Alberto Mingardi  

Sunstein on Hayek

PRINT
Crime, Education, and the NLSY... Stateless Reality 2.0 as a Sub...

Anticipating the Republicans' victory in the U.S. mid-term elections, on Monday Cass Sunstein wrote a passionate plea to the new Republican majority. His appeal can so be summarized: be libertarian, not conservative. For bloggers and readers at Econlog, he is bringing vases to Samos.

Sunstein is a very shrewd writer, and he is using Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative," a postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, to make his argument appealing. He persuasively writes:

Hayek had some admiring words for conservatives: He endorsed their skepticism about rapid change and about social engineering. He drew attention to "their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions," and in particular their emphasis on how law, language and morals often grow up spontaneously, through the decisions of countless people rather through the actions of any social designer.

But most of Hayek's assessment was scathing. Too often, he argued, conservatives foolishly object to novelty as such, because they "lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavor will emerge." And he complained that they are far too fond of established authority. "The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it used for what he regards as the right purposes."

Most damagingly, Hayek said, the conservative "has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from their own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions." Sounding a lot like those who argue for the right to same-sex marriage, Hayek complained that conservatives insist that government should enlist their own moral convictions as a basis for law.


The whole piece is well written and persuasive.

Sunstein rightly maintains that "Republicans will be under increasing pressure to define themselves affirmatively rather than by opposition. One of their chief goals should be to identify freedom-promoting initiatives that might attract support from people who cannot, by temperament or otherwise, be counted as conservative." The last sentence is both interesting and revealing of Sunstein's goals.

It seems to me that he sees libertarians as being more aligned, culturally speaking, with American liberals than conservatives. This might be true, though I think it is a half-truth: libertarians and liberals may agree on matters that do not explain their own voting behaviour. As a libertarian, I may be in favour of legalised gay marriage but this doesn't mean that I vote on that issue. I may prefer a candidate that believes in intelligent design, who nonetheless wants to balance the budget, over one that shares my views on social issues but wants to stimulate the economy by pumping taxpayers' money into new "innovative" green energy ventures. Of course, political identities are far more complex than this simplistic sketch. I suppose that, on practical grounds, a good politician is more aware of how different intuitions and beliefs are mixing in his constituency than most theorists are.

The idea of "freedom-promoting initiatives that might attract support from people" from the left, thus, is kind of too good to be true. To get there, you would need a consistent group of legislators who think that such freedom-promoting would help them in building consensus. But will be more innovation, cheaper prices, better services, something that convince people to do something as dramatic as switching parties? I hope so, I fear not.

If not, it would be more effective to suggest to Republicans that they should embrace market-oriented reforms not to win votes on the other side, but to consolidate their own consensus: to make their own people happy. In writing such an article, however, you should at first respect Republican voters and consider their views, right or wrong, legitimate. It seems to me that Sunstein is basically suggesting to new Republican Congressmen and Senators to do something good, so that even more decent people could come to like them. Again, if it was a compelling argument for more "freedom-promoting initiatives" it would be great--but I fear it is not.

On Hayek, I think Sunstein is reading him fairly. But what the readers of Sunstein's column are missing, is the fact that those very problems Hayek resented in conservatives in that essay, you can find in social-democrats. Aren't modern liberals likewise committed to enlisting "their own moral convictions as a basis for law"? Aren't they as unwelcoming to "undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavor will emerge," i.e. technological innovation that often makes regulations obsolete?


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (15 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

I find as usual that when libertarians use the word "conservative" I do not recognize these creatures they are describing, or at least, not under the same name. How strange.

Now, perhaps I've mislabeled myself, and several I consider my ideological fellow travelers, my entire life. Perhaps. But I find little use for disposing of the term just so I may cease to feel slighted whenever libertarians rail against "conservatives" that don't resemble me.

I do, however, think that Hayek was on to something. I recognize the aversion to change for the sake of aversion to change in the Republican party, alright: primarily to be found in it's establishment, moderate wing. Curiously, the Republicans I would be most inclined to call "conservative" are the most radical.

But then, America is a Liberal country, in the old sense of the word, Liberal. To be conservative here is to be conservative of liberalism, is it not?

Bostonian writes:

Libertarians should oppose efforts to force people to participate in gay marriages, as has happened to people who photograph weddings, provide floral arrangements, and bake wedding cakes. I bet Sunstein does not interpret libertarian principles in this way.

James writes:

"Sounding a lot like those who argue for the right to same-sex marriage, Hayek complained that conservatives insist that government should enlist their own moral convictions as a basis for law."

This kind of talk is so commonly accepted as wise but it ought to get the same reaction as a person advocating square triangles. If someone believes his moral convictions are correct (that is, if he believes his beliefs) what reason would there be to not consider those convictions when thinking about the laws a government should make? Should conservatives favor laws based on moral convictions other than their own, or on no moral convictions, or what?

It would make far more logical sense for Sunstein to say that conservatives should first abandon their existing moral convictions and embrace his, and then enlist those convictions as a basis for law. But Sunstein is not dumb, just observant. For years, libertarians have been willing to debate moral foundations with conservatives and liberals and the results have been rather meager.

m writes:
The whole piece is well written and persuasive.

Certainly well written, however not sure that something labeled 'persuasive' by libertarians is equally persuasive to intended audience.

...the fact that those very problems Hayek resented in conservatives in that essay, you can find in social-democrats...

Entrenched defense of established systems/methods(*gasp those vile conservative tendencies) currently also the game of the 'liberal' and Democrat see: SS/Medicare reform, public schools (anti-voucher/charter) , Unions, Affirmative Action, Equal Pay Act, ect.
All 50+ year old ideas and laws that are still often harped on as the inviolable end all solutions.

also see: Blue Model series by Walter Mead

BJ Terry writes:
For bloggers and readers at Econlog, he is bringing vases to Samos.

This is a tangent, but this is a wonderful sentence. I knew what it meant, but had never seen the expression before, despite it being clear from context that it must be a particular reference. But googling "bringing vases to Samos," this very post was the second result (the first result was I assume it's original source, Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso, although perhaps in the original Italian the saying is predated elsewhere).

I think the reason it's so appealing here is the contrast between "something that should be obvious to EconLog readers," with what is in English a very obscure saying.

John writes:

Weren't the "conservatives" that Hayek had in mind the ancien regime conservatives of Europe? That's rather different from the conservatism in America. A good article still, but I wonder to what extent Hayek's article can be mapped on to modern, mainstream American conservatives.

m writes:

...
liberal: 'open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values'
conservative: 'holding to traditional attitudes and values'

Just seems a little difficult to not see/use [current blue system] as 'traditional values' when the age of 'progressive+liberal' laws being defended is significantly older(50+) than the median age(usa:36.8), thus most of the population growing up with them as status quo.

post 60s 'revolutions' it seems that the 'traditional' changed, however still have people (and many quotes) that grew up previous'traditions'.


Making the current discourse and labels seem more confusing and nostalgic than informative in many cases.

Andrew_FL writes:

@John-replace "conservative" with "establishment Republican" and suddenly what Hayek is saying is more recognizable.

Think of the fact that Paul Ryan, for example, speaks often of trying to save Medicare. If that's not the kind of "conservatism" Hayek had in mind, I'm not sure what is.

By contrast, what I consider "conservative" is much more radical. You could accuse me of being averse to change but it wouldn't make any sense.

Perhaps that is true of yourself, as well? I don't know.

Thomas writes:

It seems to me that your observation is an important one: voters have preferences, but some are more important. In particular, some issues are deal-breakers: if a candidate endorses a particular policy rule, there are voters who will not vote for that candidate, regardless of other policy issues.
I know plenty of people, mostly higher-income, who think the Republicans are closer to right on economic issues, but who simply will not vote for a Republican who advocates abortion restrictions/prohibition, or advocates opposition to gay marriage, or advocates requiring schools to teach intelligent design.
These are mostly moral/religious issues, I notice.
Democrats also have their moral/religious issues, but for some reason these are less objectionable to my centrist-libertarian friends. I'm not sure why, but I believe they perceive Republicans' moral issues as more mean-spirited and anti-progress, regressivist. I'm not saying that's right; I'm saying it's what they perceive.
Educated, high-income people apparently need to see themselves as supporters of the future, and as generous of spirit. They seem to encounter more deal-breaker positions on the Republican side than on the Democratic side, despite often being skeptical - at the very least - about leftist economics, the "war on women", global warming, racial preferences, etc., etc. But, these issues are not deal breakers; mean-spirited and anti-progress-reactionary positions apparently are.

Thomas writes:

James, you write:

"If someone believes his moral convictions are correct (that is, if he believes his beliefs) what reason would there be to not consider those convictions when thinking about the laws a government should make? Should conservatives favor laws based on moral convictions other than their own, or on no moral convictions, or what?"

Thus, you present the argument for Sharia Law.

The conservative could consider other legal structures, with a narrower focus than the entire breadth of his morality. Some morals exist to facilitate peaceful, consensual interactions between individuals; while others exist for the advancement of a person's soul.

It has been known, for some time, that the latter types of morals - personal morals - vary from person to person: the very morals that bless one soul are poison to another. One holy man may embrace celibacy as central to his faith; another, equally, may embrace family. Both are right, and by embracing their faiths, neither imposes much on the other. No law is necessary - or desirable - to require either to adopt the personal morals of the other.

Conservative legal tradition has long recognized that minimal laws, focusing on the facilitation of peaceful, consensual transactions, are effective, very widely supported, and relatively unlikely to create problems; while those based in personal morality offer little benefit, and much trouble. This observation is the origin of ancient sayings, including "live and let live" and "do not do unto others, what you would not wish them to do unto you".

And that's one conservative reason not to advocate Sharia Law.

James writes:

Thomas,

Were you responding to someone else? Your comment was addressed to me but is a non-sequitur.

Thomas writes:

Hi James,

I was responding to the posting of 11:48 am, second paragraph, from the second sentence.

ThomasH writes:

I don't want Republican to just not pump taxpayer money into green initiatives, but to tax the externality that justifies a subsidy for green initiatives and eliminate subsidies not only for green initiatives but for ethanol, crop supports, and inland waterway transportation. Reform ACA to remove subsidies and tax preferences for employer transacted health insurance and have everyone (including those Medicaid eligible) buy insurance in the exchanges And replace income with consumption taxes. They could insist that agencies apply cost benefit analysis to new (and in time to existing) government regulations Or what about, at the state level, reducing the powers of municipalities to restrict residential and commercial density. All of these would attract liberals.

Basically, they need to be pro-growth, not pro "business." Don't hold your breath.

TMC writes:

"His appeal can so be summarized: be libertarian, not conservative."

Had his side done the same, they would have not suffered the losses they have. The defining attribute to progressivism is hypocrisy.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Hayek complained that conservatives insist that government should enlist their own moral convictions as a basis for law."

Whereas Sunnstein thinks law should be based on moral convictions he *doesn't* hold?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top