A Brief History of Conservatism (IV): Government

Since the advent of Thatcherism, conservatives have been increasingly confused over their own attitude to government. The Thatcherite mantra of “rolling back the frontiers of the state” hid a deceptively subtle shift in the frontiers of the state, rather than its simple reduction. Nor is this a British headache only; Schleuter and Wenzel discuss the libertarian-conservative debate that penetrates this argument in the United States deeply[1]. But the debate goes back further than merely the neoliberal intervention of the 1980s.

Forget for a moment the modern “progressive alliance” between liberals and socialists, and instead imagine two major moments in British political history when liberals and conservatives joined forces against the threat of socialism. The first, in the late-1700s and early-1800s when the radical Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was published and the French Revolution engulfed the continent, saw the fusion of the Whigs and the Tories into the beginnings of the modern Conservative Party. Indeed, part of the reason for this was that the Whigs were inherently conservative, in that their concern was economic liberalism – in fact the father of conservatism, the “arch-conservative” himself Edmund Burke was a Whig[2]. Curious as well then, that Friedrich Hayek, who once wrote an essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, also identified himself as a Whig.

The second major event was the victory of the Labour Party in 1945 and the subsequent collapse of the Liberals. This led to a flight from the Liberals into the Conservatives – in fact one author notes that many local branches of the Conservative Party changed their names to the Conservative-Liberal Association. This long tradition of economic liberalism pulling against social paternalism – what Greenleaf considered the “libertarian-paternalist division” – came to a head in the 1980s when the social liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a reactionary backlash[3] that tangibly fused the twin strands of economic liberalism and social paternalism for the first time, creating an ‘ideological moment’. In many ways then, ‘Thatcherism’ is merely a new term for an old mantra.

But this does little to explain the conservative approach to government, and why libertarians find it so difficult to accept the conservative attitude of limited but responsible government, not minimal government (or ‘minarchy[4]). As Roger Scruton’s essay “Governing Rightly” shows us, man is not born free (as Rousseau liked to pretend) but is born with a capacity for freedom that emerges only when the “absolute abandon” of the state of nature is discarded. To see the limits to our behaviour as decided by the State as controlling, is to ignore both the origins of those limits, and the institutions that sustain them. In a forthcoming article, on “freedom”, I shall explain further, but consider the first institution into which we are born; the family. It is as part of the family that we learn and adopt behaviours and practices as ours; our parents behave and talk in a certain way and, because we are exposed to them the most, these have a permanent imprint on our own behaviours and speech. Inevitably, as we grow older, we encounter more and more institutions that shape our behaviour: for instance, at school we learn that bullying is wrong, alongside our studies; in sports teams, we learn the importance of teamwork and cooperation, and that competition is healthy; in our own friendship groups we develop values and, in many ways, our own languages that reinforce these bonds. These many small groups that exist are what Edmund Burke referred to as the “little platoons” of society, and make up the civil order we are all part of.

Michel Foucault surveyed these “little platoons” with disdain, and referred to the over-arching constraining values and practices as the “disciplinary society”, arguing that we move through different power structures through our lives, internalising the concept of obedience constantly in order for the “powers that be” to control our lives[5]. What Foucault forgot, as well as consciously ignored, was that the limits to our behaviour exist to protect us, not control us, as I shall explain in the aforementioned forthcoming article. But the other significance of Foucault was that he concluded – and to a degree, correctly – that these disciplinary structures were the product of a grand, central authority’s design, in the Marxist tradition of ideology[6].

Where Foucault was right is that schools, hospitals, volunteer groups, youth clubs, and all major institutions that are now run by the State are like creeping tentacles with which the State can wrap itself around society and subtly control our behaviour, aimed in a particular direction (the current fashionable end is equality). Where Foucault was wrong is that this was not always the case. Many of the institutions that we now take for granted as “run by the State” mostly began life as volunteer groups, set up by local powerful organisations – aristocrats, charities, the Church – and staffed by local volunteers with no motive other than to help one another. The reason Burke referred to these as “little platoons” was because he saw them as significant groups in the fight against tyranny, as spontaneously emerging local associations that existed independent of the State, and therefore free from its control. Once the State moves in to run these institutions, they can be directed towards a specific end, and the freedom they represent vanishes. Sadly, Foucault is right, though he perhaps would be shocked at how right he is.

However, the late-19th and early-20th century conservative attitude to the institutions of civil society is anachronistic, clinging to a lost world in which voluntary action was possible due to aristocratic backing and wider Church-going. We must be pragmatic, and see the world for what it is. The size and scale of civil society demands that the State be more involved in social life, though the line that needs to be drawn becomes difficult to see when we ask exactly why the State should interfere in the behaviour of civil society. As I argued in the previous article, conservatives would see the State’s ‘interference’ in the workings of capitalism to be intrusive and wrong where it interferes to guide it towards an ideological goal, yet is applauded when it is done to ensure social harmony and prevent the collapse of social order.

What we see emerging, then, is a philosophy of balance; whereas socialists believe government can only ever be good, and libertarians believe it can only ever be bad, conservatives believe that government can only ever be. To the conservative, government is a natural and irresistible conclusion of the natural association of free individuals, but a free association that demands structure and rules to ensure harmonious living. And it is the most harmonious form of association; Scruton argues that the nation-state, the most persistent and stable expression of government since the emergence of the Westphalian System in 1848, offers the most inclusive method of social membership, because membership is dependent on behaviour and not characteristics[7]. For example, a state built on the tenets of a religious belief can only ever include members of that religion but, as we have seen with the murderous brutality of Daesh, these members must be “true believers”, a goal whose posts can be continuously shifted to exclude and include those out of and in favour with the rulers. Furthermore it is one of the great ironies of liberal ideology that modern Western states, so attached to political liberalism, are inclusive to a destructive degree; the behaviour of citizens in the Westphalian model offers a route through which stability can be achieved, because discrimination of behaviour is based on the rule of law, not an arbitrary pre-ordained ideal, yet now we are witnessing the rise of arrests made for comments made on social media, as crimes committed against liberal inclusivity, while the pluralism pursued by government allows for exclusion of certain behaviours from the hand of the rule of law, such as the disturbing rise of forced marriage, or the revolting increasing of paedophilia.

Conservatives see these rules as emerging from below and through experience, meaning that law and order as enforced by the State should be made by the people, not by alien agents forcing an agenda on a people who do not want it. Some may argue that liberal and socialists are still “of the people” because they are, at the end of the day, people and chosen by their constituents. But they are not agents of the people; they are agents of ideology, and ideology can never belong to the people, because its focus is on the future, on some indeterminate utopia when its goals have been achieved, whatever they may be and whenever that time may come.

Finally, the pluralist conception of the State, as one that remains neutral in with regards to values and morality, is one rejected by conservatives because it reduces the State to a mouthpiece of individual preferences as opposed to a behaviour-shaping institution. This means that conservatives would not consider laws based on personal likes and dislikes to be legitimate; instead the only legitimate laws are those that point to an enduring moral framework. Schlueter uses the example of the immorality of rape compared to a dislike of bananas to illustrate this point; laws prohibiting rape are not based on the simple excuse that legislators dislike rape, but instead are made because the phrase “rape is wrong” is “a true statement about the structure of reality and [is] therefore expressed in the third person”, whereas a law made prohibiting the sale of bananas would be a product of personal preference[8].

This is where conservatives must tread a steady line with government action; it must be responsible and follow the flow of society, as well as offering moral guidance and conditions for the achievement of happiness, and occasionally offer positive examples where the fabric of society looks to be tearing itself apart. But it cannot force onto people what they do not want.




This article is the fourth in the ‘Brief History of Conservatism’ series by Jake Scott. The topic for the next article shall be ‘Society’.

[1] See their phenomenal series of essays, Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives? The Origins of the Libertarian-Conservative Debate.

[2] See Robert Eccleshall’s Conservatism

[3] See Ewan Green’s Ideologies of Conservatism, chapter nine

[4] See Nikolai Wenzel’s essay ‘What is Libertarianism?’ in Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?

[5] See Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, especially chapter one.

[6] For an explanation of the Marxist understanding of ideology, see Leopold’s essay “Marxism and Ideology: From Marx to Althusser” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies.

[7] See Scruton’s How to be a conservative, especially chapter three

[8] See Schlueter’s essay ‘What’s wrong with Libertarianism?’ in Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?

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