A Brief History of Conservatism (I): Preface, and Property

Preface to the series:

The intention of this series of articles, which shall run over the next two months, is to propose an understanding of the history of conservatism, and the currents of thought that flow like rivers into a deep lake. This is a grand undertaking, since there is no central text to conservatism, unlike The Communist Manifesto, The Rights of Man, Democracy in America, or On Liberty, except possibly Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, but even a cursory reading of this text will show that it is little more than ruminations on the political life, the ‘true’ foundations of social order, and those destructive forces that threaten to transform our societies into the “dust and powder of individualism”.

This lack of a central text is, for the large part, a boon; it frees conservatives in their particular expressions (a term that shall be explained in the series) from doctrine, and allows them to focus on the day-to-day activities of governing. But this leaves the intellectual conservative with a dilemma. This dilemma is simply, what do I believe in? For those of different philosophies, the answer is presented: if I am a liberal, I believe only in myself; if I am a socialist, I believe in equality; and if I am a postmodernist, I believe in nothing.

Any conservative will find that he instinctually believes in the settled way of things as they are. But in an age when this answer is “not enough”, he must have ballast to his arguments, a way of justifying these things beyond their mere factual existence. It is for this reason that we, as conservative students who face this challenge almost daily in our interactions with other students, must articulate our arguments as best we can.

The purpose, therefore, of this series is not to propose the history of conservatism, but a history of conservatism, specifically my own. I will not suggest a political programme, nor a system of thought, but merely observe the trends and traditions of this philosophy in response to key political crises of the day, in a manner akin to a structure of thought, within which you, if you consider yourself a conservative, can place yourself and understand your own philosophy. “The first task of conservatism… is to create a language in which “conservative” is no longer an insult”[1]. This series shall aim to do just that.

[1] Roger Scruton, “How to be a non-liberal, anti-socialist conservative”, 2012

Conservatives enjoy a strange relationship with property. Historically speaking, property in the United Kingdom has been a signifier of wealth, and therefore status. It was a privilege enjoyed by the few (hence the "landed gentry") and, due to certain laws, hardly ever passed out of family lines. As democracy crept its way into British politics, land ownership's relation to power became formalised through the electoral register and the extension of suffrage in the Parliament Act of 1867 to "agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land"[1]. The intellectual qualifier for this extension was that those with an interest in the survival of very land of Britain would be more interested in the national well-being.

Liberalism was not the great challenge to property ownership that conservatism faced in the 19th century, as some suggested it may become; the true enemy emerged in the Labour Party's socialism, and socialism's wider desire to see the institution of property separated from those who owned it and given to those who did not.

Consequently, conservatism has come to be seen in the United Kingdom as the ideology of property ownership. Mrs. Thatcher's ideal of the "property-owning democracy" cemented this association right through to the current generation, and perhaps the next few to come.

But property, as it is understood by the conservative, is not the abstract concept propounded as a 'natural right' by John Locke. Taken as an abstract, for liberalism 'property' can come to mean anything over which an individual has a claim[2]. The logical extension of this argument means that we own ourselves, body and mind; a notion that the conservative will reject.

The conservative rejects this idea for two reasons; one, to suggest we completely own ourselves is to ignore the vast heritage of culture and social tradition that has helped to create who we are. The conservative would believe it is impossible to withdraw an individual from society without him losing a part of himself, thereby ceasing to be himself and becoming something else, something "less"[3]. This is because so much of who we are - the way we dress, the way we act, the very language we speak and through which we communicate - is given to us by our society, and our parents especially. We belong to a society, and in our belonging we take partial ownership. Society is not one man's own - but all men are society's own.

Two, the reduction of ownership to the level of "rugged individualism" is to ignore the fundamentally associational bond of ownership at the heart of society. This does not mean everything is owned by everyone and nobody owns anything, however: I may own a plot of land, for example. But I own that land as a custodian, preserving and improving that land with the intention of passing it on to the next generation; similarly, that land has been given to me by the previous generation, and so I respect that much work and effort has gone into the previous preservation of it, and so seek to change it only in such a way that it's existence may be ensured. Consequently, I can never truly own that land as an individual because I did not come into this world alone and, all things well, I shall not leave it alone.

Self-ownership has been used since the time of John Locke to argue consistently for the Social Contract theory of political obligation, that we find ourselves in a prepolitical context where our rights exist naturally, and therefore independent of any political structure that may be mistaken for conferring them upon us. However, where Social Contract theory is intended to reaffirm the concept of political obligation, by suggesting as Locke did that we tacitly assent to obligation by virtue of residence, I find also the argument for self-ownership to be socially destructive when taken to its logical conclusion, as Murray Rothbard did, in an argument that demands quotation in full:

 

Regardless of his age, we must grant every child the absolute right to run away and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right to self-ownership, regardless of age.[4]

 

The associated concepts of family and freedom will be explored in greater depth in a forthcoming essay, but for now consider that the parents’ control over a child exists to protect him, not arbitrarily control him.

Furthermore, it is significant that the conservative will refer to the influence of the family frequently, because it is the family that forms the very basic building blocks of society. While it is perhaps the only area the conservative will delve into the abstract[5], understood in its concrete sense the family is the conduit through which the learned traditions and cultures that shape us, shape the next generation. Why is this significant for a discussion on property? Quite simply, it provides the conservative with a motive to policy; for the family to exist in a stable and sustainable manner, and create a tangible world that is ‘theirs’, it is essential that it settles itself in a home, for which property is absolutely essential. Here then, we can see where the conservative attachment to property truly manifests itself; not as an abstract appeal to self-ownership or atomised individuals, but as a conduit through which one can learn to be a member of society through his family’s safe and stable existence.

Property is understood, therefore, in its concrete and 'real' sense; as a material thing, that I may hold in transit if only to protect it against the ravishes of time so that it may be enjoyed by others after me, as I have enjoyed it myself. It is not understood as an abstract concept, as anything over which I may claim; I do not own myself completely, because I have not had complete sovereignty in the creation of myself. Furthermore, this attitude to property helps to explain both the natural human tendency to create a home in geographical boundaries (turning a "space" into a "place") rather than merely abandon each plot of land once the next generation is born, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, and the conservative attachment to national politics. The nation-state has become the most stable form of loyalty to which one can affix himself, because it offers an inclusive method of membership (compared to the society of "true believers" in a religious community, for example) and because it has a tangible essence in the world; we know this place is home, because our parents knew it was home too. Property offers a route through which loyalty can be understood and enjoyed, and through loyalty, membership. 

Though conservatism may have been hijacked in recent decades by the atomising project of neoliberalism, it is possible to reclaim it from the social degradation of unbound individualism. We as conservatives must recognise the wealth of culture our society has generated, and how that society has generated us.

 

 

 

This article is the first in the ‘A Brief History of Conservatism’ series by Jake Scott. The topic for the next article shall be ‘Free Speech’.

 

References

[1] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/houseofcommons/reformacts/overview/furtherreformacts/

[2] See Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, especially chapter seven

[3] See Anthony Quinton’s ‘Conservatism’ in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy

[4] See Nathan Sclueter’s ‘What is Conservatism?’ in Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?

[5] See Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism

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