The contradictions of conservatism?

I just don’t see how you can say that economically people should be as free as they can to do the things they want unhindered by the State, but socially the State should be telling them what’s best and how they should structure their lives. It would actually be refreshing for a conservative to just say, “yeah, there is an ideological contradiction, but so what”.

commenter Christian last week.

It has often been claimed that social conservatism and economic liberalism are contradictory. Christian seems here to be saying there is a logical contradiction on display, but I think conservatives can fairly easily side-step this criticism. It would only be valid if conservatives defend markets as institutions of freedom. But there is also a utilitarian defence of markets, which is that economic freedom is good because it produces more wealth than any other system. Social democrats could defend markets for the same reason.

At least on the surface, another version of this criticism is harder for conservatives to escape. This is a sociological argument; that the energy of the market is at odds with the conservative desire for order and stability. In her recent Quarterly Essay, Judy Brett puts it this way:

Social conservatism and economic liberalism are inherently in tension with each other. Since the industrial revolution, markets and technology have been disrupting people’s lives, rendering their skills and values obsolete, forcing them out of business and out of work, and across the seas in search of better lives.

At one level, most of this is obviously true. The ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism has consigned many industries and occupations to memory, and many others operate with a fraction of the workforce they once had. But where in history is the counter-factual of long-term happy stability? Today some people worry about the sack (though not nearly as many as social democrats would have us believe), but before the industrial revolution they worried about famine, diseases now easily prevented or cured, and violence that was usually far worse than found in even high-crime modern capitalist societies.

The one not so obviously true part of Brett’s analysis is the bit about capitalism forcing people across the seas in search of better lives. In reality, most people have fled not capitalist turmoil but war, oppression and the poverty that exists when countries don’t have proper capitalist institutions. Liberal capitalist democracies do have a lot of change, but over the last 200 years, and especially the last 60 years, positive changes have vastly exceeded negative changes for most people.

In her Quarterly Essay, Brett goes on to defend unions and industrial relations regulation as a way of ‘giving ordinary people some security and control in their working lives’. Conservatives could argue that the institutions they have most emphasised – family, church, voluntary associations, nation, monarchy – do much the same thing, providing some material and emotional continuity amidst inevitable change.

Modern social democrats and conservatives have, I think, much the same relationship to economic liberalism. The both want the material benefits it brings and the opportunities it creates, while still offering some sanctuary from the market. Given the nature of modern Western societies, which are invariably a mix of liberal, conservative and social democratic institutions, the three look more complementary than contradictory.

26 thoughts on “The contradictions of conservatism?

  1. I think the problem is that often conservatives do defend markets as institutions of freedom rather than base their views on a utilitarian perspective. When two champions of conservatism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were pushing the Soviet Union to end communist domination over Eastern Europe and let those countries move towards western style free market democracies, I don’t think they were doing it from the utilitarian perspective – I actually think that they were doing it because they knew that free markets will provide for free societies. It’s quite evident in all the language they used at the time. Conservatives talk about “freedom” all the time, if they were arguing from a utilitarian perspective then “freedom” wouldn’t be in their vocabulary – They would constantly be talking about the greatest good for the greatest number but I suppose it doesn’t sound as good as freedom!


  2. Brett’s para could be re-written along the lines that the increased prosperity, improved transport and other options available after the industrial revolution gave people the chance to advance their lives in all sorts of way, including going overseas…

    A lot depends on what is meant by “social conservatism”. I am a social conservative in some ways, wanting to maintain decent and civilised traditions, like free speech, freedom of association, worship, trade etc also honesty, civility, compassion, community service, charity and enterprise. That does not mean that I want the state to legislate to enforce the moral principles that I find desirable.

    It may have been Mark Cooray who used the term “evolutionary conservatism” to capture the idea of keeping valuable traditions and institutions while experimenting, testing, modifying and remaining open to desirable reforms, rather than change for the sake of it.


  3. I don’t think wanting free speech, free worship, honesty, civility, compassion, community service and charity are things that make you a social conservative. I support and believe all those things, as do most social democrats (at least the heaps that I know), but that does not make me a social conservative. And I think free trade and free enterprise are not linked with whether somebody is a social conservative or not.

    I don’t mind this term by Mark Cooray and I suppose it is refashioning of conservatism to account for the past record of many conservatives who simply made a point of trying to hinder any change to the status quo full stop (and yes social democrats have been guilty of doing that in the past too of course), but in the end it is fairly vague and it all depends on how you define “valuable traditions and institutions” and other such terms – Just because you don’t believe in change for the sake of it doesn’t make you a conservative.


  4. Christian
    Were Reagan and Thatcher conservatives in the Australian or generic sense of the word? I don’t think so. Don’t let nominal terms fool you. Reagan really didn’t give a toss about abortion for instance, though he suckered the Christian right into voting for him. Occasionally he had to go along with them on certain things but he was a twice divorced Hollywood actor. he got his start in ‘conservatve’ politics as anti-communist and shill for General Motors. He was liberal on immigration and signed one of the first illegal immigration amnesties.

    Thatcher was definitely not a conservative because the real conservatives in the Tory party, the stuffy grandees were upset with her, and complained about how her Cabinet had more Estonians than Etonians. They also complained about the radicalism of her policies. She had a certain ‘little Englander’ jingoism e.g. her Falklands policy but that was the extent of her conservatism.


  5. The biggest internal contradiction of all is found in people who advocate economic liberalism (i.e. little or no government intervention in markets) but want governments to impose a particular set of moral values on their citizens (such as on abortion or sexual preferences). Moral intervention on issues which do not affect third parties or the stability of society has no rationale. It is a form of despotism which is totally and unambiguously incompatible with liberalism.


  6. “But there is also a utilitarian defence of markets, which is that economic freedom is good because it produces more wealth than any other system.”

    And what about the contradiction between utilitarianism and whatever moral theory is used to justify social conservatism?


  7. Fred – Though of course the whole point of the anti-abortion case is that they do believe it affects third parties, ie the unborn child (if we count mother and abortionist as parties one and two). No libertarian supports murder, as anti-abortionists see it.


  8. Greg – I probably should have said ‘instrumentalist’ or something like that rather than ‘utilitarian’. Conservatives don’t need overarching moral theories; it is sufficient that certain institutions and practices have shown themselves to be beneficial over time.


  9. I think Jason has a good point. I am (re)reading Nigel Lawson’s memoirs and I can’t see too many instances where Margaret Thatcher promoted social conservatism. Both Thatcher and Reagan were strongly anti-Communist but they did not seek to curb individual freedom of speech, etc.


  10. The biggest internal contradiction of all is found in people who advocate economic liberalism […] but want governments to impose a particular set of moral values on their citizens

    Not necessarily, if conservatives see free markets as having positive moral effects on citizens. From the dustcover of a Roger Scruton book: “[Conservatism’s] conceptions of society, law and citizenship regard the individual not as the premise but as the conclusion of politics.” Conservatives generally see nations as “moral communities”, so there is no real distinction between interventions which “impose a particular set of moral values” and those which are (supposedly) value-free or value-neutral.

    The one not so obviously true part of Brett’s analysis is the bit about capitalism forcing people across the seas in search of better lives.

    It is true, just in the opposite direction to the one she was implying: movements have been from stagnant command economies to vigorous, thriving lands of opportunity like Australia and the US.


  11. “Conservatives don’t need overarching moral theories; it is sufficient that certain institutions and practices have shown themselves to be beneficial over time.”

    Which begs the question of what is meant by “beneficial” in the first place.

    Conservatives, like everybody else, have to give reasons for their beliefs, but these justifications needn’t be “overarching moral theories”. The question is whether a sound justification of economic liberalism can be given that is not inconsistent with social conservatism, or, if reasons are advanced in support of social conservatism, with these reasons.

    I don’t think that you have demonstrated that this is the case, but then, I am not aware of all the purported justifications for economic liberalism or for social conservatism.


  12. A useful quote from Edmund Burke:

    I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty […] But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.

    Burke seems to have some sympathy towards liberal ideals (e.g. “Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself”). But he also repeatedly stresses that society is a sacrifice, that it restrains men’s passions, that everything involves trade-off and balance, and, most importantly, that reasoning from metaphysical “individual rights” towards an ideal state is bad.

    The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.


  13. Andrew, fair point about abortion, although the “murder” argument is more a moral than than a scientific one.

    In any case, what is the rationale for restricting the legal rights of gays and lesbians? To “protect the institution of the family”? This again is a morally subjective not a scientifically reasoned argument because there is no evidence that giving these people equal rights (without calling it ‘marriage’ perhaps) has any bearing on the willingness or incentive of others to form a traditional family.

    I should add I have no personal interest here, having lots of kids and grand-kids of my own, but it is the sheer moral arrogance that angers me.


  14. Fred – As you know, I think there is a conservative case for gay marriage. But I accept that this is counter-intuitive for many people because it is different from thousands of years of male-female practice. You have to theorise – think about what marriage does in modern society – to realise that gay marriage is a logical extension of marriage’s core modern purpose rather than a corruption of the idea.

    Conservatives in practice have difficulty because homosexuality sits awkwardly with their religous beliefs, and their view of marriage as a religious as well as a legal institution.


  15. It seemed to me in the recent election campaign that Rudd thought himself an “economic conservative” in the sense that he was happy to carry out economically conservative policies only so long as they kept the economy strong (the utilitarian sense). He didn’t actually believe that economically conservative policies were valuable for their freedom enhancing aspects (which differentiates him from many Liberals who believe economic freedom is a good in itself). Given he used to speak about “a thin red line running through all government policies”, I suspect Rudd will happily revert to big spending economically illiberal policies if the economy looks like going belly up.


  16. Ha Ha, as if big government spending would be good for the economy!

    What Jason said on Reagan and Thatcher as conservatives. The term is practically meaningless without reference to particular issues and the use of two or three qualifying terms.

    The good thing about the classical liberal agenda of free trade (and other freedoms) plus the rule of law (including property rights) and a sound moral framework is that it minimises internal contradictions. That does not mean that every issue is easy to resolve but it does mean that there is synergy between the elements so you get multiplier effects as bits of the program are put in place.

    For example free trade has utilitarian justification while freedom is a good in itself. Lower taxation results in more donations to charity. ETc.


  17. Andrew, I have only just seen your opinion piece in On Line Opinion (I either missed the earlier publication in your blog or forgot about it). I strongly endorse your sentiments.


  18. I have two problems with all this discussion.
    First, at one level it is semantic. “Conservative” means different things to different people in different countries. If it has the ordinary meaning of the term, Maggie T was in no way a conservative. I don’t see any value in discussing whether John Howard was conservative, liberal or just boring. I usually end up agreeing with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass.
    Second, and more serious, are the common charges of inconsistency, contradiction and, increasingly, hypocrisy when someone does not buy the whole package of beliefs that are expected to go together. Fred Argy came close to this.
    We all draw lines where we are comfortable and weight values according to our own priorities. I want the smallest possible government and the greatest possible individual freedom. I don’t know or care what label I should wear.


  19. Actually ronnie Raygun signed a very liberaal abortion law as Calfornia governor!

    Fred, a social conservative would argue only people who can have kids should have them which means kids get a father and a mother.

    There is a tension between being an econmic liberal and a social conservative


  20. “I think Jason has a good point. I am (re)reading Nigel Lawson’s memoirs and I can’t see too many instances where Margaret Thatcher promoted social conservatism.”

    The fact that they may have been rhetorically conservative or indeed have actually had a genuine desire to resist any change in the status quo but failed to do so indicates the futility at the heart of the conservative project. I remember reading about Edmund Burke’s palpitations at the time of the French revolution, but we’re all still here and probably the better for it (unless you advocate despotism, enlightened or otherwise)


  21. Though of course the French Revolution meant that quite a few people weren’t still here much earlier than they might have anticipated.


  22. As usual, discussion of conservatism dissolves into problems of definitions. I would not, for example, agree that Burke — the lifelong Whig — was a conservative. A prudential liberal, certainly, but still a liberal who supported the American Revolution in part to restrain the power of the Crown. He and Adam Smith notoriously found they agreed on just about everything: if Burke is a conservative, then so is Smith. If Smith is a liberal, then so is Burke.

    Then there is the perennial problem what it means to be “conservative” in that most dynamic of all human civilizations, Western civilization. A Burkean liberal perhaps?


  23. Andrew, plenty of cultures have recognized same-sex relationships up to an including marriage. Indeed, there have been surreptitious same-sex marriages in Western history. And persecution thereof — Montaigne mentions in his Journals hearing of people being burned alive in Rome in the 1570s for participating in same-sex marriages, with priestly ceremony and all. While the Sifra – the earliest surviving Rabbinical commentary on Leviticus – denounces heathen folk for having men marrying men and women marrying women. The Kama Sutra mentions people of the same-sex marrying each other, and so on.

    There is nothing “natural” about the exclusion of same-sex relationships from law in the monotheist cultures (Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim) — it is the result of deliberate exclusion and persecution, the monotheist war against human sexual variation. Certainly, centuries of monotheist social engineering on this issue is passed off as “natural”, but it ain’t.


  24. lorenzo aka erudito aka mw: Though I don’t think a few examples of same-sex relationships in other cultures long ago causes any real trouble for the conservative argument. Even the paleocons don’t usually look back to the middle ages for precedent, and certainly would not take the Kama Sutra as authority. There is a case against same-sex marriage in Christian doctrine – the main religion of political relevance here, plus as you note other monotheist religions.

    Not of course that I agree with any of this, but once people accept various religious doctrines I can see that opposing same-sex marriage is one of the places they can end up.


  25. Yes, the monotheists have various religious arguments, clearly. I was just pointing out that the claim that same-sex marriage is some modern aberration is false.
    As for “long ago” that rather depends on when and where. C19th Amerindian society is not all that “long ago”. Various African cultures have continued forms thereof until contemporary times. The marriages of “passing women” in the West (including Australia) are also C19th.
    It is a social form that will pop up unless repressed. The point is that, in the monotheist societies, it has been repressed.
    A problem with conservatism is that it is at the mercy of the morally contingent nature of what we inherit. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is an admirable maxim as long as it is realised that just because something has existed for a long time does not mean that it was not, at least for some folk, always broken. Nor based on ways of thinking derived from exclusion, even brutal exclusion, of particular voices.
    Conservatives often claim that, unlike their opponents, they respect human nature. But the claim that human nature is not sexually variant — or at least not properly so — is a denial of human nature both grotesque and oppressive. The rejection and betrayal of gay children it has often engendered being at least as horrible as revolutionary children betraying their parents.


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