Conservatism

Hierarchy and organic society - part 1

  • The term ‘organic society’ refers to a belief, which became entrenched in traditional conservative thought in the latter part of the 19th century.
  • It was a reaction against the rise of liberal individualism.
  • It proposes that society is more than merely a collection of individuals, but it is a single entity.
  • We are connected to each other through our humanity and common membership of community.
  • Organic society is seen as a reality, which is superior to our own, individual interests.
  • The ideal organic society – where goals and aspirations of individuals coincide with the goals of the whole society. 1980s – Margaret Thatcher famously challenged this remarking that there “is no such thing as society”,implying that the goals of individuals are superior to those of society as a whole.
  • Traditional conservatives believe that there is a ‘natural’ order into which each individual fits.
  • It is normal and natural that society should be divided by a number of strata.
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Hierarchy and organic society - part 2

  • The very rigid feudal system had long since disappeared, but there remained a belief that some kind of class system was inevitable.
  • Hierarchy like this supports organic society in that it creates an order and stability, which the individualistic society lacks.
  • Different parts of the hierarchy have different roles that complement each other.
  • This implies inequality, but an ordered inequality, and one in which those at the upper levels of the hierarchy are expected to take responsibility for the welfare of the lower orders – noblesse oblige.
  • The idea of hierarchy now appears largely outdated, but the organic society remains a key idea for many conservatives, not least some of the supporters of David Cameron’s style of conservatism.
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Individualism - part 1

  • This is a difficult conservative principle to define.
  • It has lost much of its value and distinctiveness since it is a value that is now shared with liberals, most European democratic parties and the British Labour Party.
  • Individual liberty – a fundamentally liberal principle, concerns mainly an absence of external restraint. It refers to the extent to which our activities as individuals or groups, may be constrained by laws, customs or a moral code. I.e. in Western democracies the right to freedom of worship.
  • Individualism – is a more positive concept and refers to choice, opportunity and self-fulfilment.
  • First individualism suggests that each individual and household should be presented with the widest possible range of choices and opportunities.
  • The state should restrict such choices as little as possible, providing a link with liberal freedom.
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Individualism - part 2

  • Individualism also implies a sense of privacy and for conservatives private life is not the concern of the state. To conservatives, a strong barrier should be preserved between the public and private or individual spheres.
  • For conservatives, the individual can best flourish in a stable social, moral and economic environment.
  • The continuity provided by these gives the necessary scenery in which individuals can best play their roles securely.
  • Michael Oakeshott describes such a society as nomocratic, one where people enjoy shared morality, values, and beliefs thus creating fertile ground for individualism.
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Inequality

  • The idea that humankind is naturally divided into a hierarchy is taken as natural and inevitable.
  • Conservatives gradually modified this view of the natural structure of society as it was becoming clear that society was more fluid than it had ever been and people had begun to view themselves as individuals rather than members of a social class.
  • By the 1980’s conservatives had abandoned their views of a hierarchical society, but held onto the belief that individuals are unequal in terms of their abilities and potentialities. This view is shared by both conservatives and liberals.
  • Conservatives have emphasized their belief in a natural inequality in response to socialist ideas.
  • The socialist objective of creating more social and economic equality is seen by conservatives as a completely artificial aspiration, unnatural to society.
  • They suggest that inequality is a positive aspect of society since it creates competition and dynamism.
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Human Nature - part 1

  • This is the most fundamental value of conservatism.
  • The deepest conservatives take the view that human kind is born with original sin and must therefore remain severely flawed in character. They will never be able to achieve perfection. The religious nature of modern US conservatism has seen a restoration of this view.
  • Individuals are not driven by reason, but by basic appetites. These include the desire for physical prosperity, for property, for power and to avoid deprivation.
  • Human nature is ever changing as the nature of society itself is changing.
  • There may be periods when people mostly crave freedom and the pursuit of individualism, while at other times they may be fearful and crave security and welfare.
  • It’s a conservative tradition to see people as untrustworthy, self-seeking and generally feckless.
  • This leads to the conclusion that humankind is in need of firm government. The relationship between the government and the people should be similar to that between a parent and a child – paternalism.
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Human Nature - part 2

  • The conservative view of human nature has a number of implications – i.e. in law and order conservatives believe that the causes of crime and disorder lie with the individual. This opposes the liberal view that crime and disorder is the result of economic and social deprivation.
  • If there is excess of popular democracy, the country is likely to be poorly governed.
  • The conservative view of representation is that governments should not slavishly follow the fluctuating desires and demands of the people, but should use their wise judgment to serve the best interests of the whole community.
  • In a modern context this is reflected in the conservative suspicion of the referendum mechanism, although recently the British Conservative Party has supported the use of referendums in some circumstances, i.e. the current plans to hold an EU membership referendum in 2017.
  • Margaret Thatcher’s policies of the 1980’s sought to unlock what she saw as humankind’s natural desire to be free from the ‘shackles of government’ to pursue individual goals and to compete with orders in search of prosperity.
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Order and authority - part 1

  • The conservative view is clear and stands in opposition to the beliefs of liberals and socialists that stress humankind’s social nature and its preference for the collective rather than personal goals.
  • Conservatives affirm that humankind’s most basic need is for order and security.
  • Hobbes and Burke – individuals have a desire to be free and exercise all the rights, as well as being intensely competitive and self-seeking.
  • If allowed to flourish society would become ‘nasty, brutish and short’ – Leviathan, 1651.
  • In practice, people would consider themselves to be in competition with every other person and therefore live in fear of the results of that restless society.
  • Hobbes believed that humankind would choose to sacrifice much of its freedom and rights in favour of a much securer existence.
  • The only way to ensure this was to allow an absolute ruler to govern and protect us from each other.
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Order and authority - part 2

  • Since Hobbes, conservatives have preferred strong authority and have tended to favour the community’s need for security over the rights of individuals.
  • Critics have suggested that traditional conservatives were authoritarian – preferring state power to the freedom of citizens.
  • Since Burke, conservatives have always erred on the side of caution and preserving order until Margaret Thatcher.
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Tradition and preservation - part 1

  • Conservatives preference for the preservation of tradition is closely related to their desire for public order.
  • When we refer to tradition, we mean both traditional institutions such as the monarchy, established Church, political constitution, as well as traditional values such as marriage, the importance of family, religion and established morality. This attitude traces back to Burke.
  • To Burke, the greatest crime of the French revolutionaries was to abandon all traditional forms of authority that had stood the test of time.
  • The fact that values and institutions have survived, argue conservatives in general, and is a testament to their quality.
  • Traditions bring to the contemporary society some of the best aspects of past societies.
  • G.K Chesterton called tradition the ‘democracy of the dead’ because it allows the wisdom of previous generations to be involved in the activities of current society.
  • Typical example – the monarchy. If the monarchy endures in its traditional form the people will retain a sense of security and continuity amid the turmoil.
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Tradition and preservation - part 2

  • Similar view on the principle of family – this helps each generation hold onto a lasting set of values in an ever-changing world, thus giving them a sense of security.
  • Recently, David Cameron’s support of gay marriage emphasizes the traditional principle of marriage, when it was successfully passed into law through Commons by 366 to 161.
  • Modern conservatism has largely ignored this importance since the 1980’s. It has embraced new social theories such as monetarism, privatization and opposition to the dependency culture, and has attacked traditional institutions such as the Church of England.
  • There is still strong support for traditional institutions in US and French conservatism, which has proved resistant to ‘excessive’ social reform.
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Libertarianism and authoritarianism - part 1

  • Libertarianism – political philosophy advocating minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens.
  • Authoritarianism – where a ruler is an absolute dictator with no restrictions from constitutions, laws or opposition etc.
  • Social conservatives – a faction of conservatism that remains more liberal and progressive in its outlook.
  • Social conservatives retain some values of traditional ‘one nation’ conservatism that include:
  • Society is organic – rejecting the New Right neo-liberal perspective that saw society as little more than a collection of individuals.
  • They retain the traditional value of family and its importance.
  • Remain sceptical of excessive European integration.
  • Suspicious of constitutional reform.
  • Remain largely authoritarian in their approach to many law and order issues, higher value on order than personal liberty.
  • However, social conservatives do in fact consider themselves to be reformers:
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Libertarianism and authoritarianism - part 2

  • Argue that social reform is a legitimate function, supporting the importance of education, welfare systems and social services. They support Labour’s policies of providing a wide degree of choice in educational provision.
  • They accept different forms of family and lifestyle – supporting gay marriage and same-sex relationships.
  • They accept the reality of a multi-cultural society and promote equal opportunities for all minority groups as long as they are willing to adopt a British identity in addition to their own.
  • Promote further involvement of the private sector in service provisions.
  • Remain authoritarian in their approach to serious crime, but accept the need for more creative non-custodial ways of dealing with mild and persistent crime.
  • Neo-classical economics – an example of libertarianism
  • Alfred Marshall proposed in the early 20th century that the state should intervene solely to control currency and public finances so as to maintain stability – avoiding excessive inflation, and that the economy would always bring full employment and growth due to its internal mechanisms.
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Libertarianism and authoritarianism - part 3

  • In the 1980’s conservatives rediscovered this and renamed them ‘monetarism’. Margaret Thatcher was first to experiment when she was faced with a severely depressed economy.
  • She argued high inflation and unemployment resulted from excess government intervention.
  • She refused to intervene and the economy recovered – albeit temporarily.
  • Ronald Reagan adopted a similar approach and had the same results.
  • This marked the establishment of the New Right
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Opposition to ideology

  • Conservatism changes its character according to the dominant ideology it is resisting at any given time.
  • The movement’s opposition to ideologies in general runs deeper than merely a suspicion of radical change.
  • Oakeshott’s view – societies should not be directed towards specific social goals as this has implications for anti-ideology.
  • Most ideologies propose an ideal form of society and are dedicated to working towards it – to conservatives this is seen as contrived and artificial.
  • Conservatives see no sense of social progress from this, but this isn’t to say they oppose social improvement.
  • They argue that in working in accordance with the emotions and traditions of the people is a worthwhile goal.
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Private property - part 1

  • For much of the 19th century conservatives feared the rise of the property-owning middle classes.
  • This was because they believed the middle classes would sweep away traditional authority by using their vast economic wealth to wield political power.
  • Following from the Disraelian era the British Tories accepted that they too much incorporate the interests of property owners.
  • As the growing property-owning classes required a political force to hold back the rise of working-class movements, mainly socialism, conservatism became a fundamentally middle-class tradition.
  • Defence of property has included opposition to the introduction of common ownership, i.e. nationalization, resistance to high property taxes, i.e. Thatcher attempting to replace local property rates with a non-property-based poll tax in 1988.
  • Heavy stress on law and order – since high crime levels tend to mostly affect private property.
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Private property - part 2

  • In much of Europe conservative parties also took up the cause of small farmers and business owners.
  • Clearest example of conservative support for private property comes from Thatcher.
  • Shortly after she came to power she announced an initiative known as the ‘right to buy’, whereby tenants in council-owned housing would be given the opportunity to purchase their own houses on preferential terms.
  • She believed that owning property or shares in businesses would give people a stake in society and promote a sense of responsibility.
  • Socialists, who have a strong attachment to collective ownership of low-cost housing, opposed it.
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Pragmatism

  • Pragmatism – pragmatists believe that philosophy should take the methods and insights of modern science and society into account before implementing radical policy.
  • Conservatives are, above all, pragmatists.
  • Oakeshott – particularly advocated a pragmatic approach. He asserted that politics should be ‘a conversation not an argument’. He meant that political action should never be the result of conflict over political dogma and theories.
  • Instead it should be the result of a more gentle relationship between government and the governed.
  • A good conservative politician should engage in a relationship with the people that would allow him or her to reach the decisions based on the ‘imitations and traditions’ of the community.
  • Pragmatism implies a flexible approach to politics: an understanding of what is best for the people, what is acceptable to them and what will preserve a stable society.
  • 1950’s example – a series of moderate Conservative governments in the UK were confronted with a number of radical reforms that had been implemented by the Labour governments of 1945-51.
  • The conservatives reached a pragmatic decision to retain Labour’s radical initiatives.
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