From Standpoint, July/August 2012
Everyone is aware of the political collapse of socialism, victim of an overambitious attempt to plan the future. Less clearly noticed has been the parallel collapse of traditional Conservatism. In his book, Modern Conservatism (Penguin, 1992), David Willetts recognised that ties of "duty, loyalty, and affiliation" are needed for "free markets" not to be destructive. But he failed to give a convincing answer to the charge that "free markets" undermine the social virtues on which they depend. As he rightly said, Conservatives have always believed in "free markets". But they did not believe in a marketised society. Markets needed to be balanced by other social institutions, and non-market habits. This is why Friedrich Hayek said he was not a Conservative. It was the destruction of this balance by Margaret Thatcher which spelt the death of British Conservatism.
John Gray has argued that the "undoing of conservatism" came about as an "unintended consequence of Hayekian policy". The hegemony, he writes, "of Neo-Liberal ideology has had the effect of destroying conservatism as a viable political project", since it is no longer realistic "when inherited institutions and practices have been swept away by the market forces which Neo-Liberal policies release or reinforce". What Gray calls "market fundamentalism" has "mortgaged its future on a wager on indefinite economic growth and unfettered market forces. Such a bet — Hayek's wager, as it might be called — scarcely exhibits the political prudence which was once revered as a conservative virtue".
It is therefore hardly surprising that Karen Horn, a president of the Hayek Society, should find unsympathetic the book I have written with my son, which rejects indefinite economic growth for reasons which are substantially, though by no means exclusively, conservative (Standpoint, July/August 2012). She castigates us as "self-appointed messiahs of the nanny state", who want to "mess about with other people's lives", ignoring the fact that we champion the obstacles which conservative, liberal and religious thought have traditionally put in the way of both state and markets "messing about with people's lives".
Our own basic goods include "security" (against arbitrary power and continuous market-driven upheavals); "respect" (grounded in both personal achievement and civil rights); "personality" (otherwise autonomy, by which we mean "the ability to frame and execute a way of life reflective of one's tastes") with private property as its essential condition; and friendship (which is our term for "community" and "localism"). "They [meaning us] believe autonomy and responsibility to be an aberration anyway," writes Horn. "If the intention is right, the means don't matter." These misreadings can be explained only, it seems, by Horn's ideological commitment to the neo-liberal agenda.
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