Was F. A. Hayek a Neoliberal?

F A Hayek published his “Constitution of Liberty” in 1960, and added as an appendix a very famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” When the ASI in 1987 published a volume of tribute essays by famous scholars, entitled “Hayek – on the fabric of human society,” I wrote the final essay, somewhat cheekily entitled “Why F. A. Hayek is a Conservative.” You can see it here.

Debate has taken place since, and I think most commentators have tended to agree with me that he was. His view morphed over his lifetime, becoming distinctly more conservative than the more straightforward libertarian outlook of his younger days. His basic case originally was that Conservatives wanted to conserve the status quo. If that status quo was socialism, he did not want to conserve it. When he wrote, there was a postwar consensus of mixed economy socialism with its nationalized industries, welfare state and National Health Service. He did not wish to conserve it.

I argued that this was an aberration, and that what Conservatives wished to conserve was not any given status quo, but the spontaneity of society. I added the magic words “or to restore” to the wish of Conservatives to conserve that spontaneity. If it were lost they would bring it back. This added a justification to the Thatcher revolution, which was well named, and of which Hayek most decidedly approved.

On the day my book “The Neoliberal Mind” is published, I ask whether Hayek was himself a neoliberal. He was certainly pro free-market and for a large measure of personal freedom, and applauded their spread. Had he lived longer, he would have undoubtedly applauded their progress since. He also shared with today’s neoliberals an outlook that seeks to prevent people from taking society in a preconceived direction, but instead to allow it to emerge from the interaction of peoples making independent decisions.

But there are aspects of neoliberalism which are as much about character as they are about political outlook. Most neoliberals are optimists, most embrace new technology for the opportunities it brings. I don’t think Hayek quite shared that enthusiasm for the new, or the readiness of neoliberals to embrace change and to ride with it.

Hayek sought for a name for people who shared his viewpoint, and toyed with the idea of “Old Whig.” I think on balance, and it is close, I would stand by my original judgement and say that he was more of a conservative than a neoliberal. But I think he would have approved of neoliberals even if his disposition prevented him from actually being one himself.