It’s time to set the record straight.
The following is from a pdf file of a speech given in Chicago. Although many among the modern conservative movement claim to be direct heirs of Hayek, his own words more closely resemble the ideals of modern Liberals than that of the modern Conservative Movement.
Why I Am Not a Conservative
In The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960)
“At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.” – Lord Acton
1. At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further
encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend
their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same
side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current politics today they
generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties. But, though the
position I have tried to define is also often described as “conservative,” it is very different from that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their ideals equally. It is therefore important to distinguish clearly the position taken here from that which has long been known – perhaps more appropriately – as conservatism.
Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread
attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character. And some time before this, American radicals and socialists began calling themselves “liberals.” I will nevertheless continue for the moment to describe as liberal the position which I hold and which I believe differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism. Let me say at once, however, that I do so with increasing misgivings, and I shall later have to consider what would be the appropriate name for the party of liberty.
The reason for this is not only that the term “liberal” in the United States is the cause of constant misunderstandings today, but also that in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism. 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. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.2. The picture generally given of the relative position of the three parties does more to obscure than to elucidate their true relations. They are usually represented as different positions on a line, with the socialists on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals somewhere in the middle. Nothing could be more misleading. If we want a diagram, it would be more appropriate to arrange them in a triangle with the conservatives occupying one corner, with the socialists pulling toward the second and the liberals toward the third. But, as the socialists have for a long time been able to pull harder, the conservatives have tended to follow the socialist rather than the liberal direction and have adopted at appropriate intervals of time those ideas made respectable by radical propaganda. It has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism and stolen its thunder. Advocates of the Middle Way with no goal of their own, conservatives have been guided by the belief that the truth must lie somewhere between the extremes – with the result that they have shifted their position every time a more extreme movement appeared on either wing.
The position which can be rightly described as conservative at any time depends,
therefore, on the direction of existing tendencies. Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still. Though today the contrary impression may sometimes be caused by the fact that there was a time when liberalism was more widely accepted and some of its objectives closer to being achieved, it has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy. So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth.
This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact
that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.3. Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, DeMaistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But 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.
There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid
change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is
indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to
prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they 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. 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. Macaulay, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Lecky certainly considered themselves liberals, and with justice; and even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.
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. 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.
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 – bet 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.
Closely connected with this is the usual attitude of the conservative to democracy. I have made it clear earlier that I do not regard majority rule as an end but merely as a means, or perhaps even as the least evil of those forms of government from which we have to choose. But I believe that the conservatives deceive themselves when they blame the evils of our time on democracy. The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power. The powers which modern democracy possesses
would be even more intolerable in the hands of some small elite.
Admittedly, it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further
limitations of the power of government was thought unnecessary. In this sense
democracy and unlimited government are connected. But it is not democracy but
unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not
learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government.
At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political
education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no
sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what
government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.
That the conservative opposition to too much government control is not a matter of
principle but is concerned with the particular aims of government is clearly shown in the economic sphere. Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field, and here the liberals will often find allies in them. But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture. Indeed, though the restrictions which exist today in industry and commerce are mainly the result of socialist views, the equally important restrictions in agriculture were usually introduced by conservatives at an even earlier date. And in their efforts to discredit free enterprise many conservative leaders have vied with the socialists.
4. I have already referred to the differences between conservatism and liberalism in the
purely intellectual field, but I must return to them because the characteristic conservative attitude here not only is a serious weakness of conservatism but tends to harm any cause which allies itself with it. Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism, with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality.
The difference shows itself most clearly in the different attitudes of the two traditions to the advance of knowledge. Though the liberal certainly does not regard all change as progress, he does regard the advance of knowledge as one of the chief aims of human effort and expects from it the gradual solution of such problems and difficulties as we can hope to solve. Without preferring the new merely because it is new, the liberal is aware that it is of the essence of human achievement that it produces something new; and he is prepared to come to terms with new knowledge, whether he likes its immediate effects or not.
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 if 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 power 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.
A great deal more might be said about the close connection between conservatism and
nationalism, but I shall not dwell on this point because it might be felt that my personal position makes me unable to sympathize with any form of nationalism. I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest. But in this respect the Continental liberalism which derives from the French Revolution is little better than conservatism. I need hardly say that nationalism of this sort is something very different from patriotism and that an aversion to nationalism is fully compatible with a deep attachment to national traditions. But the fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.
Only at first foes it seem paradoxical that the anti-internationalism of conservatism is so frequently associated with imperialism. But the more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” other – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government. It is significant that here again we frequently find the conservatives joining hands with the socialists against the liberals – not only in England, where the Webbs and their Fabians were outspoken imperialists, or in Germany, where state socialism and colonial expansionism went together and found the support of the same group of “socialists of the chair,” but also in the United States, where even at the time of the first Roosevelt it could be observed: “the Jingoes and the Social Reformers have gotten together; and have formed a political party, which threatened to capture the Government and use it for their program of Caesaristic paternalism, a danger which now seems to have been averted only by the other parties having adopted their program in a somewhat milder degree and form.”
5. There is one respect, however, in which there is justification for saying that the liberal occupies a position midway between the socialist and the conservative: he is as far from the crude rationalism of the socialist, who wants to reconstruct all social institutions according to a pattern prescribed by his individual reason, as from the mysticism to which the conservative so frequently has to resort. What I have described as the liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers. He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him. It has to be admitted that in some respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic – but it seems to require a certain degree of diffidence to let others seek their happiness in their own fashion and to adhere consistently to that tolerance which is an essential characteristic of liberalism.
There is no reason why this need mean an absence of religious belief on the part of the
liberal. Unlike the rationalism of the French Revolution, true liberalism has no quarrel
with religion, and I can only deplore the militant and essentially illiberal antireligionism which animated so much of nineteenth-century Continental liberalism. That this is not essential to liberalism is clearly shown by its English ancestors, the Old Whigs, who, if anything, were much too closely allied with a particular religious belief. What distinguishes the liberal from the conservative here is that, however profound his own spiritual beliefs, he will never regard himself as entitled to impose them on others and that for him the spiritual and the temporal are different sphere which ought not to be confused.
6. What I have said should suffice to explain why I do not regard myself as a
conservative. Many people will feel, however, that the position which emerges is hardly
what they used to call “liberal.” I must, therefore, now face the question of whether this name is today the appropriate name for the party of liberty. I have already indicated that, though I have all my life described myself as a liberal, I have done so recently with increasing misgivings – not only because in the United States this term constantly gives rise to misunderstandings, but also because I have become more and more aware of the great gulf that exists between my position and the rationalistic Continental liberalism or even the English liberalism of the utilitarians.
If liberalism still meant what it meant to an English historian who in 1827 could speak of the revolution of 1688 as “the triumph of those principles which in the language of the present day are denominated liberal or constitutional”  or if one could still, with Lord Acton, speak of Burke, Macaulay, and Gladstone as the three greatest liberals, or if one could still, with Harold Laske, regard Tocqueville and Lord Acton as “the essential liberals of the nineteenth century,” I should indeed be only too proud to describe myself by that name. But, much as I am tempted to call their liberalism true liberalism, I must recognize that the majority of Continental liberals stood for ideas to which these men were strongly opposed, and that they were led more by a desire to impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern than to provide opportunity for free growth. The same is largely true of what has called itself Liberalism in England at least since the time of Lloyd George.
It is thus necessary to recognize that what I have called “liberalism” has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today. It is also questionable whether the historical associations which that name carries today are conducive to the success of any movement. Whether in these circumstances one ought to make an effort to rescue the term from what one feels is its misuse is a question on which opinions may well differ. I myself feel more and more that to use it without long explanations causes too much confusion and that as a label it has become more of a ballast than a source of strength.
In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the sense in which I have used it, the term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be theanswer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.
But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends
7. We should remember, however, that when the ideals which I have been trying to
restate first began to spread through the Western world, the party which represented them had a generally recognized name. It was the ideals of the English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in the whole of Europe and that provided the conceptions that the American colonists carried with them and which guided them in their struggle for independence and in the establishment of their constitution.
Indeed, until the character of this tradition was altered by the accretions due to the French Revolution, with its totalitarian democracy and socialist leanings, “Whig” was the name by which the party of liberty was generally known.
The name died in the country of its birth partly because for a time the principles for
which it stood were no longer distinctive of a particular party, and partly because the men who bore the name did not remain true to those principles. The Whig parties of the
nineteenth century, in both Britain and the United States, finally brought discredit to the name among the radicals. But it is still true that, since liberalism took the place of Whiggism only after the movement for liberty had absorbed the crude and militant
rationalism of the French Revolution, and since our task must largely be to free that
tradition from the overrationalistic, nationalistic, and socialistic influences which have intruded into it, Whiggism is historically the correct name for the ideas in which I believe. The more I learn about the evolution of ideas, the more I have become aware that I am simply an unrepentant Old Whig – with the stress on the “old.”
To confess one’s self as an Old Whig does not mean, of course, that one wants to go back
to where we were at the end of the seventeenth century. It has been one of the purposes of this book to show that the doctrines then first stated continued to grow and develop until about seventy or eighty years ago, even though they were no longer the chief aim of a distinct party. We have since learned much that should enable us to restate them in a more satisfactory and effective form. But, though they require restatement in the light of our present knowledge, the basic principles are still those of the Old Whigs. True, the later history of the party that bore that name has made some historians doubt where there was a distinct body of Whig principles; but I can but agree with Lord Acton that, though some of “the patriarchs of the doctrine were the most infamous of men, the notion of a higher law above municipal codes, with which Whiggism began, is the supreme
achievement of Englishmen and their bequest to the nation” – and, we may add, to the
world. It is the doctrine which is at the basis of the common tradition of the Anglo-Saxon countries. It is the doctrine from which Continental liberalism took what is valuable in it.
It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form
it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the
conservatism of Hamilton or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the
“father of the Constitution.”
I do not know whether to revive that old name is practical politics. That to the mass of
people, both in the Anglo-Saxon world and elsewhere, it is today probably a term without
definite associations is perhaps more an advantage than a drawback. To those familiar
with the history of ideas it is probably the only name that quite expresses what the
tradition means. That, both for the genuine conservative and still more for the many
socialists turned conservative, Whiggism is the name for their pet aversion shows a sound instinct on their part. It has been the name for the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power.
8. It may well be asked whether the name really matters so much. In a country like the
United States, which on the whole has free institutions and where, therefore, the defense of the existing is often a defense of freedom, it might not make so much difference if the defenders of freedom call themselves conservatives, although even here the association with the conservatives by disposition will often be embarrassing. Even when men approve of the same arrangements, it must be asked whether they approve of them because they exist or because they are desirable in themselves. The common resistance to the collectivist tide should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the belief in integral freedom is based on an essentially forward-looking attitude and not on any nostalgic longing for the past or a romantic admiration for what has been.
The need for a clear distinction is absolutely imperative, however, where, as is true in
many parts of Europe, the conservatives have already accepted a large part of the
collectivist creed – a creed that has governed policy for so long that many of its
institutions have come to be accepted as a matter of course and have become a source of
pride to “conservative” parties who created them. Here the believer in freedom
cannot but conflict with the conservative and take an essentially radical position, directed against popular prejudices, entrenched positions, and firmly established privileges.
Follies and abuses are no better for having long been established principles of folly.
Though quieta non movere may at times be a wise maxim for the statesman it cannot
satisfy the political philosopher. He may wish policy to proceed gingerly and not before
public opinion is prepared to support it, but he cannot accept arrangements merely
because current opinion sanctions them. In a world where the chief need is once more, as
it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to free the process of spontaneous
growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected, his hopes
must rest on persuading and gaining the support of those who by disposition are
“progressives,” those who, though they may now be seeking change in the wrong
direction, are at least willing to examine critically the existing and to change it wherever necessary.
I hope I have not misled the reader by occasionally speaking of “party” when I was
thinking of groups of men defending a set of intellectual and moral principles. Party
politics of any one country has not been the concern of this book. The question of how
the principles I have tried to reconstruct by piecing together the broken fragments of a
tradition can be translated into a program with mass appeal, the political philosopher
must leave to “that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs.” The task of the political philosopher can only be to influence public opinion, not to organize people for action. He will do so effectively only if he is not concerned with what is now politically possible but consistently defends the “general principles which are always the same.” In this sense I doubt whether there can be such a thing as a conservative political philosophy. Conservatism may often be a useful practical maxim, but it does not give us any guiding principles which can influence long-range developments.
The quotation at the head of the Postscript is taken from Acton, Hist. of Freedom, p. 1.
1. This has now been true for over a century, and as early as 1855 J. S. Mill could say
(see my John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor [London and Chicago, 1951], p. 216) that
“almost all the projects of social reformers of these days are really liberticide.”
2. B. Crick, “The Strange Quest for an American Conservatism,” Review of Politics,
XVII (1955), 365, says rightly that “the normal American who calls himself ‘A
Conservative’ is, in fact, a liberal.” It would appear that the reluctance of these
conservatives to call themselves by the more appropriate name dates only from its abuse
during the New Deal era.
3. The expression is that of R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1942), p. 209.
4. Cf. the characteristic choice of this title for the programmatic book by the present
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, The Middle Way (London, 1938).
5. Cf. Lord Hugh Cecil, Conservatism (“Home University Library” [London, 1912], p. 9:
“Natural Conservatism . . . is a disposition averse from change; and it springs partly from
a distrust of the unknown.”
6. Cf. the revealing self-description of a conservative in K. Feiling, Sketches in
Nineteenth Century Biography (London, 1930), p. 174: “Taken in bulk, the Right have a
horror of ideas, for is not the practical man, in Disraeli’s words, ‘one who practices the blunders of his predecessors’? For long tracts of their history they have indiscriminately resisted improvement, and in claiming to reverence their ancestors often reduce opinion to aged individual prejudice. Their position becomes safer, but more complex, when we add that this Right wing is incessantly overtaking the Left; that it lives by repeated inoculation of liberal ideas, and thus suffers from a never-perfected state of compromise.”
7. I trust I shall be forgiven for repeating here the words in which on an earlier occasion I stated an important point: “The main merit of the individualism which [Adam Smith] and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid.” (Individualism and Economic Order
[London and Chicago, 1948], p. 11).
8. Cf. Lord Acton in Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone, ed. H. Paul (London,
1913), p. 73: “The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. The law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.”
9. J. R. Hicks has rightly spoken in this connection of the “caricature drawn alike by the young Disraeli, by Marx and by Goebbels” (“The Pursuit of Economic Freedom,” What
We Defend, ed. E. F. Jacob [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942], p. 96). On the role
of the conservatives in this connection see also my Introduction to Capitalism and the
Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 19 ff.
10. Cf. J. S. Mill, On Liberty, ed. R. B. McCallum (Oxford, 1946), p. 83: “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”
11. J. W. Burgess, The Reconciliation of Government with Liberty (New York, 1915), p.
12. Cf. Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty, ed. I. Dilliard (New York, 1952), p. 190:
“The Spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” See also Oliver
Cromwell’s often quoted statement is his Letter to the Assembly of the Church of
Scotland, August 3, 1650: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you
may be mistaken.” It is significant that this should be the probably best-remembered
saying of the only “dictator” in British history!
13. H. Hallam, Constitutional History (1827) (“Everyman” ed.), III, 90. It is often
suggested that the term “liberal” derives from the early nineteenth-century Spanish party of the liberales. I am more inclined to believe that it derives from the use of that term by Adam Smith in such passages as W.o.N., II, 41: “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation” and p. 216: “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.”
14. Lord Acton in Letters to Mary Gladstone, p. 44. Cf. also his judgment of Tocqueville
in Lectures on the French Revolution (London, 1910), p. 357: “Tocqueville was a Liberal
of the purest breed – a Liberal and nothing else, deeply suspicious of democracy and its
kindred, equality, centralisation, and utilitarianism.” Similarly in the Nineteenth Century, XXXIII (1892), 885. The statement by H. J. Laski occurs in “Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy,” in The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age, ed. F. J. C. Hearnshaw (London, 1933), p. 100, where he says that “a case of unanswerable power could, I think, be made out for the view that he [Tocqueville] and Lord Acton were the essential liberals of the nineteenth century.”
15. As early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, an English observer could remark that he “scarce ever knew a foreigner settled in England, whether of Dutch, German, French, Italian, or Turkish growth, but became a Whig in a little time after his mixing with us” (quoted by G. H. Guttridge, English Whiggism and the American Revolution [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942], p. 3).
16. In the United States the nineteenth-century use of the term “Whig” has unfortunately
obliterated the memory of the fact that in the eighteenth it stood for the principles which guided the revolution, gained independence, and shaped the Constitution. It was in Whig societies that the young James Madison and John Adams developed their political ideals (cf. E. M. Burns, James Madison [New Brunnswick, N.J.; Rutgers University Press,
1938], p. 4); it was Whig principles which, as Jefferson tells us, guided all the lawyers who constituted such a strong majority among the signers of the Declaration of
Independence and among the members of the Constitutional Convention (see Writings of
Thomas Jefferson ["Memorial ed." (Washington, 1905)], XVI, 156). The profession of
Whig principles was carried to such a point that even Washington’s soldiers were clad in
the traditional “blue and buff” colors of the Whigs, which they shared with the Foxites in the British Parliament and which was preserved down to our days on the covers of the
Edinburgh Review. If a socialist generation has made Whiggism its favorite target, this is all the more reason for the opponents of socialism to vindicate its name. It is today the only name which correctly desribes the beliefs of the Gladstonian liberals, of the men of the generation of Maitland, Acton, and Bryce, and the last generation for whom liberty rather than equality or democracy was the main goal.
17. Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (London, 1906), p. 218 (I have slightly
rearranged Acton’s clauses to reproduce briefly the sense of his statement).
18. Cf. S. K. Padover in his Introduction to The Complete Madison (New York, 1953), p.
10: “In modern terminology, Madison would be labeled a middle-of-the-road liberal and
Jefferson a radical.” This is true and important, though we must remember what E. S.
Corwin (“James Madison: Layman, Publicist, and Exegete,” New York University Law
Review, XXVII , 285) has called Madison’s later “surrender to the overwhelming
influence of Jefferson.”
19. Cf. the British Conservative party’s statement of policy, The Right Road for Britain
(London, 1950), pp. 41-42, which claims, with considerable justification, that “this new
conception [of the social services] was developed [by] the Coalition Government with a
majority of Conservative Ministers and the full approval of the Conservative majority in
the House of Commons . . . [We] set out the principle for the schemes of pensions,
sickness and unemployment benefit, industrial injustices benefit and a national health
20. A Smith, W.o.N., I, 432.