Why I am Not a Seed Conservative

July 12, 2011
Fredrich Hayek

F. A. Hayek (image from: http://nickrizzuto.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/hayek.jpg)

The title of this post is taken from F.A. Hayek’s postscript to The Constitution of Liberty University of Chicago Press; 1978, pps 397-414). There is a copy of the postscript available on line at http://www.peoplesdemocracy.org/am-not-conservative.shtml (unfortunately not a very good one). Hayek defends his classification of himself as a classical liberal rather than a conservative.  Classical liberalism in this case refers to liberalism as it was in the 19th century when liberalism was associated with protection of property rights, the inclination to expand the electorate, and most important of all, the inclination to try to protect individuals from the over extension of government.   

From the perspective of European history the image of conservative that I choose to recall is one that is derived from the middle ages.  In this image, a conservative is one who is inclined to support the traditional values of a society lead by monarchy, aristocracy and the Church. Societies lead by monarchies, aristocracies, and the Church were much troubled by disputes among those institutions 1.  This conservative leadership is associated with an organic conception of society in which leadership plays a role in the community as a holistic entity with its own structure.  The conservative leader is preserving the traditional order of society.   

This definition gets confused in the United States.  In the 19th century liberal was the opposite of conservative, and America was liberal from its origins.  The constitution which James Madison wrote is a liberal document.  America was not conceived of as having a conservative tradition until the 1950’s when Russell Kirk sat down and found one for us.  I didn’t really have any firm conception of what a conservative was until read his book2. I did not do so until 10 years ago. 

The confusion results from the question of what U.S. Citizens might be trying to preserve when they say that they are conservative.  If one includes the liberalism of the founders as one of the social ideals to be preserved, then situation gets muddled. As I mentioned, in the 19th century before the rise of socialism and the new social justice liberalism, political liberalism was the opposite of conservatism.  The definition of liberalism changed when liberty was reconceived to mean freedom to achieve one’s own objectives including objectives which might have economic cost (freedom to act, positive), rather than the older vision of freedom includes the right to own property as well as the right to freedom from arbitrary authority (freedom from, negative)3. This happened around 1900 in the US and Britain. There was an element of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" to this transition.  To people in a society which had solved the “freedom from” problem, it was tempting to ask for more and better, even at the risk of losing the freedoms which they had in hand. This new liberalism was focused on social justice, and to a certain degree, opposed to property rights.     

When this new social justice liberalism became popular in the period between 1890 and the 1940, there were serious questions about whether the free market economies could be as productive as ones which were state directed.  Social democracy became a popular idea and the world “liberalism” in the US came to be associated with social justice.  More recent experience indicates that state directed economies can stall also.  This was clear in the late 1970’s in the US; it was clear in the former Soviet Union in the 1980’s; and it was clear in Japan after 1990.  State direction when skillful can be better at playing catch up (Stalin in the 20’s and 30’s, China now), but does not move ahead because it fails at the innovative side of capital allocation.   

Hayek in his earlier, more famous, book, The Road to Serfdom4, pointed out that sacrificing the earlier version of freedom for the new social justice version might lead to a slippery slope, on which it would be impossible to recover the old sort of freedom.  He thought that property rights were important:

There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly’5.

He observed that German National Socialism and Soviet Communism were founded on communitarian ideals that could be misused by those in power. He was suspicious of excesses of government supported by concepts of social justice.  More recent advocates of limited government, like James M. Buchanan, have pointed out that inevitable individualism in government leads to perpetuation of programs that are not productive.

Early in the 20th century it was thought that democracy had solved the problem of making liberalism compatible with socialism by extending the vote to all of society.  It has since become clear that some democratic societies will sacrifice their own liberty for security or equality.  It happened in Germany in 1933.

In the US, the regulation of the seed industry began in the period of the growth of role of social justice liberal government and was frequently justified on the basis of seed customer protection. This was roughly between 1900 and 1940.  At the time, the government was deeply involved in crop breeding, to solve the problem of lack of incentives for variety creation and development in the absence of intellectual property rights for varieties.  It seemed that varieties would remain a public good, since they were actually produced by government entities.  The seed trade grew with the help of improving communication, transportation and the new regulations, but it did not do much plant breeding. 

This pattern lasted even longer in Europe, but in Europe the government control went further.  Certification was required and more integral to the government operations rather than being quasi-autonomous, as it is the U.S.  European governments where more influenced by Social justice.   The backbone of US Seed law is the labeling requirement, which is more in line with the classical liberalism respecting the right of the customer to choose. 

The introduction of hybrid corn changed things. Because of the biological variety protection in hybrids, the private sector got a chance to demonstrate their ability to be productive and innovative.  This intern created demand for pant variety ownership rights.   UPOV was adopted by the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, a diplomatic conference held in Paris in 1961. The UPOV Convention, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, came into force on August 10, 1968. The U.S. joined UPOV with the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970.   The products of plant variety protection arrived just in time for the Regan Revolution and one of the periodic swings when the older, pro-property, form of liberalism6 came into favor.  This and the Supreme Court 7 decision to allow patents on living products of innovation, created incentives for more plant breeding and more research in biotechnology during the 1980’s.  The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology8 created the regulatory environment which allowed private participates in the development of biotechnology to expect regulatory approval.  These government actions were more or less in the tradition of classical liberalism, and not the sort of government action which would be supported by social justice liberalism.

Having lived through this period and seen the good which it has done, I whole heartedly support these changes:  intellectual property for plant varieties and biotechnology and continuing freedom for capital to look for productive innovation.  I must support the classical conception of liberalism with which these institutional actions were associated.   I do not exclude some other justifications for government actions, but I must support the variety of liberalism which accepts property ownership. 

Now what does that say about conservatism and whether I am one or not?  Whether a person is a conservative or not must depend on the definition of conservative.  When referring to politics and society, the relevant definition is “Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/conservative). 

Russell Kirk asserted that there were 6 central ideas which constitute conservatism:

Hayek defines his objection to conservatism as follows:

I think that you will agree that there are enough similarities to establish that Hayek knew a conservative when he saw one.  At first it might seem that classical liberals and Kirk would agree on the role of property, but even here there is a fundamental difference.  Conservatives are interested in property as a means to preserve the social order.  Classical liberals are interested in property as protection against the arbitrary authority of government, including the very aristocracy which conservatives would like to preserve.

I am sure that American conservatives are attracted to the world conservative because they think of themselves as conserving the 19th century American heritage.  Clearly some American social conservatives come closer to matching these characteristics than the bulk of our political right, but I think that the word conservative has come to be overused and I don’t want to use it for myself. 

I am with Abraham Lincoln, Karl Popper and Hayek in being progressive, but neither radicle nor conservative9. I am more in favor of social justice than Hayek, but still aware that governments expressing good intentions will sometimes do unwise things, and that good intentions, real or only announced, are not enough to justify policies which turn out wrong.

It might seem backward to look to such old history for justification for a label for today, but I also believe that one can best evaluate change based on outcomes although we are never quite sure that we can determine what outcomes will be. That is a justification for careful progress not for the paralysis of conservatism.  But evaluation based on outcomes means that one needs to look to history.

One of the most convincing arguments which Hayek makes for the adoption of classical liberalism rather than conservatism, is that the direction of change under conservatism is usually determined by where the believers in social justice want to go.  Conservatives just move more slowly.  A focus on liberty can take one in a different direction.   The change in the seed industry between the 1980’s and the 2000’s occurred in response to the institutional changes which occurred back then.  These regulatory changes show that regulation based on classical liberalism works to increase agricultural productivity10.   

Paul Christensen
Christensen Consulting

1 Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 9. (http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fed09.htm)

2 The Conservative Mind: form Burk to Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition Regnery Publishing, 1985. Russell Kirk is hard to read, but his understanding of his subject is impressive.

3 Gerald Gaus and  Shane D. Courtland Liberalism.  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/ .  This is also hard to read for those without a background in philosophy.

4 F. A. Hayek  and Milton Friedman (Introduction). The Road to Serfdom: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition;  University of Chicago Press, 1994

5 ‘Liberalism’ in his New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1978 p. 149.

6 Other swings occurred: during the administration of Calvin Coolidge; after WWII when the dangers of communalism were fresh on the minds many; and in the mid 1990’s when there was a reaction against the classical liberalism of the Regan era.

7 Diamond v. Chakrabarty,1980

9 Popper and Hayek are associated with the Austrian School of economics.  I find that it is more fruitful to describe the Austrian economists as philosophers,  although the philosophical community does really claim them.  Another possible member was the Managerial Guru, Peter F. Drucker.  Drucker is reported to have influenced Bill Gates and Jack Welch (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/11/AR2005111101938.html)

10 Environmentalists will point out the environmental cost.  An important part of the environmental movement can be described as conservative.    


Key Words: seed, regulation, seed industry regulatory, Busienss, liberal, Conservative, Christensen, biotechnology, Intellectual property, variety, European, certification, regulatory, Europe.