This is the idea that governing is best done by those who are best equipped to do so, which might be by virtue of birth, inheritance and upbringing. Conservatives 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, conservatives believe 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.
Conservatives see society as a natural thing that humans are part of and cannot be separated from. They think that people only exist as part of their social groupings and respond to all of them. Conservatives, therefore, see freedom differently from, for example, liberals. They think that a person is free when they willingly accept the rights and responsibilities that a society places on them. Negative freedom (the absence of constraints on an individual) does not exist for a conservative as a person can’t be ‘left alone’; they are always part of their society, which operates like a living being. This idea is called ‘organicism’. Leaving people alone leads to a feeling of rootlessness (anomie).
Organicism does not view society as a collection of separate individuals. The ‘whole’ is more than just the sum of its parts. These parts can’t just be removed or rearranged like machine parts, as, like a living organism, you would damage or destroy the whole. Conservatives compare the liberal view of society to a machine and their view as to that of a human body and its separate parts.
Conservatives also see society as having evolved and formed naturally out of necessity. They see the family for example, not as a choice of liberal design, but, as a necessity that people have to have to survive and prosper. The use of the ‘organic’ or ‘living’ metaphor is very conservative in its nature. If you are dealing with a machine, then you can attempt to modify and change it by human design and ingenuity. If you are dealing with a living organism, then it can’t be changed by humans and any attempt to do so is dangerous.
Conservative views on
- Human nature: human beings seen as limited in capacity and flawed. No one person knows the absolute truth, so ideologies attempting to explain existence are to be distrusted. Human nature has both positive and negative aspects. Because of the negatives, there is the need for security and law and order to protect and guard. Society is a vulnerable place and strong legal frameworks are needed to protect humans from one another. Human nature leads people to familiar patterns of life and the tried and tested as opposed to the new and novel.
- State: there is a need for the state to provide law and order and defence. The state is a unifying force to promote national cohesion and unity. The neoliberal element of the New Right has favoured rolling back the state in the economy to become more laissez faire.
- Society: society is organic – a living thing which passes permanent and core values through the ages. As such, society is formed by the principles of tradition, authority and principled morality. Society is a comforting influence for family and group life. In contrast, neoliberals have favoured individual autonomy over the cherishing of society.
- Economy: support for the free market and individual enterprise. If the economy prospers and wealth is created in terms of property, then property owners develop a stake in society and will not rebel. One Nation conservatives support intervention in the economy to avoid upheaval.
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.