Conservatism arose as a reaction to political, social, economic change in the late 18th__ __century. Edmund Burke and others regretted the events of the French Revolution, and the (as he saw it) disorder and chaos that had followed it. Traditional conservatism is therefore a defence of the ideas of hierarchy and paternalism, and of the established order. Traditional conservatives support the concept of the organic society, and that humans should not therefore attempt to reform society as those involved in the French Revolution had attempted to do. Reform instead should be pragmatic, not principled or ideological. If it is not, the breakdown of society may follow. Traditional conservatives also support the idea that society is naturally hierarchical, and that people should therefore be rewarded differently (in pay and status) depending on what position they are in in the hierarchy.
Early traditional conservatives saw the aristocracy as the ‘natural’ leaders of society, due to the fact that they had been raised to be leaders and assume positions of authority. This led to the belief in noblesse oblige, that the aristocracy had a duty to care for the less fortunate in society, as they were the only ones who could. This is a form of ‘soft’ paternalism, where those below accept that the natural leaders of society are those best equipped to act in everyone’s best interests.
One Nation conservatism
This aspect of conservatism is most closely associated with Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist and UK Prime Minster (1804-81). Disraeli was concerned about the effects of early industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism, chiefly that Britain was at risk of becoming divided into ‘two nations’- the rich and the poor. Unrestrained capitalism could lead to selfish individualism, weakening the sense of responsibility people have to each other. He suggested that conservatism should renew its commitment to those in authority helping those better off. This was partly based on the moral idea of noblesse oblige, that the ‘price of privilege’ was shouldering responsibility for the least well-off in society. However, there were also practical reasons for this view, which were that, by caring for the least well-off and making sure they were provided for, the chance of the ruling elite being overthrown by the discontented masses in revolution was reduced. This therefore could be seen as another example of prudent ‘change in order to conserve’. Ultimately, preventing revolution is in the interests of the most well-off.
This form of conservatism was most influential in the late 19th__ and early __20th centuries, and was also dominant in the years following the Second World War. This was seen by Conservative Party government’s acceptance of welfarism and support for Keynesian economic intervention. Harold Macmillan further developed these ideas through the ‘middle way’, which tried to balance free-market individualist liberalism against socialist-style collectivism and state planning. One Nation views were largely side-lined during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership- she referred to those who opposed her New Right policies as ‘wets’ (whereas she and her supporters were ‘dries’). David Cameron’s call for ‘compassionate conservatism’ in his early days as Conservative Party leader was also seen as a potential return to One Nation values.
The New Right
This emerged in the 1970s __as a rival tradition to One Nation conservatism. It was a response to the end of the long ‘boom’ in economic progress experienced by the western world partly as a result of Keynesian economics. By the __1970’s western economies were struggling with what became known as ‘stag-flation’, a combination of economic stagnation (lack of economic growth) and rising inflation (caused by large amounts of public spending). At the same time, many conservatives believed that liberal individualism had gone too far in the __1960s __and __1970s __and had created a permissive culture of low morality and instability. This period created a movement within conservatism based around a combination of traditional conservative ideals and classical liberal economics. The New Right has been seen as two ideological theories bound together- the liberal New Right (neo-liberalism) and the conservative New Right (Neo-conservatism).
The liberal new right can be seen as a meeting of the conservative and classical liberal ideologies. It developed as a response to what was argued as the failure of Keynesian economics in the 1970s. It is a restated case in support of the free market and therefore rejects the use of the state – it can be summed up in terms of ‘public bad, private good’. The state is regarded as a realm of coercion and of a lack of freedom. This form of libertarian economic thinking states that the free market will work for the good of all.
Liberal new right thinking, based on the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, has built upon the free market ideas of economist Adam Smith. They argued that by the __1970s __it was clear that the state could not effectively manage supply and demand efficiently and therefore provide general prosperity. As a result, the state should be minimalized and the economy dominated by free market thinking. This argues that the market acts as a central and organic nervous system that allows resources to be channelled where they are wanted and needed through the powers of supply and demand. This argument suggests that the state is the cause of economic problems due to its intervention in the market, creating inefficiency.
Friedman argued that Keynesian economics was causing problems with the economy. He claimed that by focusing on creating demand and therefore jobs and employment, Keynesianism had created a more dangerous economic problem- inflation. The idea was that by creating employment and through rising demand prices had risen too sharply and quality had dropped, leading to inflation and economic failure. He argued that there was a natural rate of unemployment in a healthy economy. If the state tried to remove this, the action would create a price rise and lead to a drop in the value of money (inflation). Therefore, the New Right neoliberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Reagan governments allowed unemployment to rise by cutting public spending and subsidies to businesses. Friedman claimed that inflation was the most dangerous result because if people lost faith in their ability to create wealth (make money) they would not take part in economic activity; this would lessen freedom and undermine society. New Right liberal economic thinking also opposed the so called ‘mixed economy’ of some state owned industries and businesses. They claimed that if a business is state owned it reduces competition and the need to make profit (profit motive); this therefore makes it less efficient. This led to a policy of privatisation of state owned industries and businesses (for example, British Telecom, British Rail, British Steel).
New Right economic thinking argued that the supply side of the economy was important – this means that they wanted conditions that allowed producers to produce (not necessarily consumers to consume) leading to competition and natural demand levels. The way to achieve this was to lower levels of direct taxation, both personal and business.
The New Right was not opposed to state managed economics on purely economic grounds but also because of their support for classical individual freedom. They claimed to be defending individual freedom against ‘creeping collectivism’ (joint or communal ownership). The state is seen as the main enemy of personal freedom and therefore the only way to increase individual freedom is to ‘roll back the state’. Apart from economic management and ownership by the state this also means a return to ‘self-help’ or ‘social Darwinism’. They make economic and moral arguments against welfare. Economically they argue that welfare causes greater taxation and public spending which leads to inflation and inefficiency. Morally they argue that welfare creates a culture of dependency, the idea that if there is a safety net there will be no desire to work to achieve and therefore it will create idleness. They claim that this robs people of their motivation and self-respect and they return to the classical liberal idea of the ‘undeserving poor’ who contribute nothing to society and therefore should not be entitled to anything in return. Thatcher took this idea further when she claimed that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Murray agreed with Thatcher and claimed that welfare relieves a woman of the need to pair with a bread-winning man and therefore results in an underclass of single mothers and fatherless children who have no motivation to work. The final moral justification of the free market is put forward by Robert Nozick. He argues that taxation and redistribution through public spending is a violation of free property rights. He claimed that as long as a person had acquired their wealth legally any attempt to tax it and redistribute it amounted to ‘legalised theft’ against the individual.