Influencers: Friedrich Hayek
Economics had become known - exactly who coined the phrase is, as with so much in the discipline, in dispute - as “The Dismal Science” by the mid-19th Century. And nowhere is this more true than in the way in which the New Conservatism has seized on the work of the Austrian School, or more specifically, one disciple of that School, Friedrich Hayek.
Hayek’s influence on the New Conservatives can be distilled into one word: freedom.
Some of the great Austrian economic thinkers were interesting, even divertingly so, such as Josef Schumpeter, who left Europe in the inter-war years and secured a lucrative career as a Harvard professor. He coined the phrase “Capitalism proceeds in a wave of creative destruction”. J K Galbraith said of him that “given the choice between being right and being memorable, Schumpeter never hesitated”.
Sadly, Hayek is rather lower on entertainment value, but he does provide a direct link between the Austrian School and the lobby groups that proliferate in New Conservative circles. It was at his urging that Anthony Fisher set up the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955. The IEA is the oldest-established in the modern alphabet soup of lobby groups.
And for New Conservatives, the key Hayek work is The Road To Serfdom: first published in 1944, it talks “of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from Government control of economic decision-making through central planning”. Government involvement was a bad thing, because it eroded freedom.
From this, it followed that anything mandated by Government could, and should, be opposed, because freedom was at stake. That nobody except Government, whether at local or national level, had come forward to build almost all our airports, the national motorway network, or any of the most recent rail projects, was not allowed to enter.
It also followed that Government mandated minimum wages were an equally bad thing: the individual must have the freedom to negotiate his or her own wage deal, however miserly the pittance on offer by the inevitably more powerful employer.
No-one should be surprised that the New Conservatives oppose Trades Unions and their tendency to practices such as collective bargaining: this, too, may be categorised as antithetical to freedom.
Thus, Hayek has brought a key justification for New Conservative values: no longer does selfishness have to be defended for its own sake, because now it is instead about freedom.
The argument need not rest there: regulation, Government bodies, all publicly funded institutions, all may be attacked as being inimical to freedom. That only those with both money and security may actually enjoy the full benefit of that freedom is, once again, not allowed to enter. Those at the bottom of the pile, the workers scraping by, the unemployed, the disabled, all are held to benefit as they have been given the opportunity to better themselves. They are free to improve their position.
Sadly, for most of those thus afflicted, there will be no betterment, no improvement. That reality does not trouble the New Conservatives, and especially those who venerate the memory of Hayek.
The IEA, after all, has been cited by Andrew Marr as “undoubtedly the most influential think tank in modern British history”.
There is one other facet of Hayek’s work to consider, and that is the role of democracy. “Democracy seeks equality in liberty” he claimed. Indeed, one key inference from the New Conservatism is that democracy is all you need. I will consider one more modern proponent of that idea next.