Classical liberalism can enjoy meaningful triumphs

Since participation in the democratic movement has been a theme here of late, I thought I would share a perspective from Dan Hannan:

It worked. A party that was still imperialist, militarist and mildly protectionist in its outlook began to make space for what we would nowadays call libertarians. A few key individuals were convinced, including Keith Joseph, who after reading Hayek (a self-described “Old Whig”) declared that he thought he had been a Conservative all his life, but now realised he had only just become one. Keith Joseph had several disciples in the party, one of whom was the daughter of a Methodist grocer with a classic Whig-Liberal background. She, too, was convinced, and went on to become our country’s greatest ever prime minister. The revolution had happened peacefully and benignly in one generation.

Pure liberalism will always struggle to secure an electoral majority. While some of its positions are popular – tax-cuts, welfare reform, Euroscepticism – others are not. I always tell libertarian students to focus on the big issues, such as the economy and education, rather than fighting losing battles on relatively minor questions such as drugs and pornography. As part of a wider conservative alliance, as under Thatcher or Reagan, classical liberalism can enjoy meaningful triumphs. On its own, it will only ever be a fringe movement.

I’m not convinced Dan represents the centre ground of the libertarian movement, but as an elected euro-sceptic MEP his perspective deserves some attention.


  1. Some of the talks that Alfred Roberts (the father of Mrs Thatcher) gave in the 1930s are of interest – with their attack on the “totalitarianism” of the Fascists, Nazis and Communists (seeing how they were all fundamentally akin – and how a policy of ever more state interventionism leads to totalitarianism as it makes worse the problems it pretends to solve). The sermons-talks are available from the Thatcher Foundation.

    Hayek was writing to an audience that was not dead – there were still lots of people (at the lower levels) of both the Conservative and the Liberal parties that were open to the ideas of “The Road to Serfdom” .

    Indeed philosophically someone like Alfred Roberts (speaking years before the “Road to Serfdom”) was more in line with the philosophy expressed in “The Road to Serfdom” than the author (Hayek) was himself.

    It should be noted that whilst the book very strongly implies that agency (free will – human choice) exists, Hayek himself did not (he was a determinist – see his brief discussion in “The Constitution of Liberty”), and whilst the book talks about objective right and wrong (including rights and natural law) Hayek himself believed in none of this.

    Hayek actually believed in the same (false) philosophical doctrines that were fashionable among the academic “intellectuals” of his time. And his entire adult life Hayek was baffled that most such people drew collectivist political conclusions from this philosophy.

    He should not have been baffled.

    Indeed he should have asked himself a question – “why do I in my Road to Serfdom book, very strongly imply that I believe in a different philosophy – one in which good and evil are real things, and humans have the ability to choose between them?”

    The truth is that that this philosophical position is needed if one is to argue for political freedom.

    After how can tyranny be evil if good and evil are just “boo and cheer” words (as the Logical Positivists would have it) – why not cheer tyranny and call it good?

    And how can human freedom be of fundamental importance – if it DOES NOT REALLY EXIST? If humans are not beings – if we can not choose to do other than we do. If all our actions are predetermined?

    One does not need to accept the theology of someone like Alfred Roberts to understand that his philosophical assumptions are vital – which is why Hayek (basically) has to pretend to share these philosophical assumptions in such works as The Road to Serfdom.

    Contra Hayek – the natural conclusion of the university taught philosophical principles is tyranny, a boot smashed down on a human face (for ever).

    The “intellectual” elite were not making a mistake in the conclusions that took from their philosophy – Hayek was a making a mistake (a fundamental one) in trying to win over the “intellectuals” without (in his academic works) really challenging their philosophy.

    And he was not the person to challenge it – because he shared many of its assumptions.

    This is why Hayek had a much greater appeal outside the elite (why The Road To Serfdom was a best seller).

    Because it appealed mainly to people who did not share the philosophical assumptions of the elite (the university crowd) – assumptions that, ironically, Hayek himself did share.



  2. ” fighting losing battles on relatively minor questions such as drugs and pornography.”

    With regard to the latter, Hannan may wish to check the internet. Pornography is winning. As for drugs, which remain illegal, the issue is linked to the role and function of the criminal law, which is hardly a minor question.

    Classical liberals like Hannan seem to be a small minority in the Tory Party, and I don’t see much sign of their influence, which is a shame I would say. If the Tories were working to put in place Hannan and Carswell’s “Plan”, then there would be reason to support them, but as it is, all we get is a slightly posher version of New Labour.

    I agree with PM’s comment above re: Hayek. I expect Hayek subscribed to a vague utilitarianism, which, as Rothbard noted, is not enough to underpin liberty.



    1. It is not so much Hayek’s utilitarianism that I was attacking, it was his philosophical determinism. The latter is not just “not enough to underpin liberty” it is a direct denial of liberty (keeping one’s politics and one’s philosophy in separate boxes just will not do – at least not in the long run).

      On porn on the internet – controls brought in to “fight porn” will be used on everything else (eventually), there is an obvious agenda here (and it must be fought).

      On drugs it was Enoch Powell (not known as a trendy leftie) who warned that the state powers (such as the confiscation of private property – by reversing the burden of proof concerning how it was financed, saying that people had to prove they bought X without drug money, or the state would steal X) brought in to “fight the drug trade” would be used against generally.

      And so it has proved – the “War on Drugs” has proved to be a Trojan Horse for a general expansion of state power.

      It is often like this – a special state power (to be used only against “porn merchants”, “drug dealers” – or even terrorists) tends to turn into a GENERAL power. After all it is just so much nicer for the state to be able to avoid all these nasty limitations of the “rule of law” thing.



  3. Perhaps Prof. Richard A. Epstein’s discussion of “Hayekian Socialism” might be of interest:

    There are three different audio formats…scroll down the Liberty Fund’s page.

    Prof. Epstein is a Professor of Law at NYU Law School, but until two or three years ago was Professor of Law at The University of Chicago’s Law School.

    He touches in a few spots on the issue of ignorance. He also is aware of the cumulative effect of tiny increments. (Two issues close to my heart, as those who have seen my rants on the evil doctrine of “rational ignorance” and its poisonous fruit, the “irrationality of voting,” can attest. Not that he deals with those in the lecture, but it’s clear that he’s not a fan of ignorance. And he says flat-out that many small increments can add up to a lot.)

    Whether one agrees with him on all points (hah!) or not, his lectures are nearly always fascinating. His expertise is everywhere, but in particular in the field of law-and-economics, and he’s a libertarian, for whatever value of “libertarian.”



  4. Richard I have remembered that the censorship of the theatres (right back in the 1730s – but lasting to only a few decades ago) was done in a similar way to the internet censorship agenda now.

    A vile play was shown to Members of the House of Commons – and it really was vile (there is no need to go into details). See what the free-for-all has produced said the first Prime Minster (Sir Robert Walpole) – a mixture of treason and obscenity (of the vilest forms).

    A problem – this play does not seem to have every been produced anywhere apart from the House of Commons. Indeed it is often claimed (I do not know the truth of the matter) that Sir Robert Walpole had the vile thing writing – as a excuse to introduce general censorship.

    Walpole (being the top minister of the day) was the target of most of the political attacks in plays – and wanted to strike back at his foes, not by getting plays produced against his foes (that would have been fine) – but by (de facto) banning plays against himself (by getting the Lord Chamberlain to not “license ” them).

    “The more things change the more they stay the same” – although let us hope that censorship will prove too difficult now.

    But remember – it does not matter (to the government) if a few clever people can see something the establishment does not like (say an internet show promoting the carrying of knives and guns for defence). What matters to the government (and establishment generally) is that it is a little difficult for the general population to watch a show it would not be P.C. for them to watch.



  5. Julie – I do not have sound on this machine, so I can not listen to what Professor Epstein has to say.

    However, I do not like the title – I would not say that Hayek was a “socialist”, I would say that his philosophy and his politics did not fit together (that they were in contradiction).

    Of course that may be a point that only interests old nerds like me – to most people interested in political debate all that really matters is what-side-someone-is-on. I am interested in that too (most certainly I am) – but I have “nerdish” interests also.



  6. Paul, Prof. Epstein isn’t saying Hayek was a socialist. Rather, he’s examining what it is in The Road to Serfdom that is or seems to be socialistic, and how it got there. Prof. E. says that the camel’s nose enters the tent with such things as a (small) “social safety net,” surely that can’t be so bad…. He notes that Hayek was much against central planning, but there were spots that did let camels’ noses in.

    I think R.E. also sees that some of Hayek’s views were in contradiction to others of them.

    Miss R. never warmed up to Hayek either … she said he was a socialist. And R.E. remarks that the Left loves to throw at us what it thinks is Hayek’s “socialism.”

    For my own purely selfish reasons, I wish you could get your new machine, or borrow somebody else’s for a couple of hours. Or use the library’s? Because I’d really like to know what you think of the talk and the following Q&A.

    Of course, I’d like to hear what Simon thinks, too; and any others.



  7. Yes Julie – Hayek was a limited state man not a minimal (counter force only) state man.

    In the Constitution of Liberty (1960) says that he supports the limited state because the minimal state can not be defined (wrong – see above) whereas the limited state can be defined (also wrong – he fails to define clear limits or his “limited state” (as you point out Julie).

    As for me buying another laptop – that would mean yet more time on the internet, and the amount of time I already spend on the internet has helped undermine my health and led to the house and garden being a dreadful mess.



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