Does a ‘conservative’ argument make someone a conservative?

Conservative isn’t a political philosophy. It’s a political position which is more about change (or the desire for none) which picks and chooses ideologies to suit its cause.

– commenter John Humphreys today.

If conservatism was just about change, then it could be found, and is found, in a range of ideologies. In 2006, for example, leftist intellectual David McKnight tried to make a case for parallels between the green political movement and conservatism.

While I argued at the time that a green-conservative political alliance was a fanciful idea, this wasn’t because the greens lack ‘conservative’ attitudes to environmental change. On that subject, there is no group in Australia more conservative than the greens. Indeed, many of them could be classified as reactionaries as well as conservatives, wanting to roll back industrial society as well as preventing it from expanding any further. But on other issues, the greens tend to adopt conventional left-wing goals of greater equality that are not ‘conservative’ in their implications.

Many others on the left take a ‘conservative’ position on some actual or proposed changes. The biggest ‘conservative’ campaign ever in Australia was the anti-WorkChoices campaign led by the unions. A key assumption in the arguments made by opponents of WorkChoices was that existing arrangements were the benchmark of ‘fairness’, even though often these benchmarks were quite anachronistic things like Saturday penalty rates designed for the era of the traditional family of mum at home and dad at work. It was a classic ‘conservative’ argument – we can’t explain why these rates make sense for 21st century teenagers, but they must not change anyway.

When the ACTU asked for comments on why people went to a rally against WorkChoices conservative themes came out, often to do with war and historical legacy:

To protect the rights which our fore fathers fought and rallied to achieve for the average worker. Which John Howard in a couple of sittings at parliament took away and is still taking away making the average worker a slave to the boss. Raux2006

My ancestors fought and some lost their lives fighting for the right of every man woman and child to have the right to be treated with decency, respect and an honest fair go.Larry Foley QLD

This Government has the potential to ruin Australia and the way of life our forefathers fought wars for. Garry O’Day

My fathers, father fought in wars to give us a fair go, good working conditions and fair pay.John WA

In my debate with Andrew Leigh last year, on whether public schools should be privatised, I noted that he ended up taking a quite ‘conservative’ line, arguing that there was no historical precedent for an entirely private school system, and expressing confidence that existing institutions could adapt. Andrew wasn’t very happy with that comment, but almost anyone, regardless of ideology, can end up making ‘conservative’ arguments like these when faced with a radical challenge to the status quo.

So John has a point. But I don’t think it is a point that is necessarily useful to classifying contemporary political movements. The people we call conservatives may be chameleons who change their political colours with the times, but they are part of a conservative political tradition, with each generation of conservatives clearly descended from the one before in overlapping themes, arguments and issues, even if – like in a human family – it may be hard to spot resemblances between the current generation and four or five generations ago.

The not-classified-as-conservative ‘conservative’ forces have other attributes that are more useful in understanding what they are about. The most important thing about the greens is the substantive concern with the environment. The most important thing about the unions is their substantive concern with the interest of workers. Social democrats like Andrew Leigh want greater equality (of opportunity, at least). That in some political contexts they resist change doesn’t make ‘conservative’ a useful way to describe their overall political position, even if it is a reasonable characterisation of some of their arguments.

15 thoughts on “Does a ‘conservative’ argument make someone a conservative?

  1. Conservatives may be chameleons, but they retain a belief that things are the way the are for some reason and that change may well make things worse. To quote Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: “What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational.” Thus ‘conservative’ is a political philosophy. That is the core conservative belief.

    There is a tie to skepticism. If you are skeptical that people understand society as they understand quantum physics you should be very suspicious about grand plans, like Communism, that purport to have a large reasoned scheme that will fix everything.

    Whilst others may adopt conservative arguments when it suits them, as the Green and Union examples you cite, true conservatives should be quiet members of the Liberal Party who question as many ‘big’ changes as possible and question ideologies of all kinds.


  2. I suppose that all people are ‘conservative’ to an extent because of the status quo bias, loss aversion and risk aversion. This status quo bias is particularly a problem for liberal economic reforms because the benefits are almost always invisible whilst the costs are highly visible which simply compounds the problem.


  3. I admire your brave attempt to put people in ideological boxes and I don’t want to put a damper on things because I am really enjoying your posts. But how many people fit neatly in one box or the other?

    Let’s define
    – a conservative as someone who starts with a strong presumption in favour of the status quo,
    – a liberal as someone who gives dominant priority to freedom of the individual,
    – an egalitarian (social democrat?) as someone who likes to give considerable weight to equality of opportunity issues; and
    – an economic rationalist as someone who gives overwhelming priority to economic efficiency.

    I show all four characteristics at times. Although I believe strongly in equality of opportunity, I never ignore efficiency and individual freedom. I treat each case on its merit.

    You really need another dimension to help sort one person out from another. It is one’s view of the effectiveness of governments. When you and I have clashed in the past it has not been because of deep-rooted ideological differences (you seem to care about equality of opportunity almost as much as I do) and I care a lot about individual freedom. We differ (apart from having slightly different assessments of the incidence of inequality of opportunity) mainly because I trust governments to do many things well whereas you think they always stuff things up.


  4. Fred – You have a strong point about the limits of these boxes of course; in practice as I argued last year all politics in Australia is a liberal-conservative-social democrat hybrid, with the liberals being the people who most emphasise the liberal part, the conservatives the conservative part, and the social democrats the social democratic part.

    The issue of whether governments are prone to stuffing things up does I think fall into this framework; as a liberal supporter of markets I am sceptical of whether governments can deliver services in a satisfactory manner without markets, and think the evidence supports this conclusion.

    Government does however successfully redistribute income (albeit via a tax system that is absurdly complex and expensive to run). Income redistribution is an inherently political decision requiring levels of coercion the market cannot supply.


  5. Taking up a peripheral point, on public and private education. I missed the debate with Andrew Leigh and it is amusing to find at this late stage that he knew nothing about the track record of private education, both before and after the public education movement took off. For more information


  6. Andrew, I have always argued that governments should deliver social services, including health, housing, urban public transport, education and job placement, through market incentives – at least in part – wherever it is feasible and effective. So we are at one on this too.

    But, while I see the market approach having most legs with housing and public transport, I would question the appropriateness of privatising education and health to the extent that you seem to favour (even though you are willing, through vouchers etc., to inject an equity element into the system). So it’s again the competence, honesty and detachment of governments that we are debating. I agree this is partly affected by ideology but it is more an empirical issue.



    Without disagreeing with your general point about the difficulties of boxing people, Fred, I would question your characterisation of an economic rationalist as “someone who gives overwhelming priority to economic efficiency.” I’m an ecorat (I think), but I do not necessarily give any more weight to efficiency than to equity. The National Competition Council was often described as economic rationalist back when that term was in widespread use (and, normally, abuse), but it also gave considerable weight to equity – see, for example, its 97-98 Annual Report (which admittedly I worked on). I think you’ll find similar statements from places like the PC and Treasury.

    While the meaning of the term ‘economic rationalist’ is contested (and, indeed, often intentionally not defined), I would have thought that what distinguishes ecorats from anti-rats is primarily the way they seek to achieve efficiency, or equity, and whether they think government intervention can actually help attain those goals, rather than detract from them.


  8. I found it intriguing when, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russian nationalism and Boris Yeltsin, those opposed to the new political environment were described as ‘right wing conservatives’ by the media.

    The right-wing bit was amusing given they were seeking the return of Soviet socialism. However, the conservative label seemed quite apt.

    I think it shows that conservatism is a state of mind, not a philosophy or ideology. Conservatives defend the status quo, whatever they perceive it to be. That’s why there are conservatives of all kinds.


  9. Tom, you have given me a good definition of a ‘rational economist’ like yourself – as someone who (in his or her professional capacity) seeks the most economically efficient and effective means of achieving given economic, social and environmental ends. But I think the term “economic rationalist’ has assumed a special meaning as someone who focuses solely on economic ends (productivity, employment, prices etc.) and who is overwhelmingly concerned with aggregate utility rather than its distribution. But it does not really matter what we call such a school of thought. It is certainly to be found in many parts of our profession.



    Perhaps you’re right, Fred, although, as I mentioned earlier, the term is contested.

    Morevoer, as Coleman and Hagger pointed out in Exasperating Calculators, the term is often not defined at all by some writers, who use it nonetheless to smear mainstream economists. As I alluded to earlier, places like the NCC, PC and Treasury were, in the public’s mind, populated by ‘ecorats’, and what they did was ‘economic rationalism’. On that basis, given that the economists in those places are basically just mainstream (rational?) economists who generally give no intrinsically greater weight to efficiency than to equity, then economic rationalism was (mis)understood to be the same thing as mainstream/rational economics.

    I might not mind the definition of economic rationalist you have chosen if everyone agreed with it and used it consistently – and understood the distinction between economic rationalists (so defined) and rational economists. But in a climate where the term in many people’s minds still applies to mainstream economists, I’m not sure its wise to attempt to rescue the term.

    I also think the term, in common use, is as much about means as ends. For instance, I doubt that someone who was solely focussed on economic efficiency, but who thought the best way to maximise it was to put the Department of Legislative Promulgation and Regulatory Diffusion in charge of everything, would be termed an ‘economic rationalist’.



  11. Andrew,

    Chiming in. Agree entirely regarding Green conservatives – a fairly accessible observation, given all conservatism is basically about conservation after all. As others have commented, you could accuse any given political tradition of being ‘conservative’, usually because they subscribe to a defining ethos to distinguish themselves as a distinct political force in the first place. Fraser could be called a conservative for insisting the Liberal party has moved too far to the right of the spectrum, while the neo-conservatives perversely gain the ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ label.

    I thought your Work Choices claim smacked of some hyperbole, but of course your sense of irony may have been lost on me. Certainly the single-income family is far from extinct, although I take your point regarding penalty rates for teens and so forth. That in itself, however, is surely somewhat reductionist: compensation for ‘extra time working instead of raising a family’ could as easily be extended to the childless to entirely subvert your point.

    In any case, untargetted penalty rates make sense in your ‘social democrat’ frame, which supports the ‘family compensation’ ethos while simultaneously regarding the advantage it affords to a distinct group – working parents – as discriminatory. While there are obvious contradictions here, mostly arising from the workforce’s emerging heterogeneity, I don’t see the position as anachronistic – just complex.


  12. To clarify perhaps: conservatism does not necessarily equate with anachronism.

    ‘Anachronism’ implies an artefact of earlier reasoning, now isolated from its original intentions and rendered without purpose. I disagree that penalty rates fall into this particular bucket. But even if they did, ‘anachronism’ finds a parallel with ‘redundancy’, which in system terms translates to ‘fail safe’.


  13. Conservatism is about the human instinct to maintain identity. A creatures genome is designed to be conservative because abrupt changes in identity – mutations – are usually abominable and monstrous.

    Most novel changes – even in a society that is chockers with smarty pants – are for the worse. The ratio of Columbuses and Einsteins to ding-bats and cranks is very low. So you need a strict editor to filter change.

    More generally, in a complex and progressive society it is always a challenge to maintain identity what with all the constant change and temptations to just let go. So conservatives tend to appreciate and support general institutional authority as a kind of integrator of the several individual autonomies that compose life’s rich pageant.

    It is also evident that human beings, whatever else they are, are terrestial land mammals and therefore inhabit a certain ecology. This set-up, whatever the ideological inflection, will always be in a kind of precarious balance with most people who have established families and firms finding radical change unnerving.

    The AUS populace have had a generation of Left- and then Right-liberal reform. The era of post-modern liberalism has had its ups and downs. Now the people just want the change-addicted elites to back off a little so that a period of consolidation may occur.

    Moreover, to be conservative is not merely to be averse from change…it is also a manner of accomodating ourselves to changes, an activity imposed upon all men. For, change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction.

    Changes, then, have to be suffered; and a man of conservative temperament that is, one strongly disposed to preserve his identity cannot be indifferent to them.

    human circumstances would be very different from what they are if there were not a large ingredient of conservatism in human preferences. Primitive peoples are said to cling to what is familiar and to be averse from change; ancient myth is full of warnings against innovation; our folklore and proverbial wisdom about the conduct of life abounds in conservative precepts; and how many tears are shed by children in their unwilling accomodation to change.

    Indeed, wherever a firm identity has been achieved, and wherever identity is felt to be precariously balanced, a conservative disposition is likely to prevail.

    ?akshotte “On being conservative”


  14. Andrew Norton says:

    The not-classified-as-conservative ‘conservative’ forces have other attributes that are more useful in understanding what they are about.

    The most important thing about the greens is the substantive concern with the environment. The most important thing about the unions is their substantive concern with the interest of workers. Social democrats like Andrew Leigh want greater equality (of opportunity, at least).

    That in some political contexts they resist change doesn’t make ‘conservative’ a useful way to describe their overall political position, even if it is a reasonable characterisation of some of their arguments.

    In general conservatism is an ontological rather than ideological persuasion. It is about the maintenance of identity ie a certain structure of information embodied in institutions.

    The converse of conservatism is (what Hayek termed) constructivism. That is the philosophy that encourages a change of identity at the earliest opportunity. It is most suitable for people having identity crisis who are unhappy with their inherited identity. Obviously the minorities have experienced alot of this of late.

    The term “conservative” is bandied about quite promiscuously because everyone is a conservative about the things they hold dear. If one holds many things dear in the current situation then one is likely to be an all-round conservative.

    Its not surprising that there are many small c conservatives in AUS. The place is quite satisfactory by most standards. Everyone has their pet policy that they want to keep in place.

    The Right supports the high-status (whether on a financial elitist or cultural populist definition). The high-status are likely to be happy with the current state of affairs, or at least unhappy with changes away from their best-remembered preferred state.

    It follows that the Right are much more likely to be conservative. Particularly in respect of proposed changes to key offices of institutional authority in states, churches, firms and families.

    The paradox of AUS conservatism is that the Broad Left have acquired much power and status in the state. Especially in the area of workfare (industrial relations) and welfare (the community services) state. So the Broad Left stoutly resists change to this more or less satisfactory state of affairs.


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