Illustration by Martin Rowson

The prophet who didn’t do people

Friedrich von Hayek became “Hayek”, a cardboard cut-out representation.

Sacred Cows

If it happened, then the moment merits its symbolism. Conservative folkore has it that in 1975, Margaret Thatcher withdrew a book from her briefcase, slammed it on the table and announced to her astonished auditors, “This is what we believe.” She probably hadn’t read it: densely-argued philosophy and economics were not her thing and Keith Joseph may have told her what it said. She presumably missed the famous postscript, “Why I am not a conservative.”

She may also have failed to see that it is an American book, despite its author’s contrary claims. Written in Chicago, one of its longest index entries comes under “U” for “United States”. No matter. Friedrich von Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) had begun its journey and, once joined with The Road to Serfdom (1944), enjoyed a trajectory through the 1970s and 1980s as the Old and New Testaments of Thatcherism.

Nor did it matter that the bible had been mistranscribed (which was Hayek’s fault anyway for making his theories, for such they were, vulnerable to reduction). Thus Hayek became “Hayek”, a cardboard cut-out representing nothing more than a minimal state, opposition to any interference from government in society, a free-market economy, maximal competition, live and let die, all under the flag of “freedom”. Travesty, naturally, but a very helpful one.

Looking back over the quarter-century since his death in 1992, it becomes clear that Hayek not only deserves better but requires something different from his Tory corona. The profound challenge that he mounted to the conventional wisdom of welfarism originated in two kinds of certainty that had nothing to do with the Conservative Party.

The first consisted of a series of logical loops in economic theory first drawn in his native Vienna which he applied, first to Nazism and then to wartime Beveridgeism in London. These suggested that “socialism” on his own definition would not prevent totalitarianism but install it.

The second conviction involved an almost mystical belief in “spontaneity” as a regenerative feature of modern societies, so long as governments did not crush it with their compulsions. Each individual would enjoy fulfilment if allowed to pursue his or her own ends without interference. Only Don’t Connect. Leave persons — he really did not do people — to live their lives their own way and natural genius would find its expression.

Hayek’s thought depended on a vision of history qua process and sometimes became almost historiographical, as the references in his texts imply. We were once cavemen. But the upward surge towards modernity bypassed subsistence anxiety, religion and all confinements; it accelerated under the impetus of technology and over the past century created a form of society that transcended primitivism but magnified the threat from a misconceived wish to make intellect the voice of “planning”.

Hayek, who was not interested in other people, needs to be forgotten while Michael Oakeshott should retain his significance for conservative society

His word entered the vocabulary of Michael Oakeshott after the war. Oakeshott liked to speak of “overhead planning” in his early pieces for the Cambridge Journal and for a time the parallels between Hayek and Oakeshott looked plausible. True, Oakeshott’s half-sentence criticising Hayek is now quoted in all the literature, but Hayek undoubtedly respected him and referred to Oakeshott’s essay “Rationalism in Politics” (1947) in The Constitution of Liberty. Yet the pulling-away feels inevitable in retrospect. Social scientists have deployed their models of “socialism”, “conservatism” and “liberalism” to display internal contradiction in both authors and to demonstrate a theoretical antinomy between them.

More important to right-of-centre people in our own tortured situation, however, is an evaluation of their respective legacies and an explanation for why Hayek needs to be forgotten as much as remembered and why Oakeshott should retain his significance for conservative society.

Within that diminishing sphere, the preferencing of Oakeshott’s presence over that of Hayek does not rest on philosophical coherence, but rather on two facets unfamiliar to social science: the urgency of personality and language.

Michael Oakeshott possessed a personality that generated an astounding attraction among all who met him. Hayek preferred to get along without one. The latter’s acolytes persist among desiccated, soi-disant “conservative intellectuals” and cruising think-tankers who never quite work out what British conservatives are like by never asking what they like to do.

They like to drink, laugh, gossip, flirt, relish, rant, malign, sneer (such a wonderful disinfectant), pose, pretend, posture and provoke. Oakeshott knew all that by instinct and through the conversation that he craved.

Sitting on the floor of a student dorm with a group of undergraduates at two in the morning, he did what Hayek would have found impossible: he listened and enjoyed the lack of theme or direction. So a conversation in lower case transmuted into Conversation in higher: the Conversation of Mankind with its endorsement of poetry (any alternative to “science” and the “practical”) and its engagements with the values inseparable from social existence.

Deaf to Hayek’s insistence that other people’s values can never be identified (meaning he couldn’t through his lack of interest in other people), Oakeshott saw that conservative society cannot function as a value-neutral laboratory, but must respect inner commitments close to the heart. Conservatives value sharednesses because they share values.

This distancing promoted, too, a difference of language and address. Hayek wrote a pellucid brutalism concerned with the structures that promoted his one value of liberty. Oakeshott wrote on silk out of a lexicon that allowed no reduction to essence. You can turn Hayek into “Hayek”; you cannot turn Oakeshott into “Oakeshott”.

That sliding prose with its “imaginations” and “intimations” and “considerabilities” always sits obliquely to the reader, defies abbreviation, negotiates objection in a smile. Neither prophet promoted populism and today’s young may gape at cosmos becoming taxis or nomocracy decaying into teleocracy. (These were literate days.)

But the legacy of Oakeshott outpaces that of his rival as an example of conservative communication and his nuanced epistemology may yet do good in the circles for which he wrote. Hayek’s theory of knowledge — he would have said “research” — led only to denying intrusion by government into the life of the mind. His enduring edifice in Britain may turn out to be, not the foundation of a millennial conservatism, but the establishment of the University of Buckingham.

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