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  Four core values lie at the heart of conservative or right-wing political thought: authority, hierarchy, property and community. These values are generally defended in a ‘common-sensical’ philosophy which rejects the idea that human beings can be perfected.

Authority Conservative political thought began as a defence of authority in all social domains. The French Revolution prompted what became known as the ‘reactionary’ right to defend the old European order. Its French exponents, most famously Joseph de Maistre, defended traditional religious authority against radical scepticism and liberal secularism; supported established monarchies against the enthusiasts for liberal republicanism; and rejected any querying of patriarchal authority in the family. Authority was defended because it preserves order: questioning authority threatens social chaos, so obedience to traditional and religiously sanctified rulers is imperative. De Maistre asserted that Europe required the restoration of the authority of ‘the pope and the executioner’. In our times religious fundamentalists of the Christian and Islamic faiths embrace a similarly theological authoritarianism. If the European reactionary conservatives, like de Maistre and his co-thinkers Bonald and Lamennais, were Catholics and monarchists, conservatives in Britain could not be. They defended a Protestant faith, an aristocratic political order, and, at most, a limited monarchy. The Irishman Edmund Burke provided the most coherent articulation of conservative philosophy in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). There he predicted that the French Revolution would degenerate into terror and dictatorship. The revolutionary destruction of hallowed customs would not improve the world but fragment it, and encourage—license—the unbridled abuse of freedom. Authority preserves traditions which contain the accumulated wisdom and experience of past generations. It is tampered with at our peril. Frenzied ‘theorizing’ revolutionaries waste these treasures. Authority permits human beings to evolve while preserving the inheritance of past civilization. Legitimate authority, founded on centuries of evolution, is preferable to the system of naked power manufactured by rationalist revolutionaries. The authoritarian preservation of established morality is superior to the license of permissive libertarianism.

The tension between the absolutism of de Maistre\'s reactionary conservatism and Burke\'s evolutionism illustrates a standard division among conservatives. Reactionaries seek to restore a vanished and frequently wholly-imagined past, offering the politics and religion of a better yesterday; whereas evolutionists argue against radical change, not against all change. European and North American liberals, who reject the reactionary conservatives\' assumptions about the unquestionable merits of ancient authority and religious tradition, have, nonetheless, often found common cause with conservatives in defence of authority, sharing the belief that order, stability and traditional family values are essential for the rule of law and the development of a free but disciplined market order. However, a fundamental chasm endures between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives have no qualms about unlimited government, as expressed, for example, in the doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ in the UK, whereas liberalism has always been a political philosophy which has sought to limit and fragment governmental authority through such devices as the separation of powers and bills of rights.

Hierarchy Conservatives like Burke and de Maistre unite in defence of traditional hierarchies. The hereditary principle whether understood as a title to property or status is considered sacrosanct. Conservatives therefore support monarchy and aristocracy as well as private property rights. By contrast, liberals reject the universal application of the hereditary principle. They believe in hereditary property rights, but not in hereditary political rights or titles. In much conservative thought hierarchy is considered the natural form of human existence, equality, by contrast, is artificial. Hierarchy is defended because it provides continuity and encourages diversity. Conservatives tended to approve 19th-century Social Darwinist ideas in which existence was seen a struggle for survival of the fittest and hierarchy the natural outcome of this struggle. Today they are inclined to believe sociobiologists who argue that there are fundamental and immutable cognitive and emotional differences between the races and sexes. Such thinking easily slips into racism, the belief that certain peoples are innately superior to others, or sexism, the belief that men are superior to women. These dispositions have led many conservatives to defend racial domination and segregation (as practised in the South African system of apartheid or in Nazi Germany), and to demand the return of women to their traditional roles of child-rearing and domestic labour. It is mistaken to assume that all conservatives share such views, or that all who hold such views are conservatives, but there is no gainsaying the historic association between conservative hierarchical political thought and racism and sexism.

Hierarchicalism also explains why conservatives have generally been suspicious of democracy, because of its levelling consequences and its rejection of caste principles in favour of the presumption of the political equality of all adult citizens. For example, the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (see below) asserts that democracy is a ‘contagion’. Conservatives gradually accepted democratic institutions, such as universal suffrage, only when they became persuaded that they would not automatically imply the eradication of privilege. Modern conservatives, such as the Austrian philosopher Friedrich von Hayek, have supported representative democracy because they see it as the best system of government for a free-market society. Representative democracy in other words is defended as a means rather than an end.

Property Conservativism shares with liberalism a firm commitment to individuals\' rights to private property in contradistinction to socialism and communism. Conservatives make two key arguments for the justice of strong private property rights. The first, deriving from John Locke (1632 - 1704), suggests that individuals have a natural right to property in whatever they have mixed their labour with, and this right is transferable. In principle all property rights can therefore be traced back to their original acquisition to see whether or not they are just—a proposition which creates some easily imagined difficulties. The second, developed in the work of the German philosopher Hegel (1770 - 1831), suggests that private property rights are essential if individuals are to be free, and able to exercise their freedom. Without strong private property rights there are no real individuals only members of tribes or the serfs of collectivist states. Conservatives part company with liberals, however, because they recognize that the claims of authority or community must sometimes have precedence over the rights of individuals. This difference explains why conservatives, especially in the European Christian Democratic tradition, sometimes accept the principles of the welfare state including progressive taxation and public provision of basic social goods which economic liberals think of as despotic intrusions on property rights. In the last two decades economic liberalism has been on the ascendant among conservatives, and political exponents of this philosophy, known as the ‘New Right’, have been especially vigorous in the English-speaking advanced liberal democracies.

Community Conservatives, unlike liberals, advocate the maintenance or the building of solidaristic unitary communities, united by bonds of affection, blood, ethnicity, language and culture. They argue that liberals are merely concerned to build associations on the basis of utilitarian standards—self-interested egoistic individuals who conduct all their social relations on a contractual basis. Romantic conservatives argue, like socialists, that industrialized economies ordered on liberal principles produce atomized individuals and rootless, bloodless cosmopolitans disconnected from history. In the past, identities were expressed in localist loyalties: to the king, the lord or the ‘village communities’ of feudal times. Subsequently conservatives have displaced such loyalties towards the nation. Having once suspected nationalism conservatives have sought to appropriate its doctrines as their own. To paraphrase Burke, the idea of the nation cuts across class distinctions to unite all in community with the dead, the living and the as yet unborn. Conservatives are rarely internationalists. They support capitalism because they see it as a good means of preserving order, hierarchy and property rights, but insist it must be regulated in the national interest. Where capitalism threatens the core values of conservatives then intervention by the authorities is considered justified. This fact explains why conservatives sometimes justify protectionism as opposed to free trade; it also explains why conservatives experience no contradiction in rejecting consumer choice in matters of sexual preference, literature and the dramatic arts. Censorship and moral regulation are considered essential to preserve a stable national community.

Anti-rationalism Conservatives, from Edmund Burke in the 18th to Michael Oakeshott in the 20th century, argue that liberals and socialists produce abstract, unfeeling, ideological and rationalist doctrines. Rationalists are accused of seeking to evaluate all social practices by the yardstick of reason alone, and thereby remorselessly corrode the complex web of habits and customs that preserve social order. They are accused of benevolent but simple-minded conceptions of human nature, which stress our cognitive abilities, our instrumental reason and our potential for altruism, but which neglect the spontaneous drives and emotions that can only be tempered by the discipline of traditional civilization. This distrust of human capacities and lack of belief in the prospects for human progress is distinctive to the conservative temperament. BO\'L

Further reading T. Honderich, Conservatism; , R. Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism.



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