal. In Hayek’s time, that ideal was socialist utopia.
Why does socialism, despite its high-minded talk of empowering people, inevitably lead to dictatorship? Hayek’s answer was that socialists get frustrated by the task of getting parliamentary institutions to agree unanimously to the sort of comprehensive economic plan that socialism demands. Losing patience, they search for more subtle routes to getting their way. As Hayek wrote, “The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts, permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.”
In our time, the same has been true of the comprehensive public health plans improvised by experts on behalf of governments to ‘keep us safe.’ While initially directed at socialism, Hayek’s warning about the subversion of democratic norms has a familiar ring. The British Government under Boris Johnson has been the worst offender in this respect, evading parliamentary procedure to announce measures by executive decree—more often at stage-managed press conferences led by unelected health officials than under the scrutiny of the House of Commons.
The U.S. Constitution acts as a check on such executive abuse, at least from the Federal Government. But the pandemic has still given rise to a strange veneration for public health experts. This is especially true of Dr. Anthony Fauci, despite a clear record of frantic flip-flopping. His crusade against the virus at the expense of life itself is thought by many to be heroic, even though its logical endpoint would be a regime where unaccountable health tsars boss us around for our own protection. “From the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic,” warns Hayek, “is often but a step.”
However, Hayek’s defence of liberty was driven by more than a reverence for democratic norms. He also argued that allowing individuals to take responsibility for their social and economic lives makes solid practical sense. His ingenious arguments against a centrally run economy, therefore, are equally devastating to the idea of a centrally run bio-security state.
Again, Hayek’s target was socialism, but his points about government inefficiency can be applied to all attempts to micromanage people’s lives: “There would be no difficulty about efficient control or planning were conditions so simple that a single person or board could effectively survey all the relevant facts. It is only as the factors which have to be taken into account become so numerous that it is impossible to gain a synoptic view of them, that decentralisation becomes imperative.” Under such complex conditions, Hayek concludes, individuals must be “free to adjust their activities to the facts which only they can know.”
Hayek’s same logic works just as well under the complex conditions of a pandemic. With regard to COVID-19, the relevant facts and circumstances are so different from person to person that a one-size-fits-all policy drawn up by despotic health officials is hopelessly inefficient. There will be some who have had COVID, others who have not; some with pre-existing conditions, others who are relatively healthy; some who are old and therefore fear infection, others who being younger are happy to run the risk.
So long as they risk only themselves, individuals are far better qualified than even the most credentialed official to make judgements according to their own varied circumstances—something that no top-down legal dictate can fully consider. Hayek’s logic only fails when particularly high infection rates risk putting the health service in jeopardy—an externality which in any case is not omnipresent but exists only for a limited time during short-lived epidemic spikes. Then again, nobody knew better than Friedrich Hayek that ‘temporary’ measures designed for a specific purpose rarely remain that way.
In Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek accepts that on occasion the liberal order “may yet have to be temporarily suspended when the long-run preservation of that order is itself threatened.” During such emergencies, the survival of civil society itself becomes the “overruling common purpose” and freedom demoted to a secondary value.
But vaguely enough defined, that “overruling common purpose” can be cited to continue justifying mass control even after the initial threat has waned or passed. As Hayek wrote shrewdly, “‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded—and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.” If anything, it is probably harder for governments to relinquish such powers. Once people get used to being ruled by a benevolent, all-caring state, it can look like a failure of compassion to return to normal. Thus, in our case, what started as a limited, specific policy to protect hospitals—dubious in itself, given that hospitals exist to protect us—has since expanded in countless directions, from eliminating all risk of infection to population-wide vaccine mandates.
Most importantly, in The Constitution of Liberty Hayek declares that freedom and responsibility are inseparable: “A free society probably demands more than any other that people be guided in their action by a sense of responsibility which extends beyond the duties exacted by the law.” The Chinese Communist Party model of ‘responsive authoritarianism’ forces the state to be absolutely responsible for everything, including personal health. It is hardly surprising, then, that Xi Jinping resorted to total and indefinite lockdowns when the pandemic first struck. The CCP has no notion of the responsible person, only the servile subject of the state. The remarkable thing is that free nations rushed to imitate the Chinese model—not, as first advertised, to “flatten the curve” for three weeks, but in the service of goals that are being constantly re-imagined by governments.
Whether we can return to the old normal is impossible to know. It will certainly be harder without first reviving the vision of liberty which Hayek spent his life defending. While an emergency makes it easier to call for top-down restrictions, Hayek’s work contains three important lessons. First, democracies should never complacently stop guarding their conventions. Second, trusting individuals to live responsibly is almost always more practical than bullying them into a life engineered by the state for their own good. And finally, emergency powers exist for two reasons: to address an existential crisis and to expire the moment that highly specific goal has been achieved.
A cautious revival of Hayek’s ideas is desperately needed if we are to break free of the unending cycle of lockdowns and mandates. It is not a coincidence that the late Sir Roger Scruton—as impeccable a conservative thinker as there can be—tried to rescue the best of Hayek from his destructive liberal tendencies. One of the discoveries of recent decades has been that the free market, without a shared moral life and a strong national identity, is not always a conservative force. Today’s international corporations routinely piggy-back on ‘woke’ causes, litter our wonderful cities with abysmal architecture, and go to undignified lengths to ingratiate their brands with the CCP. Their CEOs go gooey-eyed at any suggestion of a borderless world (‘If capital knows no borders, why should people?’), this ‘paradise’ coming at the expense of local and national forms of attachment.
Hayek was wise not to trust governments to make total demands on the lives of citizens. He was less wise to trust individuals to calculate for themselves what their duties should be—without recourse, at least, to a shared stock of religious, cultural or traditional values. But especially in our COVID-obsessed age, Hayek’s case for a prosperous world, founded on freedom under the law and personal responsibility, still leaves much for conservatives to ponder and revive. Matthew Arnold probed deeper than Hayek ever did when he said that freedom is a “very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.” But before we can lead our culture to a more worthwhile place, conservatives must first remount this horse.