In 1960 famous Austrian economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative’ explaining that a fundamental trait of the conservative attitude is a fear of change while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course.
In the same essay he wrote that conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate. Of course the Left also known as the Social Liberal, or simply Liberal in the US, is also inclined to use the powers of government, but to instigate change. An obvious manifestation of this today is the various rules, regulations and regulated trading systems being imposed by governments across the world with the aim of stopping climate change – something any empiricists (but particularly evolutionary biologists) recognise as impossible.
In the essay Hayek went on to explain that the correct name for his ideas was Whiggism, because it was the ideas of the seventeenth century English Whigs that inspired what later came to be known as the liberal movement in Europe that provided the conceptions that the American colonists took with them but which was later altered by the French Revolution, with its “totalitarian democracy and socialist leanings”. Hayek ends his essay by coming to an unsatisfactory conclusion as to what any new movement based on his political philosophy might be best called, but this has not stopped many labelling him, incorrectly a Libertarian.
Libertarians believe in freedom as long as the person and property of others is not harmed and that a combination of personal and economic freedom will inevitably produce creativity, abundance and peace.
But in a world of increasingly rapid technological change and increasing concern about the impact of development on the state of the world’s environment and increasing competition for limited resources (including water) there will always be impacts on person and property (particularly if you live downstream). Change brings winners and losers and Libertarianism is not a realistic or sophisticated enough political philosophy to deal with this.
In 1998 Virginia Postrel, the editor of Reason magazine, introduced a new label for a new political philosophy, a philosophy that she explained has given us greater wealth, opportunity and choice than at any time in history. In ‘The Future and Its Enemies – The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress’ Postrel suggests, like Hayek, that conservatives and social liberals have much in common and as a consequence the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are of little relevance. Instead she suggests we use the terms ‘stasis’ versus ‘dynamism’ to describe the chasm between those who want to control the future (conservatives and social liberals) and those who believe in the capacity of human beings to improve their lives through trial and error, spontaneous adjustment, adaptation and evolution (dynamists).
Postrel explains that dynamists keep the underlying rules neutral and transparent – a flat tax, for instance – and they stigmatize changes designed to favour particular groups. They believe in free markets but they are not just libertarians with a new name, as they include people with a more expansive view of public goods. So some dynamists support forms of paternalism including seat belt laws, antismoking regulations and a safety net for the poor. But instead of grand plans or ad hoc solutions they have the patience to let trial and error work within well-established and understood rules.
In short, the dynamist recognises that change is real and that our values are not things that have always existed, and will always exist. The future will be a consequence of the legacy of past generations and our own activities and should not be left to chance but neither should we seek to specify in advance exactly what the future will look like.