Wednesday , July 24 2024
It’s become necessary to start viewing conservatism and liberalism as two sides of the same tarnished coin so as to be able to discard the entire paradigm and reinvent a new one.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part XVII

To be sure, Hayek doesn’t accuse Hobbes and company, the precursors of the liberal theory, with modern-day liberal bias. Quite the contrary, he prefaces his introduction to “Individualism: True and False,” the first chapter of the featured selection, by saying:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke – the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.

Consequently, his true sentiments are expressed well in advance: each of these were in essence conservative thinkers. (Let it be a lesson to all modern-day, self-styled liberals!) One only wishes he had included Hobbes, the most important of them all, in that number.

Let’s highlight the points of similarity, all the important respects in which Hobbes’ own views and those of Burke and Hayek more or less coincided.

In the first place, Hayek argues for limited government and is dead-set against central planning: according to his lights, the best results are almost always most likely to obtain whenever each and every individual is left to their own devices to pursue their own interests; irrespective of how enlightened or unenlightened they may be, irrespective of their native abilities, talent, ambition, or less than even playing field. Hobbes’s view isn’t all that different since his conception of equality is grounded in equality based on insecurity: all were equally insecure, according to Hobbes, vis-à-vis the impersonal forces of the market.

This isn’t to say Hobbes regarded each and every one as commanding the exact same quotient of power. Far from it! The point rather was that no matter how powerful any one individual may be, she wasn’t powerful enough to overawe the rest (assuming, of course, that all those who had opposed him were equally intent on stripping him of their power). Which is why the inauguration of the state by those who felt so threatened by the forces about them was not only a dire necessity but also the most natural consequence. But let’s not mistake for the fact the scope of Hobbes’s project. His conception of the state was minimal, no less minimal than that of Burke or Hayek, the only purpose being to preserve the established social order. Once again, one fails to discern any significant difference here.

To properly understand the import of Hayek’s complaint, again we must fast-forward: beyond the minimal state envisaged by Hobbes et al, to the eventual formation of a totalitarian, welfare state; the true Leviathan. It’s not against the presumed deficiency of conservative thought or spirit on the part of the founders that Hayek registers his complaint but rather against the behemoth which, unbeknownst to all, arose in its wake. In this particular respect, insofar as Hayek’s critique is directed against statism, he’s right on target; it accords besides with the gist of the anarchistic thought. Where he errs, however, is in his narrative of how we got from point A to point B. His account is one dimensional, unduly beholden to the history of ideas and, in a sense, ahistorical.

It’s not exactly as though Hayek’s emphasis on rationalism as inaugurated by the thought of Descartes and carried forth in the works of the French Enlightenment thinkers (Rousseau in particular), the presumed springboard for supposedly wrongheaded brand of individualism, was necessarily ill-taken. There’s much to be said for and against the ideas which paved the way for the French Revolution, the vulgar notion of egalitarianism in particular; and it’s quite understandable why Hayek would be opposed to it in principle. But to dub Rousseau a socialist or a precursor of socialism only displays Hayek’s modern-day bias. If anything, Rousseau was advocating a communal form of social relations whereby each and every one would be in sync, not by any grand design or central planning but by having come by it honestly: by General Will. And the context was the state, Rousseau’s grand vision of a fully mature human community; a far cry from socialism, one should say. In retrospect, Hayek’s narrative is faulty, not on account of what it says but by virtue of what it omits.

I alluded in the course of these essays to a series of historical developments which succeeded the inauguration of Hobbes’ grand schema, not as part of any original design but developments which, nonetheless, have left a permanent footprint on what was soon to become a modern day liberal state. The extension of the original franchise from the lilywhite, propertied class to women and slaves, all those who were previously disenfranchised, surely must count among the most significant of these developments; not anticipated, one hastens to add, but come to think of it, hardly a surprise. Needless to say, the state was forced to function, at least de jure if not de facto, as the ultimate guarantor of the rights of the new constituents; it had become what’s come to be known as the liberal state. Which only confirms earlier observation that liberal theory isn’t a theory but, properly speaking, patchwork. Hayek makes no mention of this all-important consideration, the developments which have virtually guaranteed the emergence of the modern day liberal state, for which reason his account is shortsighted and biased.

Alongside the notion of limited government, so as to allow individuals (within reason, of course) to think and act according to their best lights, there runs an undercurrent of a theme: the idea that the existing social norms and mores serve as our most reliable guide to think and act responsibly (with the added benefit that our so acting will promote the good of everyone). In short, the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This Hayek inherits from a variety of conservative writers, Burke in particular.

For the life of me, I never understood the logic. Not only is Hayek guilty here of a glaring contradiction: of allowing individuals almost unlimited freedom to think and act as they will, whilst at the same time constraining them to be bound by custom; he’s equally guilty of committing to the conservative mantra that change is less preferable than the status quo, that it’s always to be resisted, never endorsed.

But surely, this runs counter to all historical evidence, human experience included. Our practices are almost always found to be imperfect if not sooner than later, always in need of however slight modification if not total replacement. Some of them become dysfunctional over time, divorced from their intended use; others simply outdated. It runs counter to the very idea of human progress, however one chooses to define progress. Yet, this remains the hallmark of conservative thought, the mainstay, and in this respect, Hayek is just another garden-variety exponent.

But perhaps his gravest error lies in the picture of Everyman which comes part and parcel with (because it’s implicit in) Hayek’s thought system. Self-absorbed and all-concerned as he or she may be about their immediate surroundings, about their circumstances, about their immediate family and their circle of acquaintances and friends, as each goes about his or her business of pursuing their own interests, Hayek’s (moral?) agents come across as flat, one dimensional and totally unconvincing. Self absorption and self preoccupation are all to the good as a precondition, for all morality, strictly speaking, must begin at home; but surely, if it’s ever to amount to anything, ultimately and eventually, it must transcend all the local and parochial loyalties and allegiances and become, as it were, a universal quality of mind so as to embrace each and every one, every single member of the human community, even the stranger. Especially the stranger!

Well, there is nothing whatsoever in Hayek’s grand schema, no allowance made whatever, to account for the possibility of moral growth. Hayek’s agents start out as immature adolescents insofar as their character or the quality of their motivation is concerned, though in an adult body; and they end up no better than they had started, there being nothing to show for their having lived. At least in Adam Smith’s case we are treated to a theory of moral sentiments, which preceded his magnum opus, so as to augment his reliance on the invisible-hand type of explanation. To his credit, Adam Smith full well realized that morality was the common bond which made any kind of explanation, which made society, possible. Well, we find nothing of the kind in Hayek, for which reason we must dismiss his purportedly modern account (he does speak, for instance, of “distributive justice,” albeit in passing and in a derogatory way) as grossly inadequate, alas, as patently false.

We must also reject Hayek’s brand of individualism, emerging, as he’d have us believe, in the context of inter-societal, person to person relations, whereby each individual is preprogrammed, as it were, to pursue their own, narrowly-defined interests, as convenient fiction. Instead of valorizing and defining the individual for being so engaged, to the exclusion, mind you, of all other interests and concerns that make us truly human, Hayek’s ascription only tends to demean him and turn him into a cartoonish cardboard character that he really is. No surprise there though, really, since Hayek ends up with what he had started: garbage in, garbage out; his agents are incapable of anything finer. Which brings home once again the old maxim that it all starts and ends with the picture of the human subject. Come up with a realistic enough philosophy of the human subject, a full-bloodied animal that each of us are, and you stand a good chance of coming up with a political philosophy that’s halfway credible.

Finally, we must also conclude that for all its defects, MacPherson’s characterization of modern day individualism as “possessive,” though also a caricature, is certainly more on target than Hayek’s feeble attempt to represent his characters as our unsung, modern day heroes. Say what you will, but a great many of us, especially in the West, derive our sense of individuality from our possessions: vulgar consumerism is the most obvious syndrome, but the river runs deeper than that, much deeper. After all, the culture of private property is in our blood.

Neither response will do. Whereas the first offers a fictitious account of our comings and goings, our alleged status as moral agents remaining a question mark, the second, however valid as social critique, falls short of offering a viable solution. The first is a standard conservative response; the second displays a liberal mindset for not carrying its findings to their natural conclusion. But truly, only the abolition of the private property system and culture and all that it entails can bring about social justice and make us whole again. But for as long as liberalism refuses to come to terms with this fact and make the final break, it shall remain a defunct political philosophy: for in offering a remedial kind of solution, via government intervention, it doesn’t eradicate the status quo, only perpetuates it.

In any case, the very notion of individualism is highly overrated, itself a symptom of our decadent culture and times, and the same goes for how it’s typically expressed, whereby property and possessions are regarded as natural extensions of the approbation-seeking self. If anything, true human worth ought to be based more on communal, give-and-take type of human relations than on personal accomplishments without regard to one’s contribution to the greater community, but more on this later.

Meanwhile, it remains to show that liberalism, the dominant ideology behind the capitalist system and modern-day liberal democracies, the mainstay of the liberal state, is but a natural outgrowth of the dissatisfaction with the purely conservative account; that although born as a reaction to the excesses of the conservative narrative, it shares with that narrative too many commonalities to be regarded as its natural-born enemy; that the more proper relationship between the two is more akin to the one which obtains between two stepbrothers or estranged cousins, both of whom share essentially the same genetic makeup, the same DNA, for their quibble to amount to anything much. And while ‘tis true that the liberal narrative is more accurate of the two insofar as descriptions go, in that the intervention by the state has become a dire necessity and a fact of life, that’s where its value ends: it offers no lasting solution since the state has long lost the capacity to act in a fair and judicious manner. (It’s part of the anarchistic thesis that the modern state has become so implicated in the existing sociopolitical arrangements that in order to ensure its own survival, it’s been forced to perpetuate the status quo.)

In short, it’s become necessary to start viewing conservatism and liberalism as two sides of the same tarnished coin so as to be able to discard the entire conservative-liberal paradigm and to reinvent a new one.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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