The Liberalism/Conservatism
Of Edmund Burke and F. A. Hayek:
A Critical Comparison

Linda C. Raeder*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 1, 1997. © National Humanities Institute]

Edmund Burke, the passionate defender of the "ancient principles"1 of his forebears, might be surprised to discover that he originated a new school of political thought. By all accounts, however, he is the "modern founder of political conservatism,"2 and generations of ‘conservative’ thinkers have found his life and work a rich source of philosophical and practical wisdom. Burke, of course, was a statesman and not a political philosopher, and he never produced anything that may be regarded as a systematic political treatise. Nevertheless, he embraced a consistent political creed that governed his actions throughout his life. The thesis of this essay is that Burke’s implicit political creed is, in all essential respects, the doctrine articulated by the twentieth-century social philosopher F. A. Hayek. Hayek’s aim, he said, was to "restate" 3 or systematize those basic principles whose observance generated and sustain Western constitutional government and the free society. The "classical liberal" principles articulated by Hayek were also those that inspired and guided Burke.

Burke and Hayek, in short, represent the same political tradition. Not only do they subscribe to the same substantive political philosophy, but they hold similar views regarding the nature of society, the role of reason in human affairs, the proper tasks of government, and, to a certain extent, the nature of moral and legal rules. Although there are differences between their views as well, differences that stem from Burke’s orthodox Christianity on the one hand and Hayek’s religious agnosticism on the other, the area of substantive agreement between their respective views is far greater than that of their disagreement. The heart of the matter is that both Burke and Hayek remained, as Hayek put it, "unrepentant Old Whig[s]"4 to the end.

The Whig Roots of Burkean and Hayekian Philosophy

The political creed to which Burke and Hayek subscribe—the doctrine of the "ancient, constitutional" 5 or "Old" Whigs—was an offshoot of the conflict that culminated in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Whigs were united by a common passion—the hatred of arbitrary power—and the prevention of arbitrary action by government ever remained the guiding aim of their political practice. The basic issue around which Whig opinion formed had been identified as early as 1610: "There is no[thing] which [we] account . . . more dear and precious than this, to be guided and governed by the certain rule of law, . . . and not by any uncertain and arbitrary form of government . . ." 6 —that is, government ". . . not in accordance with received general laws." 7 According to John Locke’s account, what the Whigs fought for was  [f]reedom . . . to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, . . . a liberty to follow [one’s] own will in all things, where that rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, arbitrary will of another man. . . . [W]hoever has the legislative or supreme power of any commonwealth is bound to govern by established standing laws promulgated and known to the people and not by extemporary decrees. . . . [Even the legislature has no] absolute arbitrary power, . . . but is bound to dispense justice, . . . [while the] supreme executor of the law . . . has no will, no power, but that of the law. . . . [The] ultimate aim is to . . . limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of that society.8 Although the translation of Whig ideals into law and public policy was inevitably a slow and imperfect process, by the time Burke appeared on the scene "the principles themselves ceased to be a matter of dispute."9 Moreover, Burke himself lent considerable energy to institutionalizing Whig ideals; he spent much of his political life endeavoring to reform British law in their spirit.10

The modern interpreter, then, cannot understand Burke’s political philosophy unless he is acquainted with the Whig conceptions of liberty and law. Liberty, to the Whig mind, had a precise and definite meaning: freedom from arbitrary (that is, "ruleless") coercion, whether emanating from the crown, the parliament, or the people. On the Whig view, such freedom was gained by strict adherence to the rule of law, that is to say, to ". . . something permanent, uniform, and universal [and] . . . not a transient sudden order from a superior or concerning a particular person. . . ."11 We note that the conception of liberty-under-law to which Burke and Hayek subscribed has nothing to do with what they both regarded as the "French" 12 conception of liberty—‘political freedom’ in the sense of participation in the determination of law or policy.13 Nor, we might add, has it anything to do with ‘inner freedom’ or the conception of freedom as power or ability to act. For Whigs such as Burke and Hayek, the only kind of freedom that can be secured by a political order is freedom-under-law in the sense of freedom from arbitrary coercion.

On The Nature of Society

Burke’s and Hayek’s more exclusively political views are intimately related to their common understanding of the nature of society, an understanding deeply informed by the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith had conceived society and its complex webwork of institutions—law, "manners," 14 morals, customs—as the outcome of a prolonged "process of cumulative growth" 15 whereby man had advanced from a level of primitive savagery to high culture and civilization. On such a view, social order appears as a product of the interplay of historically evolved institutions, habit and custom, objective law, and impersonal social forces. In the opinion of their contemporaries, what the Scottish philosophers had done was successfully to "resolve almost all that ha[d formerly] been ascribed to positive institution into the spontaneous and irresistible development of certain obvious principles,—and . . . [to] show with how little contrivance of political wisdom the most complicated and apparently artificial schemes of policy might have been erected." 16

Both Burke’s and Hayek’s thought was fully informed by such views. Both thinkers understood social institutions to be the product of a complex historical process characterized by trial-and-error experimentation. They both emphasized that the conditions of human flourishing must be cultivated through comprehension of the forces that sustain social order. To Burke’s mind, such cultivation demanded fine judgment, "prudence," 17 respect for the given and the grown. Through his eyes, civilized society appeared as a fragile growth; arrogant and presumptuous "meddling" inspired by "visionary . . . speculation" 18 threatened to disturb the delicate social webwork and undo the work of ages, erode the historically transmitted "prejudices" that upheld civilized society against the vulgar and the barbaric. Both Burke and his descendant Hayek were leery of the untutored and unsocial impulses that lie beneath man’s acquired civility; and each endeavored to refute all doctrines that undermined the authority of those "repressive or inhibitory"19 social rules that alone enable men to live together in any degree of freedom or peace.

Thus Burke’s ‘conservatism,’ his profound regard, even reverence, for the intricate evolved pattern that was the British constitution. He revered that constitution because he perceived in it the foundation of the Englishman’s "ancient, indisputable laws and liberties"; he knew the "treasure of . . . liberty" was hardly a ‘natural right,’ but the hard-won product of history and evolution. As we shall see, Burke’s reverential attitude toward human society was further deepened by his religious convictions. Particular historical societies were, for him, spiritual phenomena, "clause[s] in the great primeval contract of eternal society . . ." 20; they were not things to be manipulated and controlled in accordance with fabulous schemes wrought by restless metaphysicians puffed up with self-importance and intellectual pretension.

All that has been said of Burke’s reverence toward society could be said of Hayek as well, with one significant exception: the reverence Hayek reserved for the ‘grown’ social order did not derive from religious conviction but from his love of personal freedom and his lust for the advance of knowledge. For Hayek, like Burke, believed that the institutions of freedom he cherished emerged from an undesigned and spontaneous evolutionary process utterly dependent upon the distilled knowledge embedded within inherited traditions and institutions. He was captivated by the wondrous order-within-complexity generated by this suprarational social process and wished to defend it against that rationalistic mentality which refuses to comprehend the significance of tradition and custom. For Burke, historically evolved society was, in its essence, a spiritual phenomenon; for Hayek, it was a vehicle for the growth of knowledge and the fulfillment of human potential. 

Hayek’s aim, one might say, was to ‘complete’ Burke’s thought: to provide scientific support for Burke’s conserving politics; to justify his reverence toward historically grown cultural traditions; to explain more precisely why and in what sense "the individual is foolish . . . but the species is wise." Hayek was deeply impressed by Burke’s insight that inherited rules and institutions embody the cumulative knowledge and experience of preceding generations, and he developed that insight into an elaborate theory of cultural evolution.21 His main point was that the process of cultural advance is utterly dependent upon the absorption and transmission of the cultural inheritance over time. According to Hayek, received tradition is not only the foundation of civilized society, but of the structure of mind, reason, moral values, language, perception, behavior—in short, of all the learned rules whose observance distinguishes the human from the animal. For Hayek as for Burke, the contemptuous dismissal of ‘irrational’ tradition, the desire to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and design society anew, merely testifies to a profound ignorance regarding the nature of social reality. 

On the Role of Reason in Human Affairs

Perhaps no other area of Burke’s and Hayek’s thought is as congruent as their understanding of the role of reason in human affairs; their views are so close as to suggest that Hayek’s thought on this issue is merely an elaboration, although quite an extensive one, of Burke’s theme. Hayek developed several of Burke’s most crucial insights: 1) the priority of social experience (or "tradition") over reason; 2) the notion that inherited social institutions embody a "superindividual wisdom" 22 which transcends that available to the conscious reasoning mind; and 3) the impotence of reason to ‘design’ a viable social order. Hayek learned from Burke, in short, that civilization is not the creation of the reasoning mind, but the unintended outcome of the spontaneous play of innumerable minds within a matrix of ‘nonrational’ or ‘suprarational’ values, beliefs, and traditions. Burke’s insights into the limited role of reason in the social process became nothing less than a cornerstone of the Hayekian theoretical edifice.

Burke and Hayek, then, shared a common enemy as well as a common understanding: Enlightenment rationalism. Perhaps the most characteristic attribute of Enlightenment thought was its cavalier dismissal of ‘irrational’ tradition as mere superstition and prejudice. Through Enlightened eyes, inherited values, institutions, and customs appeared as the very embodiment of ignorance, ‘reason’ as the tool that would liberate man from the ancient fetters of oppression. Indeed, individual ‘reason’ was endowed with a most profound and exclusive constructive authority. 

Hayek argued, on the contrary, and Burke would undoubtedly concur, that there is an " ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the [inherited] system of rules of conduct [as well as in] man’s [explicit] thoughts about his surroundings." 23 It is fair to say that for Hayek and for Burke rationality is as much an attribute of the social process as of the individual mind, a quality found "not [only] in the isolated individual consciousness but [also] in the network of [evolved] social institutions." 24 The crucial aspect of such a view is that "men are in their conduct never guided exclusively by [conscious rational understanding] . . . but always also by rules of conduct of which they are rarely aware, [and] which they certainly have not consciously invented." 25

Burke regarded the Enlightenment, as one of his interpreter’s put it, as a "destructive movement of the human intellect, . . . [an intellect] free from all social restraints, . . . [convinced it can] remodel society" 26 in any image it chooses. Hayek regarded the same phenomenon—the "constructivist" mentality that recognizes no limits to the authority or competence of human reason—as a grave threat to the preservation of civilized order. For, Hayek argued and Burke apprehended, the preservation of free government and civilized society depends upon man’s willingness to be governed by certain inherited rules of individual and collective conduct whose origin, function, and rationale he may not fully comprehend. The rationalist contempt for tradition, by contrast, is typically accompanied by the demand for the radical reconstruction of traditional moral and legal rules; from Rousseau through Rawls, the construction of new moralities and legal systems has been a major preoccupation of social theorists. Perhaps no other thought is as uncongenial to the modern rationalist temper as the idea that man is not free rationally to determine or ‘choose’ his ethical or legal framework; modern thought bears little trace of that "strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind" 27 that long served to suppress such rationalistic hubris. Both Hayek and Burke warned, however, that the endeavor to destroy inherited customs, morals, and prejudices must also destroy the humanistic liberal society engendered and sustained by such phenomena. 

Hayek points out, moreover, that the exaggererated regard for the constructive power of ‘reason’ which stems from ignorance of the significance of evolved social phenomena typically generates a demand to rationalize the social process through the coercive agency of government. To restrict action, however, to only that in accord with some preferred conception of the "rationally permissible" would smother the trial-and-error process whereby mankind advances; to eliminate the spontaneous and undesigned must induce the decline of both human intelligence and civilization, both of which progress only by grappling with the unknown and the unpredictable. Thus, we have good reason, as Burke recognized, to be ". . . afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason . . . [and to honor the fact that] . . . individuals do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages." 28 Reason, both Burke and Hayek warned, "is like a dangerous explosive which, handled cautiously, may be most beneficial, but if handled incautiously may blow up a civilization." 29

On Economics

Burke and Hayek come from the same school of economic as well as political and social thought. Hayek, one of the foremost twentieth-century champions of the market process, was at pains to emphasize the dangers that flow from "meddling on the part of authority" in the intricate web of economic relations. Burke was an equally emphatic defender of the free-enterprise system: "the moment that government appears at market," he cautioned, "the principles of the market will be subverted." 30 Indeed, Burke and Hayek objected to governmental manipulation of the market process on the same Whig grounds: not only do such "interpositions" violate the "laws of commerce"—the "rules and principles of contending interests and compromised advantages" 31—but they are necessarily arbitrary and thus corrosive of liberty and justice.32

One may conjecture, moreover, that Burke would be as disturbed by the contemporary politics of redistribution as was Hayek; "compulsory equalizations," to Burke’s mind, could only mean "equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary." 33 And he would surely join Hayek in resisting the "officious universal interference" 34 of modern government: "It is better to cherish virtue and humanity," he believed, "leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty without which virtue cannot exist." 35

Curiously, in light of the often qualified if not begrudging respect some contemporary ‘conservatives’ grant to the market process, Burke, the "father of conservatism," adopted a far more "laissez-faire" 36 attitude toward the role of government in economic affairs than Hayek, often caricatured as a rabid free-marketeer. Burke, for instance, believed efforts to ameliorate poverty should be undertaken exclusively by private charity—the Christian’s second duty behind the "payment of debts." 37

    My opinion [says Burke] is against any overdoing of any sort of administration and, more especially, against this most monstrous of all meddling on the part of authority: the meddling with the subsistence of its people. . . . [One must] manfully . . . resist the very first idea, speculative or practical, that it is within the competence of government . . . to supply the poor with necessaries. . . . To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them and not they the people. It is in the power of government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in anything else.38
Hayek too believed that government "can do very little positive good." Yet he did not object to governmental provision of a wide range of goods and services so long as such provision does not distort market signals. For Hayek, it is not the quantity or the kind of services provided but the character or method of governmental provision that matters.39

Significantly, both Burke and Hayek were concerned that governmental activity serve to maintain a "consistent whole"—a coherent social order "whose parts . . . do not clash" 40—an integrity, they both believed, that was generated and sustained by the steady application of certain fixed principles over time. As Burke put it, "the best legislators have been often satisfied with the establishment of some sure, solid, and ruling principle in government . . . and having fixed the principle, they have left it afterwards to its own operation." 41 Hayek, the modern spontaneous-order theorist, could not have said it better himself. He was most concerned to draw attention to the fact that the simultaneous application of irreconcilable principles—the ‘principle’ of ‘intervention’ and the principle of the market—can never produce a coherent order.42

Burke’s and Hayek’s economic views do differ, however, in one fundamental respect. For Burke, "the laws of commerce . . . are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God." 43 In other words, he regarded the laws of economics as a manifestation of the Divine Law whereby the "benign and wise Dispenser of all . . . obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success." 44 To violate such laws was, for Burke, to violate the will of God. Thus he suggests that endeavors to override the results of the spontaneous market process are sacrilegious; economic scarcity seemed to him one manner in which God revealed his will, and the "attempt to soften . . . the Divine displeasure" 45 by man-made contrivances, presumptuous. Hayek, by contrast, avoided all reference to the transcendent; for him the source of social order is wholly immanent. Order, on the Hayekian perspective, appears as the unintended yet objective pattern generated by the historically evolved and acquired perception and behavior—opinion, habit, custom, language, morals, convention—of the populace. 

On Religion and Politics

Although Burke’s and Hayek’s views on politics, economics, and the nature of society and reason are in substantial accord, there are differences between their perspectives as well. The most important of these concern their attitudes toward society and government and their views regarding the ultimate source of moral and legal rules. Both issues are related to their different religious convictions. 

Although Burke, the orthodox Christian, recognized that civil society is the outcome of a complex historical process, he regarded that process as itself the handiwork of God, a "Divine tactick" 46 whereby He works His will in human history. Burke, then, believed in a natural yet Providential order, in the existence of a Divine Plan that manifests itself through the historical evolution of concrete and particular societies. Accordingly, he regarded the "State," in the words of one of his commentators, as ". . . inherently and inalienably sacred, . . ." 47 as a God-given means of human self-improvement: ". . . He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the State." 48

For Burke, the ultimate foundation of civil society was a religious one. He believed that God had placed each person in his "appointed place," 49 that only acquiescence to His Plan could induce peace and contentment among the constitutionally and irremediably unequal members of any social order, and that only a people who feared God was capable of sustaining the morality indispensable to the maintenance of free government. Public officials, he counseled, should regard their office as a trust, even a "holy function," for which they are ultimately accountable to God: "All persons possessing any portion of power . . . ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with the idea that they act in trust and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society." 50 He was convinced, moreover, that a highly developed religious consciousness was indispensable to the continuity and endurance of the state over time, necessary to forge the sacred bond between generations without which it must dissolve into the "dust and powder of individuality and at length [be] dispersed to all the winds of heaven." 51 In a word, it seemed to Burke that political faith was best secured if ". . . the whole great drama of national life [was] . . . reverently received as ordered by a Power to which past, present, and future are organically knit stages in one Divine plan." 52

All of this is far removed from Hayek’s conception of government and society. Although he, like Burke, revered the historically grown social structure,53 and although he fully shared Burke’s passion for good government, Hayek was a religious agnostic who would surely find Burke’s "consecrated" 54 state oppressive; for Hayek, the spiritual and the temporal are two entirely distinct orders.55 He could never accept Burke’s belief that ‘God willed the state’; to his mind, such a conception too readily lends itself to the dangerous interpretation that some particular human will or wills should direct the course of social life. In other words, he feared that the attribution of the source of order to the Divine Will may lead to the anthropomorphic interpretation of that Will as the ‘will of society’ (which must, in reality, be the will of particular human beings) and inspire misguided efforts to control the spontaneous social process by conscious direction. Such, he believed, would be fatal not only to human liberty but to the survival of advanced civilization.

On Rights

Although Burke sometimes distinguished what he considered the "real rights of men" from the "pretended rights" 56 asserted by the Jacobins and their fellow travelers, his chief purpose was to defend what he called "prescriptive rights," time-honored expectations whose legal validity and philosophical justification derive from custom and long usage. Although Burke never argued from a priori assumptions to principles of right, we shall see that he did regard the prescriptive rights that emerged throughout the course of historical evolution as the mundane manifestation of the moral natural law. 

Hayek regarded the rights evolved within the Western political tradition as social conventions57 that emerge via the ongoing endeavor to reconcile competing claims stemming from a clash of incompatible expectations. On his view, civil rights ‘fall out of,’ so to speak, the attempt to delimit a private domain wherein each person, as Hayek liked to put it, is free to use his own knowledge for his own purposes. From the Hayekian perspective, the immovable conviction that man possesses certain "inalienable" rights appears as the effect of centuries of such an adjudicatory process.58

On Law and Morals 

As we have discussed, both Burke and Hayek regarded the "manners," morals, law, and custom which constitute the foundation of social order as ‘grown’ phenomena, products of historical evolution and not of abstract "speculation" or conscious invention. The Christian-humanist Burke, however, also believed in the existence of the moral natural law; that is, he assumed ". . . some kind of moral code to have existed before the state and in total independence of it," 59 a code ultimately attributable to God, the "original Archetype"60 of law, morals, and government. For Burke, the natural law was the ultimate standard by which human law was to be measured, and he emphatically rejected the positivism of Hobbes and indeed any conception of law as the product of human will: "All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they have no power over the substance of original justice. . . ." 61 Nevertheless, the law he advocated on a practical basis was the law embodied in the British constitution and common law, which, as we have said, he interpreted as a mundane manifestation of the transcendent natural law. The law Burke revered was, to his mind, at once God-given and historically evolved.

Burke, in short, like his Whig forebears, believed in the existence of a higher moral law to which all valid positive law must conform,62 a universal law which manifests itself in diverse concrete forms, in the great variety of legal codes and customs that constitute particular cultural traditions. His belief in the moral natural law enabled Burke to condemn Warren Hastings as easily as the Protestant Ascendency and the slave-traders; although he recognized that circumstances and the temper of public opinion set limits to the rate and extent of reform at any given time, he was ever a champion of universal justice. 

Hayek fully subscribed to Burke’s Whig principles but not to his belief in natural law; for Hayek, moral and political rules ("moral rules for collective action" 63) are of wholly immanent origin. On his view, such phenomena appear as evolutionary adaptations to man’s permanent epistemological predicament—his constitutional inability to foresee all the consequences of his actions or to know more than a fraction of the concrete circumstances that prevail in his environment. For Hayek, inherited moral and political principles serve indispensable functions: to generate a coherent order (individual and social, respectively); to prevent what have proved in the past to be ‘bad,’ undesirable, or chaotic consequences; to enable man effectively to operate in an environment most of whose concrete particulars he does not and cannot know. 

While Burke denies that moral precepts are the product of historical evolution ("history is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles"64), Hayek believes they are exactly that—the distilled essence of the cumulative experience of preceding generations. Although both men agree that the moral and legal principles embodied in the traditional British constitution are the only rules compatible with free government, for Hayek, such phenomena are exclusively the product of evolutionary growth (the "result of human action but not . . . of design" 65); for Burke, they are an element of the Divine Plan as well.

For neither, however, are moral or legal rules the product of human invention and most emphatically not of "arbitrary legislative [or judicial] will." 66 Nothing, Burke wrote, is

    more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, of all the peace and happiness, of human society than the position that any body of men have a right to make what laws they please, or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely and independent of the quality of the subject-matter. . . .67
On the Whig view to which both Burke and Hayek subscribed, the validity of law is completely independent of its source; who makes a rule, whether the people or a tyrant, is irrelevant.68 Not surprisingly, then, Hayek, like his fellow Old-Whig Burke, denied that the exercise of will, whether arbitrary or rational, has anything to do with the determination of law.69 Law-making, on the Hayekian view, entails the ongoing articulation of the rules that maintain a working social order, rules that must cohere with the body of established moral and legal rules (explicit and implicit) that generated and sustain that order.70 As such, it is a pointed intellectual task that must be undertaken by persons well versed in both jurisprudence and social theory and well attuned, moreover, to the tacit dimension of their society. ‘Will,’ 71 Hayek maintained, is irrelevant to such a task; the appropriate rules are discerned, not proclaimed. 

Hayek’s legal philosophy, then, differs from that of both the traditional natural lawyers and the legal positivists. It resembles natural-law doctrine to a certain extent in that it shares with that doctrine a belief in a source of law that is independent of human will. Nevertheless, the ultimate referent of law is, for Hayek, the existing mundane social order, not a transcendent one. 

Burke believed, by contrast, that man carries the imprint of moral (and thus civil) law within his being, imprinted by the "will of Him who gave us our nature and in giving impressed an invariable law upon it."72 For Hayek that ‘moral imprint’ is the result of the absorption of tradition; he would account for the sensation of ‘impression’ by the fact that the Western mind has been shaped for centuries by the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Certain rules have become so deeply embedded in Western culture—in language and thus perception, social institutions, custom and habit—that they now seem to be inherent in the very structure of the human mind. 

Although Hayek rejected natural-law doctrine, he did share Burke’s belief in the existence of an objective body of obligatory moral and legal rules. For Hayek, the traditional moral values that have shaped Western civilization, while not absolute, immutable, or universal, are nevertheless binding for those who wish to preserve constitutional government—the political expression of those values. This is because the inherited rules and values that have structured the evolution of Western society constitute the irreplaceable foundation of the advanced liberal order (values, Hayek observes, are the "source of all factual orders"). Thus those who would preserve that order are not free to "revalue all values" or to abandon traditional Judeo-Christian morality merely because they may not comprehend its significance or appreciate the restraints it imposes; for such action, Hayek maintains, would entail the destruction of the kind of free and civilized society engendered and sustained by that morality.

If one is religious in the Burkean sense, Hayek’s functionalist argument will no doubt seem deeply unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, in an age when the religious truths that guided Burke’s unhesitating step no longer inform the dominant worldview, Hayek’s appeal to rational comprehension may be indispensable to the preservation of civilized values and free government. For Western society presently stands at a curious juncture. The authority of the moral and political traditions whose observance generated the liberal order has eroded in many quarters, and it has been suggested that we are living on the ‘moral capital’ of an earlier era. Hayek obviously hoped that rational insight into the function served by inherited moral and political traditions in regard to the maintenance of civilized society may supply the want of traditional authority—religion and custom—increasingly characteristic of our time. 

* * *

Despite Burke’s valiant resistance, the "French" doctrines he feared and despised have proved more congenial to the modern temper than the English ideals Burke himself championed. The past several centuries have witnessed the triumph of ‘political freedom’ over liberty-under-law; the fondness for techniques of conscious organization over spontaneous coordination; positivistic jurisprudence and scientistic social science; Comte, Marx, and ‘managed competition’; the war against traditional morality; the demand for rational justification of values; democratic despotism and radical equality; centralization of political power; "officious universal interference"—each and every one a derivative of the "armed doctrine" Burke dreaded. 

Hayek, championing Burke’s cause a century and a half later, did so, then, under the most unfortunate circumstances, for the twentieth-century mind has been profoundly shaped by Enlightenment doctrines; the more "modest and . . . humble creed" 73 of Burke and his Whig forebears has long been on the defensive. The English ideal, the ideal of a "free government . . . that . . . temper[s] the . . . opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work," 74 does not seem to set the modern heart on fire. Perhaps, however, it is still possible to hope that Burke’s and Hayek’s mutual "exertions . . . [in the] struggle for the liberty of others" 75 may yet prove not to have been in vain. Be that as it may, the integrity and wisdom of these two great thinkers constitute a steady beacon to inspire and guide those who are disheartened by the current course of events.


*Linda C. Raeder is Associate Editor of HUMANITAS and a Research Associate at the National Humanities Institute. [Back]

1 Edmund Burke, Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 7th ed., Vol. IV (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1881), 143. [Back]

2 Peter J. Stanlis, "Edmund Burke in the Twentieth Century," in Peter J. Stanlis, ed. The Relevance of Edmund Burke (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1964), 45. [Back]

3 Friedrich. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), 3. [Back]

4 Hayek, Constitution, 409. [Back]

5 Burke, New to Old, 188. [Back]

6 "The Petition of Grievances of 1610," cited in Hayek, Constitution, 168. [Back]

7 Hayek, Constitution, 163. [Back]

8 John Locke, cited in Hayek, Constitution, 170. [Back]

9 Hayek, Constitution, 172. [Back]

10 The following are representative of Burke’s Whig outlook: 

"Arbitrary power . . . is a subversion of natural justice, a violation of the inherent rights of mankind" (Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Volume VI [London: Oxford University Press, 1907], 27).

". . . [T]he judicature . . . ought to [be] ma[d]e, as it were, something exterior to the state, . . . radical[ly] independent, . . . constituted to resist arbitrary innovation . . . and calculated to afford both certainty and stability to the laws . . ." (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987], 181). 

"The vice of the ancient democracies . . . was that they ruled . . . by occasional decrees . . . This practice . . . broke in upon the tenor and consistency of the laws; it abated the respect of the people toward them, and totally destroyed them in the end" (Reflections, 182).

"Indeed, arbitrary power is so much to the depraved taste of the vulgar . . . that almost all the discussions which lacerate the commonwealth are not concerning the manner in which it is to be exercised, but concerning the hands in which it is to be placed" (New to Old, 163). [Back]

11 Blackstone’s Commentaries, cited in Hayek, Constitution, 173. [Back]

12 Burke, New to Old, 97; Hayek, Constitution, 55. [Back]

13 Both Burke and Hayek understood the extent of political participation to be a matter of convention and not of principle. Hayek regarded democracy as a sort of ‘procedural device,’ a means to determine certain matters of common concern, and not as an end-in-itself. Both men, in short, were advocates of what we would today regard as liberal or constitutional in contrast to majoritarian or "plebiscitary" democracy. See F. A. Hayek, The Political Order of a Free People (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979). [Back]

14 Burke, Reflections, 70. [Back]

15 Hayek, Constitution, 57. [Back]

16 Francis Jeffrey, cited in Hayek, Constitution, 57. [Back]

17 Burke, New to Old, 81. [Back]

18 Burke, Scarcity, 4, 32. [Back]

19 F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 18. [Back]

20 Burke, Reflections, 27, 47, 85. [Back]

21 Hayek’s central thesis is that those institutions and practices that were observed long enough to form a ‘tradition’ did so because they contributed to the survival and flourishing of the groups who observed them; those most adapted to the circumstances of human existence progressively displaced less "successful" practices. For Hayek, tradition is precious because it embodies the collective experience of our forebears and thus, as Burke also stressed, more knowledge than any person or group could possibly gain in one lifetime. Enduring traditions, Hayek argues, were transmitted for a reason, however inaccessible it may be to the individual intellect.

Burke, for all his emphasis on the spirituality of social life, would not be offended by Hayek’s survival criterion: "I never will suppose that fabric of a State to be the worst if it contains a principle favorable (however latent) to the increase of mankind" (Burke, Reflections, 113). And, "[n]o country in which population flourishes and is in progressive improvement can be too bad a government" (Ibid., 112). [Back]

22 Hayek, Constitution, 110. [Back]

23 Hayek, The Political Order of a Free People, 157. [Back]

24 Chandran Kukathas, Hayek and Modern Liberalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 97. [Back]

25 F. A. Hayek, "The Errors of Constructivism," New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 7. [Back]

26 Pocock, in Reflections, xxxiii-xxxviii. [Back]

27 Burke, Reflections, 218. [Back]

28 Ibid., 76. [Back]

29 Hayek, Constitution, 94. [Back]

30 Burke, Scarcity, 32, 20. Burke’s discussion of the market suggests that he was aware of what Hayek was later to emphasize so emphatically, namely, the knowledge problem to which the market is the solution. "It is better," Burke says, "to leave all [contractual] dealing . . . entirely to the persons mutually concerned in the matter contracted for than to put this contract into the hands of those who can have none, or a very remote interest in it, and little or no knowledge of the subject" (Ibid., 11, 9). And, the "[m]arket is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants (Ibid., 18) (both emphases added). The correspondence to Hayek’s understanding of the market as a discovery process is noteworthy. [Back]

31 Burke, Scarcity, 10, 22, 15. Hayek quotes Burke’s definition verbatim (Constitution, 60). [Back]

32 "Free trade is not based on utility but on justice" (Burke, Scarcity, 27). See also Ibid., 11, 13. [Back]

33 Ibid., 11. [Back]

34 Ibid., 32. [Back]

35 Burke, Reflections, 91. [Back]

36 We should note, however, that neither Burke nor any of the eighteenth-century British economists did in fact advocate any sort of "laissez-faire" policy. They knew that the market process is dependent upon a particular institutional structure and that government has certain indispensable functions to perform in regard to the economic sphere. The concept of ‘laissez-faire,’ Hayek points out, was foreign to the British tradition that he and Burke represent; the very term reveals its roots in the "French" or Continental rationalist tradition (Constitution, 60). [Back]

37 Burke, Scarcity, 13. [Back]

38 Ibid., 32, 22, 2. [Back]

39 More specifically, the provision of public goods and services must take place outside the market and be governed by general, non-compulsory rules (Hayek, Constitution, 220-230). [Back]

40 Burke, Reflections, 149. Speaking of the new French "constitution," Burke wrote: "I do not see a variety of objects reconciled in one consistent whole, but several contradictory principles reluctantly and irreconcilably brought and held together by your philosophers, like wild beasts shut up in a cage to claw and bite each other to their mutual destruction" (Reflections, 159-160). [Back]

41 Ibid., 149. [Back]

42 F. A. Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 128-129. [Back]

43 Burke, Scarcity, 22. [Back]

44 Ibid., 9. [Back]

45 Ibid., 22. [Back]

46 Burke, cited in John MacCunn, "Religion and Politics," in Daniel E. Ritchie, ed. Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990), 191. [Back]

47 MacCunn, "Religion and Politics," 183-184. [Back]

48 Burke, Reflections, 86. [Back]

49 Ibid., 85. [Back]

50 Ibid., 83, 81. [Back]

51 Burke, cited in MacCunn, "Religion and Politics," 183. [Back]

52 MacCunn, "Religion and Politics," 186. [Back]

53 Hayek’s understanding of historical evolution is, however, more differentiated than Burke’s. On Hayek’s view, the organization of government is always a conscious construction; it is not a spontaneously evolved social institution such as law or morals (Hayek, The Political Order of a Free People, 152). [Back]

54 Burke, Reflections, 81. [Back]

55 Hayek’s conception of religion seems to have been unduly narrow, indeed one shaped by the very Enlightenment rationalism he himself wished so urgently to repudiate (see Graham Walker, The Ethics of F. A. Hayek (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).

Moreover, Hayek more or less exclusively identified religion with organized, dogmatic, creedal religion. Existential religion, understood as a living encounter with transcendent goodness or as an immediate experience of higher reality, seems to have been unfamiliar to him. Yet, paradoxically, Hayek’s work itself embodies such an existential spiritual orientation; and his passionate evocation of the transcendent significance of the person is starkly incongruous with his naturalistic-evolutionary justification of liberal values and principles (Cf. David Walsh, The Growth of the Liberal Soul [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997]). When all is said and done, if Hayek had recognized an existential dimension to religion, his and Burke’s religious views may not have been as far apart as appearances suggest. Both, in effect, seem to have subscribed to the sort of "value-centered historicism"—one that acknowledges the reality of universal and transcendent value—espoused by Claes G. Ryn (see Joseph F. Baldacchino, "The Value-Centered Historicism of Edmund Burke," Modern Age, Vol. 27, No. 2 [Spring 1983]). [Back]

56 Burke, Reflections, 51, 54. [Back]

57 "If civil society be the offspring of convention," says Burke, "that convention must be its law" (Reflections, 52). In regard to the issue of rights, Hayek is more consistently Burkean than Burke himself. [Back]

58 Hayek, Mirage, 101-102. [Back]

59 Stanlis, Burke and the Enlightenment. [Back]

60 Burke, Reflections, 86. [Back]

61 Burke, "Tract on the Popery Laws," cited in Stanlis, Burke and the Enlightenment, 18. [Back]

62 Indeed, ". . . the notion of a higher law above municipal codes and constitutions, with which Whiggism began . . . is the supreme achievement of Englishmen and their bequest to the nations" (Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History [London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1930], 217-218). [Back]

63 Hayek, Constitution, 68. [Back]

64 Burke, cited in Stanlis, "Edmund Burke in the Twentieth Century," 23. [Back]

65 Adam Ferguson, cited in Hayek, Constitution, 57. [Back]

66 Stanlis, Burke and the Enlightenment, 17. [Back]

67 Burke, "Popery Laws," cited in Stanlis, Burke and the Enlightenment, 16. [Back]

68 It is not coincidental that both Burke and Hayek singled out Dr. Richard Price as the antithesis of Whig politics: "Liberty [Price maintained] is too imperfectly defined when it is said to be a 'government of LAWS and not by MEN.' If the laws are made by one man, or a junto of men in a state, and not by common consent, a government by them is not different from slavery." Nothing could be further from the legal philosophy to which Burke and Hayek subscribed. [Back]

69 "The people at large . . . should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong. . . . [T]hey ought to be persuaded that they are . . . [not] entitled . . . to use any arbitrary power whatsoever . . . or to exact from [public officials] . . . an abject submission to their occasional will . . . " (Burke, Reflections, 82). And "[n]either the few nor the many have a right to act merely by their will, in any matter connected with duty, trust, engagement, or obligation" (Burke, New to Old, 162). [Back]

70 Burke's view was similar: any proposed statute must be ". . . reconciled to all established, recognized morals, and to the general, ancient, known policy of the laws of England" (Burke, New to Old, 134). We note that, for Hayek, law and legislation—the deliberate enactment of legal rules—are two distinct entities. The evolved rules that constitute the law will, he maintains, necessarily possess certain attributes which legislation will possess only if it is deliberately modeled on the law. [Back]

71 Hayek employs the term 'will' in a special sense: human will, for him, is always directed toward the achievement of a "particular, concrete result which, together with the known particular circumstances of the moment, will suffice to determine a particular action. . . . [The will] ceases when the 'end'—the particular expected effect . . . which motivate[s] a particular action—is achieved" (Hayek, Mirage, 13). [Back]

72 Burke, "Popery Laws," cited in Stanlis, Burke and the Enlightenment, 17. [Back]

73 Hayek, Constitution, 8. [Back]

74 Burke, Reflections, 216. [Back]

75 Ibid., 218. [Back]

Updated 29 July 2010