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Unprincipled, By Whatever Name and For Whatever Particular Purposes

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Michael Gerson argues that conservatism is superior to libertarianism (“How the tea party undermines conservatism,” Jan. 7).  Key to his argument is the fact that conservatives’ defense of liberty – unlike that of libertarians – isn’t governed by any tedious and irksome principles.  “Conservatism,” as Mr. Gerson proudly says, “is a governing vision that allows for a yellow light: careful, measured public interventions to encourage the health of civil society.  There are no simple rules here.”

Indeed there aren’t.  But such a “yellow light” is a bug and not a feature.

F.A. Hayek, in his 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” warned against the very lack of principles that Mr. Gerson celebrates as a shining feature of conservatism: “In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes.  He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules.  Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them.  Like the socialist … he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.”*

In short, conservatives are no more to be trusted with power than are socialists, “Progressives,” or any other people.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* F.A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” in The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 401.


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