Conservatism. It’s a word that gets used and thrown around a lot. It’s a label that some take great pride in and a label used to mock and deride. In an age where many formerly powerful and poignant words have been reduced to a state of being meaningless through overuse and straining of their real meaning, I believe it is time that we take a step back to try and recapture the essence of Conservatism and why it is still a powerful force for good in society today.
I believe that Conservatism is relevant now more than ever as it is a way of thinking which is not ‘stuck’ in the past but is firmly grounded in what we have inherited, making it all the more confident and secure in moving forward. In a world of blindingly fast-paced change, it is the soundness and stability of Conservatism which can facilitate change for good in order to better preserve that which we hold dear. In Burke’s words, Conservatives at once preserve and reform.
By touching on how a Conservative views the State, Society and conceives of oneself within the everyday, I hope to capture the essence of what it means to be a Conservative: keeping the past close while looking toward the future through this lens.
To a Conservative, the State, through its institutions and statues, is the powerful expression of history and the shared experiences of generations past. It is an expression which is not a mere irrelevant background to one’s life or a ‘night watchman’ state but a body in which one can sense the will and wisdom of those who have come before. The celebrated conservative philosopher Roger Scruton thus writes:
“that the role of the state is…both less than the socialists require and more than the classical liberal permit.”
The State is not to be held up as the centre and overbearing master of one’s life. At the same time, there can be no freedom without the State, only anarchy and the prevalence of the evil doctrine that ‘might is right’.
Bound up with the respect for institutions and bodies that have long existed before us is the solemn duty to act as caretakers for these good things to pass on to the next generation. Conservatives see the current freedom and state of being we enjoy as an inheritance from generations past who signed the Magna Carta, ignited the fires of the Reformation, staged the Glorious Revolution, wrote the Declaration of Independence, among other pivotal moments in history which embodied and emulated higher ideals. These events are a sequence of slow, often unnoticeable evolutionary moments from anarchy to civilisation whose legacies we have no right to tamper with unnecessarily or with blundering carelessness for the sake of expediency.
Disraeli, writing against the Utilitarians of his time, recognised that building sound government was not a process that could be achieved in a short time nor could sound government be founded on “abstract principles of theoretic science”. Rather, he held that a solid State is the practical result of a nation’s history, events, experiences and by studying these one comes to see “certain principles of ancestral conduct” which are the “causes that these institutions have flourished.” The Conservative affirms Disraeli’s prescription for sound government: practical and grounded in past wisdom.
A Conservative looks at Society not as one all-encompassing and levelling body but as a united, strong body bound together with the fibres of relationships and duties between citizens, family members and friends.
To Conservatives, the family is the building block of society: where individuals grow and are nurtured. Individuals themselves, in their relations with others, form clubs and groupings. From such interactions across history, society has built up traditions and norms that are expressions of deeper truths. It is from these small relations and groupings that the State finds its cornerstone and in which a Society finds vitality and meaning.
At a shallow level, these relations are not too different from the co-operation or ‘catallaxy’ described by Hayek and Von Mises that occur in the pursuit of economic and material gain to produce what they call ‘Society’. However, while the Conservative affirms that the Free Market, Private Property and the Division of Labour are systems that have produced astonishingly positive outcomes for living standards, they reach for a higher nourishment, sense of worth and belonging beyond the economic realm. Society is not solely co-operation for the achievement of separate aims and productive increase (while this is undoubtedly a good thing) but is also about relationships with humans as an end in itself.
An important part of what Scruton calls ‘Realms of Value’ are these meaningful relationships and groupings at the ‘micro’ level that we hold dear, cannot put a price on and yet are integral to a cohesive Society. While Conservatives unequivocally affirm the Free Market as the best way to provide for wants, create wealth for all and distribute resources, they do not see it as ‘God’. There are some things Conservatives hold dear that cannot be priced, bought and traded.
Finally, the way in which the Conservative conceptualises oneself within the framework of the State and the bonds of Society is unique. The Conservative sees oneself as free and as an individual but not existing free of duties and responsibilities both to those around oneself and those who are yet to be born. Conservatives do not cry “Freedom!” as an end in itself but see Freedom as existence under the Rule of Law concomitant with ordered society and meaningful relationships. Individualism run rampant is dangerous, to a Conservative, and everything must find meaning within certain frameworks. Individualism finds its meaning in the relationships and duties one owes to those around him and to future generations.
Burke, fearing that the State and Society were being ruthlessly torn apart during the French Revolution correctly predicted that cruel oppression of the individual that comes when man returns to a state of anarchy, without the necessary structures to ensure freedom and the legitimate coercion needed to uphold the Rule of Law. Conservatives recognise that man’s natural, ‘pre-civilisational‘ state is to be a ‘judge in his own cause’ and thus they cling steadfastly to order in Society as the only safeguard against the Rule of Might.
Conservatism is still powerful because, now more than ever, it is relevant. With the pace of change in not only the social sphere but in the political, environmental, technological and economic spheres, all interlinked and producing a reinforcing cycle, the Conservative seeks to preserve that which is good and that which one has inherited and at the same time change and adapt the existing if necessary, but always with great caution and circumspection, in order to leave behind a solid foundation for those that are yet to come, still firmly grounded on values expressed since time immemorial.
Conservatism does not look to the past and yearn for a return to the ‘good old days’. It looks to the past for guidance and security. It looks to collective wisdom and shared experience for counsel. It is found firm in the past so that it may look and strive forward with confidence that the same security and stability will continue, no matter the current situation.
In short, Conservatives draw on the capital of collective wisdom to meet the challenges of the future in a way that preserves the fundamental fabric of a cohesive and free society.