Hayek’s path to victory may not run through practical politics

F. A. Hayek

How do we inspire people to become passionate about liberty?

In his famous essay Intellectuals and Socialism, F.A. Hayek identified a serious problem with classical liberals. They were too practical. Their strategy was to try to work within the existing political order. They devised practical solutions which they hoped would be adopted by practical statesmen. They avoided broad speculations about a fundamentally different world. They were afraid to be marginalized, to be seen as too radical.

The socialists at the time had no such reservations. They were marginalized to begin with. They ran with it. Unlike the liberals, they painted a vision of a fundamentally transformed world. They sold a utopia. They acknowledged that they were in for a long fight, which might last many years, but one day, they insisted, their vision would become real. They were true believers.

At the time of Hayek’s essay, the socialists were winning. Their vision of a better world had captured the imagination of the intellectuals. These same intellectuals had transmitted the socialistic ideas to the broader public. Hayek lamented that the classical liberals had nothing comparable. He ends his essay:

If we are to avoid such a development, we must be able to offer a new (classical) liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.

Ayn Rand once said “Man is a conceptual being. He can’t exist range of the moment. He needs a larger view.” Transformational movements need utopias. They need something that inflames passion and motivates those who want a better world. For Communists, that utopia was a world of communal brotherhood of all men. For the early (and modern) Christians it was eternal bliss in the afterlife. Whatever the utopia, the movement must offer people a path to achieve it. It must give people a goal and offer them HOPE.

What vision can we offer to sell liberty? Hayek was not an anarchist. Much of his writing contradicts our basic principles. He was a practical, classical liberal, just as he described in the essay above. But how clearly he must have realized the shortcomings of his own philosophy! In fact, toward the end of his life, he admitted that if he was young again he suspected he would be a type of anarchist. Did he have an inkling that anarchism was the utopia, the vision, he claimed the liberals needed?

How do we inspire people to have a passion for liberty? We need to offer them a vision. We should learn from the socialists and Hayek. We should embrace broad conceptual ideas and not waste too much energy on practical politics – efforts that are likely to fail anyway until we gain popular support.

Instead, we should accept that we will be marginalized. “Polite society” might not welcome us. That’s ok. They don’t understand what we understand. Anyway, being marginalized will give us an opportunity to purify and clarify our vision. Like the early Christians or the early socialists, we should see the world, as it is, as corrupted, nonredeemable. We should not let it distract us from building the world we want.

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