Raising the Standard.

Q&A: Steven F. Hayward on Conservatism

Dr. Steven F. Hayward is a senior fellow at the California-based Pacific Research Institute, where he authors the Almanac of Environmental Trends. Dr. Hayward also teaches as the first-ever Chair of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He has held positions previously at Ashland University and the American Enterprise Institute, among others, and has authored a number of books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE’s Blake Seitz called Dr. Hayward to discuss issues of the day. The second half of the interview, concerning conservatism, is below. (Part I, concerning climate change, can be found here.)

THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE: In the last few months, you survived the near-biblical flooding of your home town in Colorado, and now you’re living through the Mad Max-style anarchy of government shutdown. Does it feel a little bit like you’re living through the end times?

STEVEN F. HAYWARD: Well, as to the shutdown, this is really not an unprecedented situation. The U.S. government has been shut down over a dozen times since the 1970s, so in certain ways this is not unusual.

We should look past the government shutdown itself and realize what this signifies: a bitterly divided pubic that’s reflected in divided government. I think it was Michael Barone who said, when Obamacare was being debated, that it was the most divisive piece of legislation since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and you see what path that led down. So ultimately we should not be surprised that, even though Obamacare was enacted, as a partisan piece of legislation it remains divisive and will likely not be resolved for awhile. Even the Democrats realize this bill has enormous problems and enormous flaws that will require fixing.

TAC: Do you think, as time goes on, that Obamacare’s position will become more solidified or reified in government, as other big government programs have in the past?

HAYWARD: I think Obamacare could be completely different from programs we’ve seen in the past. It’s certainly true that when you have an entitlement like Social Security or Medicare that involve cutting checks to people, they tend to stick around. That’s due in part to the strong interest groups backing entitlement regimes that make them difficult to reform.

Obamacare is different. People are being required to sign up for health insurance under threat of penalty, and many people are seeing their costs going way up. The whole thing seems incoherent — many of the exchanges aren’t working very well, and some of the exchanges are crashing. Maybe these are things that can be worked out, but maybe they can’t. So what we may see is that the very high public skepticism surrounding this program actually grows as time goes on, unlike programs like Social Security. I think that will change the politics of this quite a bit.

TAC: In addition to your work with the Pacific Research Institute, you are the Visiting Scholar for Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder, so you’ve been around college campuses for quite some time. What, as you see it, is the state of the campus as far as intellectual diversity is concerned?

HAYWARD: Well, it’s hard to tell. At a large research university like this one as opposed to small private colleges like I’m accustomed to, the departments are really huge. Here, I’m in a political science department that has 30 full-time faculty and another 15 part-time faculty. I’m not finding here too many examples of crazy radicals. There are a few out there, in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, but on the main you see a lot of liberalism of the conventional sort, which is arguable to a point.

The problem here is largely a problem of omission — there simply isn’t much treatment of conservative perspectives on political problems, and part of that is academic fads, while part is bias. I’ve actually identified four or five conservative faculty members, but they don’t seem to be teaching the large survey courses — instead they teach narrow methodological courses because that’s the trend at the big research universities. It’s a trend that conservative intellectuals like Richard Weaver were warning us about 50, 60 years ago. So really the main problem is the omission of conservative points of view and of serious conservative authors from the curriculum of the large courses.

TAC: As far as college students and politics are concerned, do you think too much emphasis is being placed on electoral politics and tactics and too little on ideas and thought?

HAYWARD: I think you may be right about that, and I think it’s a mistake. I don’t want to talk about Barack Obama or even Obamacare that much. Rather, let’s focus on larger, long-term ideas for the simple reason that students, by the time they graduate, probably will have a different president and a different set of pressing issues. The purpose of education, in the classical sense of the liberal arts, is to equip you for what is ahead — to teach fundamental principles and how they operate on a deep basis. So I think it’s a mistake to concentrate on current tactics in the current political scene to the detriment of learning the “permanent things,” as Russell Kirk called them.

TAC: What do you think needs to be done to gain ground in that respect?

HAYWARD: That’s a good question. One problem is that there simply aren’t enough conservatives in the academic world to be hired when universities seek to hire them! I heard one story about a university that wanted to hire a conservative in political science and just couldn’t find one. For a variety of reasons, there aren’t many of us out there, so we need more troops. That’s a long and difficult problem, although we’ve been getting better at it over the last 50 years in large part due to groups like ISI [the Intercollegiate Studies Institute] and IHS [the Institute for Humane Studies] to help people through graduate school and so forth. So we’re hugely outnumbered and, as they say, if you don’t show up it’s hard to have an impact.

TAC: To broaden the scope of discussion from college, even, what is the state of intellectual conservatism right now? How much life is there on the right?

HAYWARD: Some of the divisions you see on the right have been around for 50 years. There have been arguments between libertarians and traditionalists since the 1950s, so the coalition hasn’t changed a whole lot. There’s a lot of energy on the right, though. We have more organization than ever before, and even something like the Tea Party was unthinkable as recently as the 1970s — the Tax Revolt was ultimately just about taxes, while the Tea Party is about quite a bit more than that. So on the popular level, there’s plenty of energy and organization.

On the level of ideas, there’s still plenty of smart people out there, but what is hard to tell is whether they still have the preeminence they did when, say, Milton Friedman was on the best-seller lists in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Today, the conservatives that have power are the media figures — Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter. They do great work and there’s a place for that, but we do seem to be missing the prominence of people like Milton Friedman and Allan Bloom, who in the mid-1980s wrote a book [The Closing of the American Mind] that sold a million copies in hardback. We’re seeing less of that. I’m not quite sure why.

TAC: It seems like the ones who are preeminent — Thomas Sowell, for example — are holdovers from the last generation anyway.

HAYWARD: Yeah, that’s a good point — the guys like George Will are 70 years old by now. I mean, we still have people like Jonah Goldberg, who’s a very smart guy and perhaps the closest to the old model that we have right now, but it’s hard to see who the big thinkers are who are emerging. That said, there’s still a lot of interest in thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Friedman, and much can be gained from reading the classic authors. I just wonder if we have any new classic authors in our midst at the moment. That’s less clear.

TAC: Much has been made of the young Tea Party contingent in the U.S. Senate — Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, etc. Tactics aside, do you think their brand of libertarian populism can be the future of conservatism?

HAYWARD: Well, maybe. It’s certainly the easiest to grasp variant of conservatism. By contrast, the conservatism of Russell Kirk, if you’ve read The Conservative Mind, is difficult to parse. Kirk really is an inheritor of Edmund Burke in some ways, and his arguments have a lot of subtlety and paradox to them, which limits their popular appeal. The libertarian view, meanwhile — especially in an age of giant, incompetent government — is very easy to grasp. I tend not to like the overused simile of the “tipping point,” but as Gallup polls show that skepticism of government is at an all-time high, aside from tactics that may or may not be sensible, politicians like Paul and Cruz who have an easy to grasp message will make their political party more viable to a certain extent, and that’s probably a good thing overall.

TAC: Finally, a big tenant of conservatism is that we can learn from the past. With everything that is going on, foreign and domestic, whose leadership or scholarship from the past deserves to be rediscovered today? I know you’re a big fan of Winston Churchill and Leo Strauss, so feel free to plug them here.

HAYWARD: I would say about Leo Strauss that, while I’m powerfully influenced by his thought, as with Burke and Kirk there’s a lot of subtlety, paradox and depth to it that are difficult to translate into practical, everyday politics.

The thinker from the past that I find most useable right now is Friedrich Hayek, not so much for The Road to Serfdom but for The Constitution of Liberty and his seminal essay from the 1940s, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which lay out the cognitive reasons why the modern administrative state will not work very well. In one of Hayek’s last interviews, in 1990 or 1991, someone asked him “Well, we’re in an age of supercomputing. Won’t that solve the knowledge and information problems that you said held back a planned economy?” And he said, “No, not at all. It doesn’t matter how big a computer you build, you will never be able to handle the kind of information a free economy generates and contains.”

By the way, this is ultimately the best critique of Obamacare: that on a nation-wide basis you cannot have a government-dominated health care system that tries to simulate or process all the relevant information about decision-making. This critique is ultimately why we deregulated airlines, trucking and a lot of other markets. To a great extent, the markets we’ve seen that have screwed up — financial, banking, etc. — went south because rather than deregulate them we re-regulated them in some goofy way and screwed up the information signals that allow a market to operate. This led to events like the housing crash. So Hayek holds up the best in policy terms, and is the thinker whose body of work applies best to our problems today — and always will.

(Part I of the interview, concerning climate change and the IPCC Report, can be found here.)

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