Authority / Paternalism

Authority / Paternalism

Conservatives believe that governing is best done by those who are best equipped to do so, which might be by virtue of birth, inheritance and upbringing. They see society as naturally hierarchical and any attempt to introduce equality is not only dangerous but also undesirable. Power, wealth and property are always going to be unequal. Conservatives believe that people are naturally unequal, but, unlike the liberal idea of meritocracy, they think that this inequality runs throughout society. Burke and others believed in the idea of a ‘natural aristocracy’, the idea that everyone in the society has different and separate functions (just like organs in the body) and should not therefore be equal. Some people are natural leaders and should make decisions and others should follow them.

The consequence of this thinking is that inequality is not only natural but also desirable. People with greater privilege also have a greater social responsibility; equality would not make any sense. These beliefs allow conservatives to advocate hierarchy, through a natural position of authority by one person over another. Just like the parent knows what is best for the child, the government knows what is best for the people. This authority develops naturally through human relationships and can only be imposed from above and not granted from below.

This belief in paternalism is not suggesting mindless obedience to authority but is saying that people should have a healthy respect for authority over them as they believe it is good for them. This acceptance of authority does not give those with it the right to abuse those under them, for example a parent abusing a child. They have a duty to care for those they have authority over.

Paternalism is strongly seen in the One Nation tradition, where the state had a responsibility to look after those who were least well-off in society. Such thinking was also popular in the Conservative Party in the 1950s and 60s, when Conservative politicians accepted the responsibility they had to their citizens. The New Right, however, rejects paternalism, suggesting that government intervention in the economy leads to inefficient outcomes for all, and that the welfare state saps people’s motivations and promotes a ‘dependency culture’, where people rely on state ‘handouts’ rather than working for themselves.


Libertarians suggest that when organising society, priority should be given to liberty over any other value (authority, tradition, equality…). Therefore, libertarianism seeks to maximise individual freedom and minimise public authority. This can be done by the promotion of individual rights, laissez-faire (free market) economics, and a minimal state. This has had a strong influence on the liberal New Right, otherwise known as neoliberalism. UK Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan embodied these beliefs in the 1980s. The belief is that the free market is the only way of efficiently delivering goods and services, and that there is a ‘natural’ level of unemployment which governments should not try to intervene in. Controlling inflation is the key task of the government, as this will protect the market economy. This can be achieved through spending cuts.

Neoliberals reject state intervention in the economy, and government (public) ownership of goods and services. If services are provided privately they will be driven by competition and the profit motive, which creates choice for consumers and drives up standards. Therefore, the government should remove barriers to enterprise and production, for example by having low levels of regulation and taxation. This will allow entrepreneurs and businesses to flourish.

Social welfare programmes place a great burden on taxpayers and the state, and so these should be ‘rolled back’, where only a very basic level of support is available for those most in need. This should reduce the ‘dependency culture’, motivating people to help themselves and take responsibility for their own situations. Taxation to fund welfare is nothing more than ‘legalised theft’- the state forcibly taking money from someone to pay someone else.

This leads to a strong defence of private property, which is seen by conservatives as a reflection of merit and hard work. Property is important as it gives people a sense of stability and belonging in society, and they are more likely to respect the property of others. It also gives people a ‘stake’ in society, which contributes to the stability of society as a whole.