Conservatism

  • Classical Conservatism
  • Contemporary North America Conservatism
    • Traditional Conservatism
    • Individualist Conservatism
    • Neo-Conservatism
    • Social/Religious Conservatism

Key Ideas

  • Differences between early or classical conservatives and self-proclaimed conservatives of recent years
  • Opposed to “social engineering” of society by society, social groups, or government
    • Humans are imperfect & no structure can make them perfect
  • Government has very limited or particular role in society
  • Cautious approach to change — preferable to keep traditions
  • Religious/divine aspect
  • Inequality is a necessary fact of life

Classical Conservatism

  • Sought to preserve some form of aristocratic society that was under attack by liberalism
  • Defended traditional social hierarchy
  • Insisted on the need for strong enough state to restrain people’s passions
  • Skeptical of attempts to promote individual freedom
  • Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Classical Conservatism: Burke

  • Basis of the political ideas of conservatism
  • Historical situation
    • Developed his views in the heat of the French Revolution
    • 1788-89 many observers in England hailed it as great for the cause of liberty
    • Burke saw it as a dangerous, threatening enterprise
  • Key Books
    • 1790: Reflections on the Revolution in France
    • Only incidentally about France
    • More about the British liberals/radicals who would like to follow in France’s revolutionary footsteps
  • Ideas:
    • Humans are not rational, but rules by passions and desires
    • About politics:
      • Not a science, but an imprecise art
      • You can try to rationalize & remake politics and society = terrible consequences inevitable
      • Goal: order & stability
    • Concerning society:
      • Opposed liberal’s “atomistic conception of humans and society”
      • Criticized Locke’s liberal view of society
      • Organic: political society is a living and changing organism, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
      • Society is about intergenerational connected-ness, not a social contract
      • Society has a “social fabric”: woven together, they are strong and beautiful, and may needs patching & repair, but do NOT rip it ALL up
      • Elitist: believes there are natural aristocrats; inequality among people is a fact of life
    • Role of state/government:
      • Government is to provide for human shortcomings: restrain passions, interests
      • State must be rooted in customs and traditions of the people to be stable
      • The people, through time, acquire the habit of obeying it
      • Cannot change this lightly or easily
      • No one best form to government: must reflect the particular history, habits of a particular people, serve their particular needs
    • Conception of Freedom:
      • Good only if controlled and put to good use
      • People freed from all legal and traditional restraints can wreak chaos
      • Negative freedom: individuals should be free to pursue their goals, but when their goals threaten the social order, freedom must be restricted
      • * Society and Order come before individual freedom *
    • Private property is a necessary, stabilising and conservative force in society
      • People who own property, especially land, will have strong attachments to the society and government that protect their property
      • Does not share Locke’s interest in ensuring that every one can create their own property

Conservatism: 1800s

  • Burkean classical conservatives: want to preserve the traditional features of existing society through cautious reform
  • Reactionary conservatives: wanted to turn back the clock on reform of aristocratic order of society
  • Cultural Conservatives:
    • Believed greatest threat to English society came from the Industrial Revolution
    • English conservatives concerned to protect traditional agricultural ways of life from the ravages of industry and commerce.

Contemporary North American Conservatism

  • Conservatism in North America primarily sides with a laissez-faire capitalist economy & anti-communist
  • Conservatism in North America is NOT rooted in Burkean classical conservatism, but in Classical liberalism (Locke & Smith)
  • 3 types of conservatives:
    • 1. Traditional
    • 2. Neoconservatism
    • 3. Religious Right
  • 1. Traditional Conservatism (Burkean)
    • Not very common in North America
    • “Toryism”
    • Additions to Burke’s ideas:
      • Capitalism can dissolve the web of traditional relationships, so government must limit the economic competition of capitalism to preserve society
      • Elite has a responsibility to shepherd society and to assist the poor
  • 2. Neo-Conservatism
    • Also called: Individualist Conservatism, Libertarian, Fiscal Conservatives, Social Darwinists
    • North America and Western Europe
      • Who: Robert Nozick, Margaret Thatcher , Thomas Sewell, Irving Kristol, Ronald Reagan,
    • Differences from Traditional Conservatives:
      • Society is rough and tumble competitive marketplace
      • Rugged individualism: people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps
      • Freedom = compete, especially in the market
      • Markets over society
      • Drastically reduce government:
      • Privatize public holdings
      • Cut (if not eliminate) government programs
      • Deregulate: remove state regulations designed to limit corporate actions
      • Taxes lowered, flattened, or eliminated
      • Inequality caused by capitalism = naturally resulting from competition, no need to rectify
      • Minimal government : only help people become independent and self-sufficient
    • Disagree with social/religious conservatives about intervening in the social affairs of people
  • 3. Social/Religious Conservatives
    • Christian fundamentalists , reactionaries
    • Who: Charles Krauthammer , Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart
    • Against the dangers of “Godless/atheistic communism”, “anti-traditional family feminism”, “sexual deviants”, “bleeding-heart liberals”, “anti-Christian heresy”, etc.
    • Reaction against the changes the social changes of the 1960s-70s:
      • Free speech movement on university campuses
      • Women’s movement
      • Civil rights movement
      • Environmental movement
      • Antiwar protests
      • Urban riots
    • Sees itself as rooted in the moral code of Christian fundamentalism: Bible is to be read literally, not symbolically
    • Seek less government intervention in economy, but want large, active government in other, social spheres of life:
      • ban abortion
      • set aside time for prayer in public schools
      • restrict or outlaw certain sexual activities
      • purge school and public libraries of materials they regard as morally offensive

Conservatism & Our Criteria

  • Human Nature
    • Society/community = focus
    • Self-interested, but needs to restrained
    • Ruled by passions and desires not reason
    • Naturally flawed & hierarchical
  • Nature of Society
    • “Social fabric” = woven community
    • Community is more important than the individual
    • Conception of Freedom
    • negative — freedom from interference
  • Understanding of Justice
    • Equality before the law
    • Never can achieve just society
    • Traditional: elite’s duty to assist the least well off
    • Neo-Conservatives: competitive system produces just results
    • Social/Religious: linked to Biblical teachings
  • Conception of the State/Government
    • Limited role: restraint
    • Classical conservatives: intervene in economy to prevent unraveling social fabric

Social/religious: intervene in society to prevent unravelling social fabric

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