Hayek was an an activist liberal rather than a conservative, writes Roger Kimball. And now that the struggle against socialist planning is over, the important question is where Hayek thought we should go from here. What was his vision for a liberal Utopia?
In his essay ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’ Hayek argued that:
The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote (pdf).
Hayek’s Utopian visions usually involved schemes for thwarting democracy. In a 1973 lecture — ‘Economic Freedom and Representative Government’ — Hayek suggested a radical reworking of democratic institutions. The powers of the legislature and the executive should be clearly separated, he argued. Each would have its own house or assembly. The legislative assembly should have the power to make laws which apply equally to everyone, while the executive assembly should only be able to use coercion to enforce obedience to these laws.
The executive assembly would take care of the day to day business of governing. It would have control over government departments and its representatives would be answerable for departmental decisions. Like Britain’s House of Commons, its members would face regular elections and it would be dominated by political parties.
But the executive would not be able to do anything that hadn’t been authorised by the legislature. Its activities would always be limited by the general laws passed by the legislature. And the most radical part of Hayek’s vision was the way this powerful legislative assembly would be elected.
Hayek was looking for a way to appoint legislators who would be independent of sectional interests and political parties. He wanted a body which would be representative of prevailing moral opinion:
Such a legislative assembly could be achieved if, first its members were elected for long periods, second, they were not eligible for re-election at the end of the period, and third, to secure a continuous renewal of the body in accord with gradually changing opinions among the electorate, its members were not all elected at the same time but a constant fraction of their number replaced every year as their mandate expired; or in other words, if they were elected for instance, for 15 years and one-fifteenth of their number replaced every year. It would further seem to me expedient to provide that at each election the representatives should be chosen by and from only one age group so that every citizen would vote only once in his life, say in his forty-fifth year, for a representative chosen from his age group (p 116-117).
Whenever the executive overstepped the limits imposed on it by the legislature, the matter would go before a constitutional court. Judges would hold the people’s elected representatives in check.
Imagine that Australia had a system like this. At some time in the past, right thinking middle-aged conservatives might have voted people like Malcolm Fraser and Robert Manne onto the legislature. Then when the executive decided that it would be a good idea to lock up asylum seekers or join the Americans in Iraq, the legislature might accuse them of exceeding their legislated mandate and drag them in front the judiciary. Right thinking conservatives like Janet Albrechtsen would be furious.
Albrechtsen’s opposition to a bill of rights shows how different her views are from those of Hayek. She argues that elected governments should not be hemmed in by laws they can’t change or judges they can’t control:
It seems that the uneducated masses understand that in a democratic society we need to trust that the government is working to protect our interests. Whether you voted for the Howard Government or not, in a liberal democracy there needs to be an underlying level of loyalty to the very idea of a popularly elected government. If politicians get it wrong, we can boot them out of office. Judges, on the other hand, are there to stay.
Kimball argues that "There is an important sense in which genuine liberals are (in Russell Kirk’s phrase) conservative precisely because they are liberals: they understand that the best chance for preserving freedom is through preserving the institutions and traditional practices that have, so to speak, housed freedom." In some moods Hayek does seem to be a conservative liberal. But in others his anti-democratic liberalism seems far more radical.
Hayek’s supporters tend to avoid discussing his Utopian scheme for redesigning democracy. Perhaps they think he was mistaken about the effects his reforms would have. The only clear and widely accepted message from Hayek’s work is his message about what not to do — we should not attempt to override the market to give each individual or group the reward they morally deserve. Perhaps the reason writers like Kimball focus on the past is because Hayek’s supporters have no shared vision of the future.