Conservatism and Liberalism

Friedrich Hayek

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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5 Responses to Conservatism and Liberalism

  1. allan pond says:

    As liberalism has moved from moral suasion to state imposition, as they have done in many ways, conservatives have become more distanced and opposed. But of course both doctrines come out of the Christian emphasis on the individual as a locus of moral considerability and both share the emphasis on the rule of law as the binding of Leviathan.

  2. allan pond says:

    sorry I should have added that the only bit I slightly dissent from is your claim that all liberals are ‘perfectionsists’ surely neither Berlin, or for that matter Rawls can be accused of this ?

    • Peter King says:

      Allan, thanks for your comments. In answer to your second comment, I would suggest that Rawls was a perfectionist. Berlin, certainly was not, but he was also not a very typical liberal – he was too ready – and able – to se the good in other arguments.

      • allan pond says:

        peter, I do suppose it depends on how one is defining ‘perfectionism’ but in Theory of Justice Rawls explicitly dissents from what he terms perfectionist definitions of Liberalism, in particular Utilitarianism and Mill. I would have thought he is much more similar to Berlin in his defense of what he calls ‘reasonable pluralism’ though of course in later works he did tend to move towards a more communitarian view so maybe he can then be seen as also becoming more perfectionist. Berlin always identified himself as a liberal, but you are right he is not typical of the modern species. I would also have mentioned John Gray in this list with his agonistic liberalism but he occupies quite a unique position in contemporary thought so he is not easy to categorise.

        • Peter King says:

          Allan, I would say that Rawls is a perfectionist in effect if not in intent: his liberal theory of justice is surely perfectionist. Gray is an interesting case – a sort of conservative, now often taken simply as a miserablist. I took a lot from his work on Berlin, particularly the discussion on agonism. I now see this as one of the most important elements in English conservatism as exemplified by Oakeshott and his idea that the purpose of government is to hold the balance between conflicting and contradictory interests. Also, there are some who consider – I can’t remember the reference, but I will dig it out – who see Berlin as a reactionary, seeing rather too much to like in de Maistre in particular.

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