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 C - Conservatism


Conservatism: Political orientation that strives to conserve the existing political and social situation.

It is difficult to define conservatives and conservatism precisely, especially if one wants to make the definition apply to conservatism in different European countries, like England, Holland, France and Germany. Even so, the common core is - the desire for - the preservation of the existing social system, and the existing religious or political traditions, usually on the grounds that these have proved themselves to work and that to give them up or to radically alter them will probably lead to a worse system.

Most conservatives take inspiration from Edmund Burke, who has the merit of being a great writer and a rather clear thinker. His most important book is 'Reflections on the Revolution in France', which was directed against the dangers presented by the revolution in France of 1789 and the following years, and also against the ideas and values that inspired that revolution. It contains a lot of fine writing, and some good arguments, next to some bad, which were ably exposed by another fine writer and younger contemporary of Burke, Thomas Paine.

Here is a useful summary of Burke's ideas by Lord Hugh Cecil, quoted in Buck's 'How Conservatives Think' - incidentally a booklet that conveys the impression that in England one can hardly be a prominent conservative and fail to be a lord:

"In the first place Burke insisted on the importance of religion and the value of its recognition by the State. Secondly, he hated and denounced with his whole heart injustice to individuals committed in the course of political or social reform. Thirdly, he attacked the revolutionary concept of equality, and maintained the reality and necessity of the distinctions of rank and station. Fourthly, he upheld private property as an institution sacred in itself and vital to the well-being of society. Fifthly, he regarded human society rather as an organism than a mechanism, and an organism about which there is much that is mysterious. Sixthly, in close connection with this sense of the organic character of society, he urged the necessity of keeping continuity with the past and making changes as gradually and with as slight a dislocation as possible." (p.12)

Let us consider these points in succession, but start by remarking that much of what one thinks about conservatism will depend on - what one thinks are - the merits and demerits of the society and social traditions it tries to conserve and at best to slowly and carefully alter without revolution or radical changes.

For example, there certainly have been conservative fascists and communists, who wished to conserve fascism or communism - yet, presumably, e.g. many English conservatives from the Tory party will have no truck with them, and probably would insist that true Tories are also parlementarians and democrats.

This may be so, at least these days, and perhaps parlementarism and democracy (free elections) mark a difference between political conservatives and fascists or communists - though, for example, Stalin might have replied that he too was 'a democrat', and his kind of Soviet Socialism was 'a genuine People's Democracy' in which 'the People's Representatives' were 'freely and democratically elected'.

In  any case, it seems fair to assume that those will tend to be political conservatives in a society who either believe they profit by the social system and traditions they desire to conserve or believe they will be worse of when it would radically change. Here I am tacitly denying, to some extent, that most conservatives are altruistic idealists while affirming that I believe their position is mostly inspired by self-interest - but then I like to be a realist when considering politics.

Now for the points Lord Cecil derived from Edmund Burke.

1. The importance of religion:

I happen to be an atheist, but I agree any society is based on some set of ideological ideas, that may well be religious, and I am also willing to at least consider the notion that the average of mankind is more likely to behave morally to their fellows if they feel threatened by hell-fire or supported by heavenly rewards. Indeed, Plato also toyed with that notion - that to maintain morality ordinary men need to be deceived by some sort of religious and moral myths.

My general answer is that I prefer a society based on truth, or at least on speaking truly about such beliefs as one really has, and not on deception. This also implies that my estimate of the importance of religion is mostly negative, since I believe all religions are delusions, and I insist that all religious believers should agree with me here about all religions except their own.

2. The injustice that befalls individuals during radical reforms:

There are memorable passages in Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' concerning ex-queen Marie Antoinette's fate, that moved Burke a lot.

But precisely these passages have been effectively lampooned by Paine - and indeed the general point is that there may be a lot of injustice to many individuals in a society prior to a reform, and indeed as part of the cause for the reform.

3. The untenability of universal human equality:

Indeed, 'Égalité! Fraternité! Liberté!' were the catch-words of the French Revolution - and they ended in Robespierre's Rule of Terror, to be followed by Napoleon's coup d'état and coronation as emperor. And it certainly is true that in all known complex human societies - even those where this was officially denied, such as Maoist China - there have been considerable inequalities in income, power, and social status.

The same is true in the United States, were 'all men are born equal' according to the Constitution, but a small percentage of the population owns most of the income and shares in profitable corporations, and a large percentage is free but not at all rich or prosperous.

And indeed, I do not believe myself in universal human equality - but my reason is not that I believe in blue blood, in a native nobility, or in some sort of Herrenmoral, nor in any kind of racism, but because I believe that, first, there are considerable differences in native talents of all kinds, that are such in humans that percentually few are truly smart or truly attractive or truly strong, for example, and many have no outstanding talent at all, and not out of choice or personal demerit, but because outstanding talent is - so far - mostly innate and due to chance. 

In fact, of every 10.000 human beings that are born only 1 or less will be remembered for something outstanding (good or bad) after their deaths - the vast majority of mankind is known, if at all, to few and that only during their own lifetimes, and after their deaths it soon will be as if they did not individually exist at all, for none of the later living will have any individual knowledge of or appreciation for them.

So it seems to me that a good human society takes care to select the relatively few that are genuinely talented in any useful way, and at least helps them to cultivate, develop and use these talents, even if this may seem unfair to those who are not talented, simply because 'The best education for the best is in the best interest of all' (Hutchins, slightly reformulated). And here I am not merely speaking of the extra-ordinarily or specially talented few, but of everyone with any useful ability: A society is better and may be better to the extent that it educates its individuals to the best of their abilities, and rewards them fairly for the use of these abilities.

To conclude this topic of equality, it makes sense to note three common confusions concerning equality.

First, 'equality of all', which is a fiction; irrational (if all were equal there would be no more than one individual, at most); and dangerous for a free society, is often confused with 'equality for the law': the principle that equal crimes merit equal punishments. Equality for the law is a highly desirable principle of justice and fairness.

Second, although different individuals cannot possibly be equal, a fair case can be made for the overall desirability - with some exceptions - of equal rights for all, where 'rights' again refers to legal rights, and as in the case of equality for the law, again the principle of equal rights seems mostly just and fair.

Even so, there are and should be some exceptions, namely for those individuals who have proved themselves to be either considerably better or considerably worse than most, and also with respect to education, since a good case could be made for the proposition that, whereas all should have equal rights for a good education, only those who have passed some level of education should have the right to vote.

Third, and related to the previous point, at present, in Western so called democracies - in fact mostly: Oligarchies moderated by periodic parliamentary elections - the majority of voters neither has the qualifications nor the desire to judge the subjects and persons they vote on rationally: Most lack the relevant knowledge, and many do not have the talents to acquire it, yet their votes count as the equal of the far fewer votes of the rational and educated minority there also always is in any human society. In short: The notion of 'one man, one vote' is rational and just only in those cases where the men who vote are roughly equal in qualifications to rationally judge the subject they vote on, or at least all pass minimal standards for making rational judgments on the topic they vote on.

4. The importance of maintaining private property:

This seems to be a quite reasonable idea (apart from calling it 'sacred'), if only because it has turned out that societies where private property did not exist, in name, were usually dictatorships in which a small minority of state-officials and bureaucrats had full power over all and effectively owned and exploited the supposedly common property of all for their own interests.

A related but distinct point is that human beings can only feel their own feelings and are much moved by self-interest, and are willing to cooperate peacefully with their fellows, provided they are remunerated well, and can keep and use the remuneration as they please.

A final point is that while it may be agreed that there also are evils associated with private property, such as the exploitation of the poor by the rich, most of these evils may be removed or much diminished by good legislation - as indeed happened to a considerable extent under capitalism in Europe in the 20th Century.

5. The organismic and mysterious qualities of human society:

There is some truth in these Burkean tenets, for there is certainly much to know about human beings and their societies that is presently unknown, even to such eminent minds as tend to be sociologists. But then again, it is easy to exaggerate and indeed mystify these things, and in fact I do not believe that this point, whatever its - degree of - truth may be, is much of a point in favor of conservatism, or indeed against non-conservatism.

The main issue here is that whatever can be rationally done about human society and human beings must be based on rational knowledge, which certainly at present is, and will long continue to be, partial, partially mistaken, and incomplete, whatever one's personal political or ethical convictions, and wholly apart from the problem in what sense and to what extent a human society is 'an organism'.

What is true, though, is that most radical social changes, reforms and revolutions have failed, and have often failed in atrocious ways, like Soviet socialism did fail. But this is less due to 'organismic and mysterious qualities' inherent in human society than caused by false social theories, bad planning, human weakness, corruption, incompetence, the abuse of idealist plans for personal profit, and the human-all-too human fact that 'all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' (Lord Acton).

6. The desirability of avoiding revolutionary changes and radical reforms:

There is considerable practical justification in this tenet, summed up by the previous paragraph.

Even so, the main problem here is the sort of society one is conservative about:

Is it a just society? Does the majority in it lead happy and rewarding lives? Does it maintain the basic human freedoms - of speech, of organization, of habeas corpus, of a fair and public trial?

If so, it is wise not to try to submit such a society to revolution or radical reform. If not, that is, in case - for example - the majority is exploited and repressed by a minority, or the lives that most must lead are drab, dreary, artificial, phoney, unhappy and unrewarding, or most are not free to say what they want, or not free to organize themselves to better their positions, or can be arrested without reason, or tried secretly or by unfair laws, then there may be very good reasons to attempt to make some sort of revolution or start some kind of radical reform.

Yet one may be certain that those in power in an unjust, unfair, repressive society or dictatorship will appeal to the arguments of the conservatives to try to maintain the status quo - and will most probably lie when doing so.

Hence, having considered these six conservative theses, I find that I can mostly agree with only two of them:

I agree that universal human equality is a fiction, and to try to impose it requires some sort of dictatorial levelling of nearly all to the level of the least meritorious, simply because these may be in majority, while this is in the interest of none, not even the silent majority of men without any major or outstanding merit; and I agree private property should be preserved in some form, because it both involves the best motivation for peaceful human cooperation, and the best overall protection of individuals against other individuals.

Finally, there are two other points with which I more agree than disagree with conservatives like Burke:

First, I am not a great optimist about the rationality, decency, fairness, justice, courage, honesty or probity of most human beings - and indeed, it would seem to me that Lord Cecil would have been wise to add this as a seventh feature of Burkean conservatism. However, the reason Cecil probably didn't do so is that he was a Christian, who believed in men's Fall and Original Sin. (*) I do not, but I do agree that this fundamentally false doctrine contains a sound insight about human nature, at least on average, that may be adequately summed up by noting that most men are capable of doing much evil, while they incline to do little good, mostly to their family or friends, and that most men find it easy to carry the burden of other men's suffering, and especially if they profit from it.

Second, as I pointed out earlier but deserves stressing: Most of the evil that men do, is committed in the name of the noblest sounding reasons, and under the guise of highly optimistic but false ideals about the good that men may do and are capable of. This holds both of the many and atrocious wars of religion, and of the many and usually atrocious social revolutions - for the conservatives are right in one sense, ever since Burke reflected on the revolution in France: Most social revolutions fail, and bring great misery for many, and great riches and power for few, who usually are not at all the best nor the brightest nor indeed honest in the principles they falsely pretended to achieve power.

(*) Psalm LI.5: 'Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.' Idem .14: 'Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud thy righteousness.' (Illustrated Family Bible)



See also: Anarchism, Communism,  Fascism, Liberalism, Socialism, Ethics, Morals, Politics, Sociology, Ordinary Men, Democracy, Parlementarism


Buck, Burke, Paine

 Original: Mar 11, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top