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Friedrich Hayek and his followers have been called liberal, neo-liberal, paleo-liberal, classical liberal, libertarian, conservative and neo-conservative. So do these labels mean anything at all?

Like Andrew Norton I’m confused by the way Australian writers use the term ‘neo-conservative’. When I use the term I’m usually referring to an loose grouping of American intellectuals who wrote for journals like the Public Interest, Commentary, and the New Criterion. Occasionally I might apply it to some of the Weekly Standard‘s writers . But I’d never think of using it to describe Friedrich Hayek.

Most Australian writers seem to use the term differently. For example, Monash University’s Philip Mendes says that the doctrines of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman "have more recently been described as ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘economic rationalism’, or in North America as neo-conservatism" According to journalist Wilson da Silva, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism and the New Right are different names for the same thing — a hands-off approach to the economy and a savage cuts to the welfare state. Friedrich Hayek, says da Silva, is the "global godfather of this neo-conservative movement".

Other writers, however, make a distinction between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. For example, the authors of Talking Policy argue that Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies:

…offers a mixture of ‘neo-conservative’ and ‘neo-liberal’ ideas." These are inconsistent given the priority given in neo-conservative thought to communal values and tradition (evident, for example, in their support for traditional family values, opposition to homosexuality and support for traditional gendered roles), while neo-liberals support the needs and interests of individuals over those of the community and do not care much about traditional values (p 189).

UWA’s Patricia Harris also sees "a disjuncture between neo-liberal invocations of the enterprising individual and neo-conservative appeals to moral and familial values." And at the University of Melbourne, Karen Pickering tries to reconcile this tension using Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. She argues that neo-conservative ideas about culture serve the interests of the ruling class by manufacturing consent to neo-liberal economic policies (pdf).

It’s easy to see why "traditional family values" or opposition to homosexuality might be described as conservative. But why neo-conservative? What’s so new about these ideas that it justifies adding the prefix ‘neo’?

A brief history of neo-conservatism

Andrew Norton writes that the term neo-conservative doesn’t make much sense outside the United States. To understand why you need to understand a bit of history.

Neo-conservative‘ was first used by democratic socialist Michael Harrington as label for a group of New York intellectuals who had shifted their allegiance from the Democratic party to the Republicans. When the Democrats rejected Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson in favour of the more left-wing George McGovern intellectuals like Irving Kristol shifted their support to Nixon. Harrington and his colleagues at Dissent didn’t intend ‘neo-conservative’ to be a compliment.

Irving Kristol, however, didn’t seem to mind and adopted the term as his own. Most commentators trace the movement back to 1965 when Kristol and Daniel Bell founded the Public Interest. The Public Interest took a sceptical view of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and other social programs. Writers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that attempts to reform society from the top down can have unintended and often harmful consequences. Many of the thinkers writing for the Public Interest leant towards a Burkean kind of conservatism — as Daniel Bell put it, their philosophy could be described as "sceptical Whiggism: a hope for progress, but the doubt that this may be possible ". Perhaps the best account of this early neo-conservatism is Peter Steinfels’ book The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing American Politics.

Kristol has been described as "the godfather of neo-conservatism". As he describes it, the purpose of neo-conservatism was:

…to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.

In other words, Kristol saw neo-conservatives as rescuing the Republican party from American conservatism — in particular from William F Buckley and the National Review. As Kristol remembers it, the National Review:

was brash, even vulgar in its antiliberal polemics. There was something collegiate – sophomoric, to be blunt – about its high-spiritedness, and its general tone was anti-intellectual. Above all, it seemed to me simple-minded in its "anti-statism" in general and its contempt for all social reforms in particular.

What was new about neo-conservatism was that it was an intellectual form of conservatism. The first generation of neo-cons were social scientists. And unlike ‘neo-liberals’ they had little interest or expertise in economics. Even in the 90s Kristol admitted that he still hadn’t got around to reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

Kristol wasn’t just an intellectual — he was an organiser. According to Lee Edwards Kristol became known as the godfather "for his ability to provide grants and fellowships." While the National Review‘s writers ranted about communism and complained about the New Deal, Kristol and his allies were fighting a war of ideas through a network of think tanks and other organisations.

When Reagan came to power these neo-conservative thinkers were well placed. And by this time a number of members of the movement had turned their attention to foreign affairs. Jeane Kirkpatrick moved from the American Enterprise Institute into the administration and a branch of neo-conservatism developed that has since become associated with the Bush administration’s recent adventures in Iraq.

An older generation of conservatives resented the influence of neo-cons and their intellectual approach. Patrick Buchanan attacked the neo-cons as a group of "ex-liberals, socialists, and Trotskyites, boat-people from the McGovern revolution who rafted over to the GOP at the end of conservatism’s long march to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980." He and his supporters claimed that neo-cons weren’t real conservatives at all.

This conservative backlash became known as paleo-conservatism. The paleos complained that the neos had built an empire by seizing the conservative movements key institutions. Buchanan and his supporters were joined by Llewelyn Rockwell and Murray Rothbard (known as paleo-libertarians). Buchanan contested the Republican presidential primaries in 1992 and 1996 and failed dismally both times. Rothbard died in 1995 while Lew Rockwell continues to run the obscure Mises Institute in Auburn Alabama.

Complaints about neo-con influence aren’t confined to the fringes of conservative thought. The libertarian Cato Institute is also opposed to the influence of neo-conservatism. Cato is a large and well respected think tank. The institute’s Ed Crane and William Niskanen warn that, "The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism." They say that:

Underlying neoconservatism is a desire to reshape America and the world through the efforts of a robust federal government. For years, the Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine, has promoted the need for initiatives to reinforce America’s international power. Merely living in a free society appears to be insufficient for neoconservatives.

Neo-conservatives are soft on big government but hard on individual liberty. In the past Irving Kristol has complained that "The idea of bourgeois virtue has been eliminated from Friedman’s conception of bourgeois society, and has been replaced by the idea of individual liberty." Hayek too, according to Kristol, places too much emphasis on liberty and not enough on virtue.

Getting the labels right

Attacking Friedman and Hayek doesn’t sound very neo-liberal to me. That’s why I’m confused by the way Mendes talks about neo-conservatism in his recent book. And since just about everything I’ve read identifies Irving Kristol as the the ‘godfather’ of neo-conservatism I have trouble understanding Wilson da Silva’s claim that this label applies to Hayek. And prefixing ‘conservative’ with ‘neo’ as many Australian academics do, raises a question about what older version of conservatism has been replaced. ‘Neo’ seems to have shifted from meaning ‘new’ to being a signal that the author leans to the left and disapproves.

But despite this I find myself agreeing with Judith Bessant and the other authors of Talking Policy when they say that the Centre for Independent Studies’ Peter Saunders often looks more like a neo-conservative than a neo-liberal. Read the last chapter of his 1995 book Capitalism: A Social Audit and see if you agree.

Written by Admin

April 10, 2006 at 12:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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