The Liberalism/Conservatism of Edmund Burke and F.A. Hayek: A Critical Comparision

Raeder, Linda. HUMANITAS. Volume X, No. 1 (1997).


Edmund Burke, the passionate defender of the “ancient principles” of his forebears, might be surprised to discover that he originated a new school of political thought. By all accounts, however, he is the “modern founder of political conservatism,” and generations of ‘conservative’ thinkers have found his life and work a rich source of philosophical and practical wisdom. Burke, of course, was a statesman and not a political philosopher, and he never produced anything that may be regarded as a systematic political treatise. Nevertheless, he embraced a consistent political creed that governed his actions throughout his life. The thesis of this essay is that Burke’s implicit political creed is, in all essential respects, the doctrine articulated by the twentieth-century social philosopher F. A. Hayek. Hayek’s aim, he said, was to “restate” or systematize those basic principles whose observance generated and sustain Western constitutional government and the free society. The “classical liberal” principles articulated by Hayek were also those that inspired and guided Burke.

Burke and Hayek, in short, represent the same political tradition. Not only do they subscribe to the same substantive political philosophy, but they hold similar views regarding the nature of society, the role of reason in human affairs, the proper tasks of government, and, to a certain extent, the nature of moral and legal rules. Although there are differences between their views as well, differences that stem from Burke’s orthodox Christianity on the one hand and Hayek’s religious agnosticism on the other, the area of substantive agreement between their respective views is far greater than that of their disagreement. The heart of the matter is that both Burke and Hayek remained, as Hayek put it, “unrepentant Old Whig[s]” to the end.

National Humanities Institute