Conservatism and Liberalism
Peter King compares and contrasts
Is conservatism compatible with liberalism? Friedrich von Hayek, the great economist and social philosopher who so influenced Mrs Thatcher, thought it was not. Despite his links with the Conservative party, Hayek argued that the emphasis of liberalism was on freedom, while conservatives stressed authority. Accordingly, he argued that despite appearances and without wishing to put off the politicians who looked to him, he was not a conservative. Indeed there are clear differences between conservatism and liberalism and these are based around a number of dichotomies such as authority and autonomy, duty and liberty and order and freedom.
But there are clear overlaps in practice between certain forms of conservatism and liberalism. This might be due to the way in which political parties have developed. As the Liberals became more radical and statist in the 20th century, the Conservative party took over much of the baggage of classical liberalism and accepted markets and a free economy, individual freedom and personal responsibility, the importance of property ownership and the needs of the consumer. This became particularly apparent during the Thatcher period, but David Cameron has also referred to himself as a liberal conservative. Interestingly, the term ‘neo-liberal’ tends to be used by the left not for liberals but for those conservatives – neo-conservatives even – who support free markets and globalisation.
Of course, the support for property has always been intrinsic to conservative thought since before Burke (who was, of course, a Whig and not a Tory), but the support for markets is not something the party of King and Country would necessarily have favoured 150 years ago. But not all conservatives accept the centrality of markets and economic freedom. Roger Scruton has argued that conservatism is not necessarily accepting of capitalism. The old Tory party was anti-capitalist, and favoured agriculture, traditional hierarchies and aristocratic forms of governance.
Many traditional conservatives have been concerned over the destructive nature of liberal policies. Traditional conservatives see laissez-faire as being damaging to treasured institutions, particularly those of the community and the family. They oppose individualism with a form of conservative communitarianism, seeing the former as creating a climate of permissiveness and license that threatens family life and loyalties to traditional hierarchies and established forms of behaviour. This form of traditional existence, they aver, is being replaced by a ‘foreign’ culture of American or Australian television with an emphasis on the low brow and the cult of celebrity.
Free markets and personal freedom have a utility for many conservatives, in that they are more likely to engender and protect the right sorts of institutions such as the family and private property rights. They allow these institutions to flourish free from interference. However, no particular form of economic organisation is essential to conservatism. Conservatives will tend to be more pragmatic and less demanding of theoretical purity in their politics. We can see this with the example of the libertarian philosopher and author of Anarchy State and Utopia, Robert Nozick who was briefly courted by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. The administration was attracted to Nozick’s arguments for the ultra-minimal state and his view that taxation was forced labour. However, they dropped him when they came to understand that his brand of libertarianism included sexual freedom, no immigration controls and the legalisation of all drugs. His libertarianism was far too pure for any conservative, or perhaps any serious politician, to follow. Most politicians will not want to accept the totality of a theoretical platform but to pick and choose, to use influential thinkers when they suit their purpose but to remain somewhat distant in case they become tainted. Politicians might state otherwise, but they do not necessarily seek rigour and consistency in their politics. Thus, it may be that a conservative will accept some elements of the liberal agenda, but do so cautiously and with due trepidation.
There is however one quite fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals, and this is the concept of perfectionism. This is the idea that we can progress to a better form of society based on clear principles. Society can be improved and we can and should strive towards this better place. It may not mean that perfection can be achieved, but there is a clear belief within liberalism, driven by post-Enlightenment thought, that human beings and indeed whole societies can be improved and life made better for all. Liberals will tend to subscribe to this position and see a particular form of social organisation as being legitimate and morally desirable. Other forms of society are less desirable and morally deficient and so the work of the liberal is to create this ideal form of society.
However, the conservative has no such plan. He does not accept perfectionism: human beings are not perfectible, but are considered sinful creatures tainted by their imperfect nature. Therefore conservatives see that we have no alternative but to accept the world as it is. We have no choice but to use what we currently have. We cannot remake the world or wish it away and replace it with something else. The world as we see it is all that there is, and attempts to create a ‘better’ world are fraught with dangers as proven by the Terror of 1793 and the history of communism. This distinction is the key division between the worldview of the conservative and that of the liberal.
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015
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