Conservatism is a generic term for a wide range of ideologies, political philosophies, political movements, and social and cultural attitudes, which oppose change to some degree, and seek to limit change in some way. All conservatives would reject the proposition "Change is good in itself". Etymologically, conservatism implies the preservation of something which already exists, but the etymology does not match its use, resulting in confusing expressions such as 'conservative revolutionary'. Conservatism is often equated with the political right, but is much older than the left-right division.
More specifically, conservatism designates the ideology of Conservative political parties, in various countries. It is then often spelt with a capital C, to distinguish it from the general form. Whether or not there is a separate Conservative party, the use of the term varies widely from country to country. Conservatives also vary widely in the limits to innovation which they propose. Secular Burkean conservatives insist that change should be organic, Christian conservatives look to the Bible for their criteria, Muslim conservatives to the Quran, and there are many other sources for such limits.
- 1 Universality and historical impact
- 2 Classification of conservatism
- 3 Values
- 4 History
- 5 Burkean conservatism as non-ideological
- 6 Value conservatism and tradition
- 7 Conservatism and nationalism
- 8 Conservatism and liberalism
- 9 Nature and environment
- 10 Conservatism and the Right
- 11 Conservatives in various countries
- 12 See also
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links and references
Universality and historical impact
Conservatism is a universal ideology or philosophy: conservatives consider their values to be valid for all persons, not just for themselves. Consequently, there is no great tradition of conservative separatism, and conservatism is a political force, seeking to implement policy. Since not everyone is a conservative, now or in the past, conservatism is historically associated with repression of non-conservatives. This repression is inherent in any non-separatist universal-values ideology, see religious conservatism. The more comprehensive the conservatism, the more it impacts on others. A conservative regime is by definition repressive, except in the hypothetical case that the entire population shares its values. In Europe the catholic-nationalist-conservative regimes of Salazar and Franco are notorious examples. The Franco regime came to power in the Spanish Civil War and executed thousands of its political opponents, tortured and persecuted many others, imposed rigid censorship, and promoted a monocultural Spanish identity.
Within democratic polities, conservatives seek to impose conservative values through legislation and government policy, and occasionally by stating them directly in the constitution. This brings them into conflict with others, and results in polarisation, normally by the formation of one of more conservative parties, and opposing parties. (Not all conservative parties use the word in the party name, or its slogans). The population will also tend to polarise: conservatism is a major axis in the construction of a political spectrum.
Conservatives have a strong orientation to values, which they consider universal. Consequently, they tend to reject the validity of other political ideologies. Conservatives don't see anarchism, for instance, as different: they see it as wrong. The formal presumption of ideological neutrality, in liberal-democracies, is a source of friction with conservative groups, who believe that their values precede or override the political process. Conservatives often claim that their values are the 'national values' or 'community values', which are beyond political discussion and must be enforced. This belief in shared, and inherently necessary, constitutive values is a feature of communitarianism, but that is not a synonym for conservatism.
Impact on other ideologies
Many forms of conservatism incorporate elements of other ideologies and philosophies. In turn, conservatism has influenced them. In most cases the impact is reciprocal, as between conservatism and nationalism. Most present conservatives strongly support the nation-state (although that was not so in the 19th century), and patriotically identify with their own nation. Nationalism, which sees the nation as a long-term, centuries-old, community, has many conservative aspects. Nationalist separatist movements are by definition radical, but appeal to the national past for their legitimacy, and often sought a traditionalist society, emphasising rural life and folklore.
The most controversial ideological impact is the conservative element in fascism. European fascism drew on existing anti-modernist conservatism, and on the conservative reaction to communism and 19th-century socialism. Conservative thinkers such as historian Oswald Spengler provided much of the world view (Weltanschauung) of the Nazi movement. However, traditionalist, monarchist, and Catholic conservatives often despised the fascist mass movements, and the personality cult around the leader. In Britain, the conservative Daily Mail enthusiastically backed Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and part of the Conservative Party supported closer ties with Nazi Germany. When defeat in the Second World War ideologically and historically discredited fascism, almost all western conservatives tried to distance themselves from it. The theory of totalitarianism, which treats Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as equivalent systems, provided the intellectual foundation. Nevertheless, many post-war western conservatives continued to admire the Franco regime in Spain, clearly conservative but also fascist in origin. With the end of the Franco and Salazar regimes in the 1970’s, the relationship between conservatism and classical European fascism became an issue for historians.
The relationship with right-wing ideologies (including some that are described as neo-fascist) is still an issue for conservatives and their opponents. Especially in Germany, there is a constant exchange of ideology and persons, between the influential national-conservative movement, and self-identified national-socialist groups. In Italy too, there is no clear line between conservatives, and movements inspired by the Italian Fascism of the 1920’s to 1940’s, including the Alleanza Nazionale which is member of the governing coalition under premier Silvio Berlusconi. Conservative attitudes to the 20th-century fascist regimes are still an issue even within Anglo-American conservatism. The U.S. neoconservative Michael Ledeen was criticised  by other conservatives for "flirting with fascism", because of his admiration for early Italian fascism and Gabriele D'Annunzio.
Anglo-American conservatives are unhappy with any implied link to fascism, since the term generally has negative connotations. Nevertheless, the historical contribution of conservatism to facsist ideology is itself clear, and in the 1930's many non-fascist conservatives admired Hitler and Mussolini. The most that can be said is that ideological polarisation was common at the time. Some components of 1930's fascist ideology, such as corporatism are no longer on the political agenda in western democracies. Others, such as antiliberalism, are still central for religious conservatives. They are generally sceptical of both personal and political freedoms, since their concept of social order is grounded in values, and not in the process-oriented 'freedom' of liberalism.
Classification of conservatism
All forms of conservatism have a negative attitude to change. On logical grounds conservatisms can be subdivided into categories...
- Preservation of the existing society, as it is, and in its totality - museum conservatism. Very few conservatives fit this description, although it is linguistically the most accurate interpretation of the term. Most conservatives reject some elements of present societies, and their conservatism is specific. Campaigns to freeze something in its present state, are usually directed at preservation of national identity, in the face of assimilation to an external culture.
- Traditionalism values the older elements in society and culture, and for their survival and continuation. The anti-metric movement, demanding the retention of avoirdupois weights and measures in Britain, and opposing (and not replace them with the metric system) is a classic example. This kind of romantic and nostalgic traditionalism is important in nationalism.
- Radical traditionalism is possible, and if it is directed at the replacement of elements which have disappeared, then it can be called restorationist. The proposed restoration might be very specific, as in the case of campaigns to restore the death penalty in European Union member states. It might extend to an entire past society, a usually mythical Golden Age. A restorationist revolution is not merely a theoretical possibility: there are several historical examples, the best known is the 17th century English Restoration. The word 'revolution' is originally a metaphor derived from the a wheel turning in a full circle, back to its past position. When the U.S. government was being created, Thomas Jefferson recommended democracy, an ancient Greek form of government which was accepted and now widespread throughout the world.
- A value preference for permanence and sustainability. Although sustainability is associated with environmentalism, which some conservatives detest, it is clearly related to conservatism. However, that which is 'intended to survive' may not yet exist, so it may have to be imposed: a 'sustainability revolution' is a theoretical possibility, to construct societies designed for millennia.
- Reactionary conservatism, is directed at the reversal of specific past changes, but also generally against their originators and supporters, usually the political left. Continental European conservatism of the 19th century was usually reactionary: the French Revolution was the prime target, and it still is, for monarchist Catholic conservatives in France.
- Conservatism as anti-innovationism - a radical and utopian goal in itself. It implies that conservatives ultimately seek a radically different form of society, one designed to suppress innovation. Since such a society has never existed on this planet, this form of conservatism can not appeal to past models. The idea of a radical transformation of society, for contra-innovative purposes, is part of some theories of fascism (with a small f, the generic form). This is the form of conservatism most likely to be associated with the non-conservative right, with which it shares rejection of some demands of the left. Although in its pure form this conservatism has few supporters, many conservative movements seek some structural changes, to prevent certain other changes.
- Tribal or primitive conservatism is the oldest and truest kind, the original first conservatives. These conservatives hunt, fish, herd, and grow their own food, built their own houses/huts/tents, and make their own clothing. Some examples are : Eskimos (Inuit), aborigines, native Americans and native Canadians, tribal Africans, Mongolians, and South American rain forest natives. They don't call themselves conservatives, but they are the most conservative type, and are many in number. All other types of conservatives appear liberal by comparison. Modern conservatives buy food and housing, rather than growing/hunting/building them. This looks too soft and dependant to the tough primitive conservative. They rarely participate in politics. Their ways have lasted tens of thousands of years, and continue long after civilizations rise and fall. This is the permanence and sustainability most conservatives seek, but don't want to live the hard primitive lifestyle. Sometimes modern conservatives disagree with primitive conservatives, because they most often have no jails and few or no laws against ownership, stealing, nudity, polytheism, polygamy, etc. These differences sometimes result in bloody wars, such as the the American colonists vs. the Native Americans, and British vs the Zulus.
Different forms of conservatism emphasise different values, including among others these value preferences
- order over 'chaos' and 'anarchy'
- orientation toward the past rather than the future
- the rural over the urban
- unity and homogeneity, over discord and fragmentation
- the natural over the artificial and technological
- existence over possibility
- slow and incremental change over utopian projects
- hierarchy over egalitarianism, and inequality over redistribution
- in the European Union, sovereignty over union
In addition most modern conservatives support the free market and capitalism, although an economic system as such is not conservative. (The free market, in its present form, is an early-modern innovation). Most have similar positions on bio-ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia.
Although they are not strictly speaking a value, conservatives often appeal to organic metaphors, usually a metaphor of society as an animal or plant. The metaphor can provide derived values such as 'rootedness', which usually implies that a society is like a tree, with the roots in the past and the crown in the present, and that cutting contact with the roots would kill the tree.
In the United States, conservatism is generally associated with the following views, as noted by Russell Kirk in his book, The Conservative Mind:
- "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience."
- "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;"
- "Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a 'classless society'."
- "Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and the Leviathan becomes master of all."
- "Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs."
- "Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress."
Because conservatism includes so much, it is difficult to list contrasting or opposing ideologies. Some libertarians, for instance, are happy to be called conservatives, others regard that as derogatory. Libertarian conservatives would emphasise opposition to what they categorise as statist movements, fascism and communism. European fascism, however, drew heavily on conservative ideologies. Attitudes to the state also vary widely, and may be contradictory: conservatives in the United States distrust the power of government, but want it applied with full force to things which they abhor. One of the few ideologies which never seem to overlap with conservatism is anarchism, at least in the European sense, because it is always seen as destructive of the traditional order.
Conservatism is not necessarily democratic. Islamist conservatism is often rigorously hostile to western liberal democracy. Many western conservatives distrust it also, and fear the tyranny of the majority. Western conservatives also staunchly opposed the ‘peoples democracies’ of eastern Europe during the Cold War, but that can be seen as a dispute on their democratic character. Many western conservatives now oppose the Islamic regime in Iran as undemocratic, but it is also clearly conservative.
There is no general theory of the origins of conservatism. Some conservatives justify some of their views (on race and inequality, for instance) through biological theories and analogies. There is a recognised principle of homeostasis in living organisms, but there is no specific theory of the biological or evolutionary origin of conservative attitudes.
Conservative attitudes can be found in all historical cultures which left a written record of their politics. In the western world, conservative ideas and conservative thinkers are identifiable elements of Classical Antiquity.
The best-known modern conservatisms developed in the early-modern and modern periods in Europe. Events such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution helped shape the modern ideologies. The early-modern conservatives tended to support monarchy, but Edmund Burke, who argued so forcefully against the French Revolution, favoured the American Revolution.
At the end of the Napoleonic period, the Congress of Vienna marked the beginning of a conservative reaction in Europe, to contain the liberal and nationalist forces unleashed by the French revolution. Joseph de Maistre was the most influential spokesperson for counter-revolutionary and authoritarian conservatism, with the emphasis on monarchy as a guarantee of order in society.
Burkean conservatism as non-ideological
Conservatism is generally seen as an ideology, in the sense of a coherent and comprehensive political programme, based on a view of the world, and especially on specific values. In practice, all western conservative movements, and certainly all Conservative parties, operate on the basis of a formal written programme or policy statement. However, the classical conservative tradition in English-speaking countries, which usually regards Edmund Burke as its intellectual source, often insists that it is not an ideology. That is often intended in the sense of a utopian ideology, with some form of plan for society. Burkean conservatives claim to be pragmatic, and to avoid a formal set of principles.
Edmund Burke developed his ideas in reaction to the Enlightenment, and the idea of a society guided by abstract "Reason." Although he did not use the term, he anticipated the critique of modernism, a term first used at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch religious reactionary Abraham Kuyper. Burke was troubled by the Enlightenment and argued, instead, for the value of tradition.
Some men, argued Burke, have more reason than others, and thus some men will make worse governments if they rely upon reason than others. To Burke, the proper formulation of government came not from abstractions such as "Reason," but from time-honoured development of the state and of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church.
"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence."
Burke argued that tradition is a much sounder foundation than "reason". The conservative paradigm he established emphasises the futility of attempting to ground human society based on pure abstractions (such as "reason," "equality," or, more recently, "diversity"), and the necessity of humility in the face of the unknowable. Existing institutions have virtues that cannot be fully grasped by any single person or interest group or, in Burke's view, even any single generation: in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote of the living
"the temporary possessors and life-renters... (of)... the commonwealth and laws... should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society."
Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while "reason" may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. In the conservative view, an attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For Burkean conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.
Burkean conservatives are inherently skeptical of plans to re-model human society after an ideological model. They emphasise 'continuity with tradition, which does exclude changes within the framework of that tradition. They insist that political change should come about through legitimate political process, and oppose interference with that process, including extra-constitutional reactionary changes. So long as rule of law is upheld, and so long as change is effected gradually and constitutionally rather than revolution, they are, in theory, content. Burkean conservatism is in principle neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary.
In terms of classification, Burke’s conservatism was traditionalist. Whether that is ideological or non-ideological is disputed. Most societies contain both traditional and non-traditional elements, and removing all the non-traditional elements might mean a radical restructuring of society. Even 'anti-ideological' classical conservatives have political preferences, and a conservative political party must have some form of programme.
Some classical conservatives prefer to define non-ideological in a more liberal sense, as concerned with means rather than with ends - process over outcome, in liberal terminology. They would emphasise the philosophical distinction between deontological and consequentialist positions.
Value conservatism and tradition
Value conservatism seeks not simply to preserve traditional or established values, but to ensure that society is ordered according to these values. Contemporary western political conservatism - the actual politics of self-identified conservative individuals and parties in the liberal democracies - is generally a value conservatism. In English-speaking countries it is also called social conservatism, to distinguish it from free-market 'economic conservatism'. The values are cultural as well as social, and primarily relate to individual behaviour and social norms, rather than the state and its structure. It is, for many western non-conservatives, the archetypical form of conservatism.
Value conservatism can be classified as a traditionalist conservatism: it promotes and defends certain older, pre-existing elements in a society's culture. They may be a tradition in the sense of folklore, but more often traditional values, by which social practice and personal behaviour should be judged. Like Burkean conservatives, value conservatives are sceptical of rapid social change, but primarily because it erodes the things they value.
Value conservatism illustrates the inevitably political aspect of conservatism. Value conservatives do not seek to preserve values as a non-functional museum item, they want those values adhered to. Often there is no problem in personal adherence. However, conservatives believe that these values are universal, that they should apply to others, and be enforced as norm. That inevitably brings conservatism into the political arena, as a voter preference in democracies, and in the form of conservative organisations. Political conservatism in the broad sense, seeks to use of the power of the state, to enforce a social or cultural value, on those who do not voluntarily adhere to it. Political conservatism may radicalise, and may result in a conservative revolution, such as the overthrow of the pro-western Pahlavi regime in Iran.
If conservatives are successful in the political process - which may include the formation of a conservative government or a conservative regime - then there are two strategies for the enforcement of values. The first is compulsion - a legal or quasi-legal requirement to act in a certain way, in accordance with a certain norm, as if in adherence to a certain value. The quasi-legal enforcement of the chador in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the legal requirement for women to wear a burqa or equivalent under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, are classic examples. There is no doubt, that many orthodox Muslim women in these countries voluntarily dress like this: the law however compels the other women to act as if they shared their values.
The second strategy is prohibition - the ban on certain acts, or certain things, that contravene the values of the conservatives. All states enforce prohibitions, but value-related prohibitions can be distinguished by their non-functionality for the state. For the economy to function, the state must necessarily ban counterfeit currency, but bans on the sale of condoms, or on pole dancing, or on the bikini are non-functional in this sense. Prohibition is more likely to be used to prevent social change in the sense of value innovation, or value erosion.
Conservative participation in the political process, with the intention of altering government policy, is the visible face of conservatism in western democracies. When people there speak of 'conservative politics' they are generally referring to this kind of campaign. Value-conservative campaigns are often focussed on a single issue. Conservative governments may promote broad campaigns for a return to traditional values, such as the Back to Basics campaign of British premier John Major. In the European Union, a conservative campaign sought to constitutionally specify certain conservative values, in the proposed European Constitution. Most prominently, Pope John Paul II lobbied for inclusion of a reference to God, which was narrowly defeated.
The conservative campaign against same-sex marriage is a typical recent single-issue campaign in western democracies, directed against a recent legal innovation. Until no country recognised same-sex marriage. Under conservative regimes, from Francisco Franco to Ayatollah Khomeiny, any official recognition of homosexuality was unthinkable. Value conservatives in western countries are vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage, although the number of these marriages is small. It is symbolically important precisely because it undermines the traditional social fabric, and the traditional values related to the family and marriage, and because it contravenes the widespread religious taboo on homosexuality. So the (usually Christian) campaigners seek to prohibit it. They do that through a campaign to oppose its introduction, repeal the relevant law, ban it by new law, or to constitutionally re-define marriage as 'between a man and a woman'.
While some classical conservatives may be wary of government intervention into the private lives of citizens, even when that intervention is in support of traditional values, conservative movements in general tend to support such causes. The almost universal support by secular, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim conservatives for anti-abortion movements is the most prominent example.
There are distinctions among 'traditional views' and culture-specific versions of 'family values'. To the Muslim or fundamentalist Mormon, social conservatism may entail support for polygamy. The traditions themselves may be a relatively recent invention. The prevalence of the nuclear family is, at most, a few centuries old (as is western democracy).
Value conservatism is often inspired by religious values, and in religious conservatism the values correspond to the doctrines of one religion. Islamic conservatism in Islamic countries is usually religion-specific, but value conservatism in western countries has secular supporters as well. Doctrinal orthodoxy is not necessarily equivalent to conservatism. For instance the position of the Catholic Church on stem cell research is not traditional doctrine, because the issue did not exist until recently. The opposition can be considered conservative, in the sense that the technology is an innovation. Catholic opposition to abortion, however, is not conservative in that sense, because abortion itself is not a recent innovation, although until the 20th century it was so unsafe to the life of the mother that it formed its own deterrent.
Radical movements in Islam illustrate the divergence from the etymologically accurate sense of conservatism. The Salafist movement is often politically radical, and violently repressed for that reason, although there is a pro-government Salafism in Saudi Arabia. The Islamist opposition in Algeria, which fought a civil war with the military-appointed governments in the 1990's, has a strong Salafist element. Yet Salafism seeks to re-create the Islamic society which existed at the time of Mohammed's death and for a short time thereafter, rejects the later development of Islamic societies, and can therefore be classified a a radical traditionalist conservatism. Salafists also base their personal behaviour on the standards of a past society, and are conservative in the sense that the Amish are conservative. The Salafi also give great prominence to a disputed hadith (reported statement of the Prophet), which is classically conservative:
Every innovation is misguidance...
In southern Europe, there is a long tradition of Catholic-inspired social and cultural conservatism. The term integralism is used for those who seek an unified society ordered on Catholic principles, usually opposing liberal democracy. In recent years, the term 'integralism' has also become a synonym for Islamic fundamentalism in southern Europe.
Religious fervour, and the belief in divine sanction, can make religious conservatism intense. Campaigns can be agressive and sometimes violent. It is a classic example of radical conservatism, and in the United States, it is hard to distinguish where conservative attitudes end, and Christian-right theocractic movements begin. In Europe, the orthodox-Protestant conservative tradition produced the Dutch SGP, the only openly theocratic party in the European Parliament.
The full force of religious conservatism is visible when such a movement attains power. The Taliban regime was an exemplary display of conservative obligations and prohibitions, for the purpose of creating an orthodox-Islamic society, or at least one which looked that way. The Taliban banned, among other things, guitars, kites, cinemas, recorded music, weather forecasting and white socks. They compelled women to wear a burqa and men to grow beards of a specified length, see Life under Taliban rule. Such regulations are enforced under Islamic regimes by a mutaween or religious police.
Rigorous enforcement of behavioural norms, especially related to sex and the family, is characteristic of conservative religious regimes. The Iranian penal code is exemplary in its enforcement of family values by stoning:
Article 83: Adultery in the following cases shall be punishable by stoning: (1) Adultery by a married man who is wedded to a permanent wife with whom he has had intercourse and may have intercourse when he so desires; (2) Adultery of a married woman with an adult man provided the woman is permanently married and has had intercourse with her husband and is able to do so again.
Conservatism and nationalism
Patriotism is a typical feature of conservatism, at least in well-established nation-states. All forms of nationalism have a conservative and traditionalist element, since the nation is a centuries-old institution. If the nation-state is not strongly contested, patriotic conservatism typically refers to a strong support for that state, its historical icons and founders, its emblems, for the national poets, authors, and artists. Military institutions are independent sources of tradition and ritual pageantry, and conservatives tend to admire their values: honour, duty, courage, and loyalty. That can easily degenerate into militarism and jingoism. However, the situation is very different for a Kurdish nationalist in Turkey, for instance, with no official institutions to admire in this way. Saluting the Kurdish flag in public means risking arrest by the Turkish police. One man's patriotism is another man's treason. The nature of nationalist conservatism therefore depends on the historical evolution of the nation, and the success or failure of its nationalist movements.
Conservatism and liberalism
Economic conservatism is a term used primarily in the United States, for what in Europe would be called market liberalism, neoliberalism, or simply liberalism. It can be considered as the political movement associated with free-market or laissez-faire economics, which in Europe traditionally corresponds with the Liberal Parties. The term may be a synonym for classical liberalism, in the tradition of Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises. Differences in meaning and usage of the term 'liberal' have contributed to the confusion, see Liberalism. In Europe, 'liberal-conservative' is an accepted term, in the United States it is a self-contradictory oxymoron.
Theorists of liberalism often assert a moral justification for the free market, grounded in principles of individual liberty and individual choice. The Anglo-American liberal tradition is suspicious of the state and government authority, and prefers capitalist economics partly on those grounds. American conservatives tend to justify the free market from their historical experience of its success. Free markets, they argue, are the most productive markets. Their support is not moral or ideological, but driven by the Burkean notion of prescription: what works best is what is right. Conservatives might also emphasise the importance of civil society in this context: government intervention in the economy will make people feel less responsible for the society.
Historically, many arguments have been advanced for the free market, and liberal principles in general. Present western classical-liberalism and political conservatism may have reached their pro-market position by different routes, but by now the lines have blurred. Rarely will a politician claim that free markets are "simply more productive" or "simply the right thing to do" but a combination of both. This merging of the classical liberal and conservative positions is found in most western conservative movements.
In any case the free market itself is not an issue, for western conservative movements. They operate in long-established market economies: it is the degree of government intervention that is at issue. Two archetypal free-market conservative governments of the late 20th century - the Margaret Thatcher government in the UK and the Reagan administration in the U.S. - both saw deregulation as the cornerstone of contemporary economic conservatism. Thatcher added privatisation to this policy, and privatised British Airways, with remarkable success, and British Rail, with rather more mixed results. Both cut taxes (especially on the upper income brackets) and slowed governmental growth. Proponents of Thatcherism attribute the unparalleled economic boom of the early 1980s to the late 1990s to these policies.
Capitalism, and the outcome of the free market, may conflict with value conservatism. At times, as the Communist Manifesto emphasised, capitalism and free markets have been profoundly subversive of the existing social order:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production...
That economic system continues to conflict with traditional attitudes, for instance in its massive distribution of pornography in many western countries. So it is possible to be a value conservative without supporting market liberalism - at present, this is a common political stance in, for example, Ireland. And not all supporters of the free market are social conservatives: most American libertarians are not.
Fiscal conservatism is not a political philosophy, and more a tradition of prudence in government spending and debt. Edmund Burke, in his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France', articulated its principles:
...[I]t is to the property of the citizen, and not to the demands of the creditor of the state, that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged. The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity. The fortunes of individuals, whether possessed by acquisition or by descent or in virtue of a participation in the goods of some community, were no part of the creditor's security, expressed or implied...[T]he public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large.
In other words, a government doesn't have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer; the taxpayers' right not to be taxed oppressively takes precedence even over paying back debts a government may have imprudently undertaken.
Nature and environment
The classic-liberal view of 'Nature' and the environment - as an exploitable resource - contradicts the traditional conservative view of their inherent value. Both have influenced conservative politics in many countries since the 19th century. The etymology emphasises the close correlation between the early conservation movement and conservative ideals. In recent decades, deep ecology has emerged as parallel, non-anthropocentric conservative philosophy, with remarkable similarities in value preferences. For some conservatives, Nature itself is the source of value, and there is no distinction between moral and political conservatism, and environmentalism.
Free-market conservatives with environmental concerns, such as the 'Green Republicans' and 'Green Libertarians' in the United States, are uncomfortable with such strong environmentalist positions. They tend to view free markets as an appropriate instrument, in this context. Given that pollution is an inefficiency, and given that consumers like "green" or "organic" products, the market should protect the environment. Others, conservative and non-conservative, radically dispute this, and see the market and commercialisation as one of the chief threats, if not the sole cause, of damage to the natural world. That may elicit no more than anti-commercial populism among value conservatives, and a shift in consumer preferences.
More fundamentally, some conservatives see ecological conservation as necessary to preserve traditional values. European conservatives often identify rural life as the source, or sole remnant, of traditional society, and have often promoted a comprehensive ruralist ideology, usually in specific national versions. Ruralist conservatism inspires several political parties, such as the French Chasse-Pêche-Nature et Tradition (Hunting-Fishing-Nature and Tradition). Conservatives are a prominent element within most European Green Parties. In Britain, the electoral system leaves little room for third parties, and a Blue-Green Alliance with the Conservative Party would be necessary for electoral success.
Technological conservatism is often part of environmentalist philosophy, rejecting especially the destructive effects on nature and ecosystems. There is also a long tradition of technological scepticism in western culture, usually directed against socially disruptive effects, and potentially dangerous consequences. The term 'conservatism' is also used in the history of technology to describe the reluctance - on grounds of cost, effort and disruption - to replace a functioning technology by another.
Biological theories and racism
Because most conservatives value what they consider 'natural' (also in the sense of pre-existing and given), conservatives often appeal to biological theories and biological analogies. They may form an integral part of a conservative position, or they may be used to justify it. The most common use of biology in conservatism is to use claimed inherent differences to justify inequality and social stratification. They correspond to the belief in inherent differences in talent in liberal social philosophy. The belief that the poor deserve their status is historically widespread, and not specific to one culture. In the late 19th century, however, European biological theories on race, culminating in the idea of Social Darwinism, became the main theoretical reference for conservative justifications of inequality. Later, several waves of IQ theories assumed this function in conservative social philosophy. Under influence of genetic research, both of these sources have merged, producing a range of vehemently disputed theories, on the genetic basis and the inevitability of inequality. Influential examples include The Bell Curve and similar work, explaining socio-economic inequality in multi-ethnic societies by hereditary differences in IQ among racial groups, and IQ and the Wealth of Nations which attributes global inequalities to national differences in average IQ. There is also a long tradition of non-biological theories of cultural superiority, which influenced 19th-century western colonialism. Partly due to the influence of the Clash of Civilizations theory, belief in the superiority of western culture has now become a standard of western conservative thought. Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's comment on the September 11 attacks is exemplary:
We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its value understanding of diversity and tolerance... The West will continue to conquer peoples, even if it means a confrontation with another civilisation, Islam, firmly entrenched where it was 1,400 years ago.
Conservatism and the Right
In western democracies, 'conservative' and 'right-wing' are often used interchangeably, as near-synonyms. That is not always accurate, but it has more than incidental validity. Certainly the enemy is in both cases the same: the political left. (Although left-wing groups and individuals may have conservative social and cultural attitudes, they are not generally accepted, by self-identified conservatives, as part of the same movement). On economic policy and the economic system, conservatives and the right generally support the free market, although less so in Europe than in North America. Attitudes on some ethical and bio-ethical issues - such as opposition to abortion - are accurately described as either 'right-wing' or 'conservative'.
Burkean conservatives favour incremental over radical change, even from the right. In the United states they distrust theocratic conservatives, who wish to formally establish Christianity as a state religion, and may not dispute their claim to be conservatives. Some conservatives distrust the xenophobic and even racist sentiments prominent on the political right. Protectionism and anti-immigration policies may conflict with free-market conservatives' support for deregulation and free trade. Some conservatives oppose military interventionism, inspired by early British conservative thinkers, such as David Hume and Edmund Burke. Burke saw imperialism as interfering with the traditions and organic make-up of the colonised societies.
However it is equally true, that there are numerous examples of theocratic religious conservatives, conservative nationalists, jingoist conservative imperialists, and conservative racists - and of ‘respectable’ conservatives allied with them. The Conservative Party in Britain was a staunch defender of the British Empire, and was responsible for initial brutal repression of African decolonisation. The revered Conservative Winston Churchill wrote in the 1920's that he was "strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.", and did in fact authorise use of poison gas in Iraq.
It is the degree of political taboo, rather than inherent ideological incompatibility, that determines the overlap between 'respectable' conservatives and the right. In European parliamentary systems, conservatives currently ally with centrist groups, or even some on the left, rather than with the xenophobic-populist right. All mainstream parties in Belgium cooperate to exclude the Flemish-separatist and xenophobic Vlaams Belang, and the mainstream parties in France support each others candidates in run-off elections, where that is necessary to exclude the Front National.
Conservatives in various countries
- See also Conservatism in North America.
Most theorists of conservatism make a sharp distinction between American conservatism, and the often much more radical and revolutionary conservative movements in continental Europe.
In the United States, conservatism is generally a Judeo-Christian religious-inspired value conservatism, although most types of conservatism can be found. Some typical elements of European conservatism, such as monarchism, are absent. The U.S. Constitution, which contains it original unamended text from 1787, plays an important role. Most countries amend by deleting and replacing text, and no other country has a complete centuries-old constitution. Conservatives support strict construction of the Constitution, which usually serves to limit social change. The origins of conservatism in the U.S. can be traced from the Whigs of George Washington through the Federalists of John Adams, and the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln (the ideological heirs to the Federalist legacy). In the Civil War era, other issues dominated, and for the next century conservatives were roughly equally divided among the two major parties. One particularly notable element were the traditionally conservative southern Democrats - some of them split from the party in as the third-party Dixiecrats.
In the United Kingdom, Burkean conservatism is the dominant tradition. However, there is no organisational continuity since the time of Edmund Burke, and he is certainly not the 'founder of the Conservative Party'. Contemporary British conservatives may trace their roots to both the Tories of Canning and the early Whigs (who opposed the monarchy). The Tories, who continued to represent the interests of the aristocracy, in contrast to the Whiggish mercantile class, dominated British politics from the 1770s and the 1830s. Burke, the so-called "Father of Modern Conservatism," articulated the anti-monarchial conservative position through the Whig party.
Nominally, the modern British Conservative Party was founded out of the Tory party by Sir Robert Peel in the 1840s, splitting almost immediately, over the issue of protectionism. The anti-protectionist faction joined with some Whigs and radicals to form the Liberal coalition, which was to dominate politics for much of the rest of the nineteenth century. A Liberal-Conservative coalition during the first World War, and the rise of the Labour Party, hastened the collapse of the Liberals in the 1920s. After the second World War, the Conservative party made concessions to the socialist policies of the left. This was partly in order to regain power, but also the result of the early successes of central planning and state-ownership forming a cross-party consensus. Under Margaret Thatcher the party returned to classical liberalism. For more detail, see History of the Conservative Party.
In other parts of Europe, mainstream conservatism is often represented by the Christian-democratic parties. They form the bulk of the European Peoples Party fraction in the European Parliament. The origin of these parties is usually in Catholic parties of the late 19th and early 20th century, and Catholic social doctrine was their original inspiration. Over the years, conservatism gradually became their main ideological inspiration, and they generally became less Catholic. The German CDU and the Dutch CDA are Protestant-Catholic parties. The Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the Christian Social Union, is a deeply Catholic conservative party.
Germany and German-speaking Europe have many non-mainstream conservative movements and an active and influential conservative intellectual tradition. They influence the right wings of the CDA and CSU, and many other right-wing parties and organisations, including neo-nazi groups. However much of the German right is also radical, and officially categorised as 'anti-constitutional' by the German internal security service.
- conservatism in North America
- conservative extension (Mathematical logic)
- Conservative Party (UK)
- Christian Democratic Union of Germany
- Conservative Revolutionary movement
- New Right
- Old Right
- religious right
- Albert O. Hirschman. 1991. The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674768671 (cloth) and ISBN 067476868X (paper). (Identifies the three basic arguments conservatives use to oppose policy change.)
- Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind. Regnery Publishing; 7th edition (October 1): ISBN 0895261715 (hardcover).
- Edmund Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. October 1997: ISBN 0872200205 (paper).
External links and references
World Wide Web links
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Conservatism.
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- Conservative Alerts
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