At the heart of conservative philosophy, two ideas stand out as central to its vision of the world. The first of these is the desire to preserve tradition, and the second, is the commitment to preserving a hierarchical society. Conservatives have often tried to persuade us that the tried and tested ways of doing things and the benefits of a disciplined society are in the interests of everybody. These principles have conceived many different forms of conservative politics, despite this, its highly arguable that these two concerns are really two sides of the same story, with the same ending, the justification of an unequal society.
In this essay, I will seek to demonstrate that the conservative world that conservatives wish to preserve and defend, has been characterised by hierarchy. Their ongoing resistance to change has, in effect, been an attempt to preserve hierarchy in the face of democratic change. Conservatism means to be cautious, suspicious of change and to prefer to keep things as they are. An extreme conservative doesn’t change anything at all.
First developed by Edmund Burke in his book ‘Reflections on a Revolution in France’ (1790) He believed that society evolves over time through gradually accumulating wisdoms of the past, and that it couldn’t be rushed through rapid or violent change, or that it could be improved through abstract ideas or blueprints. He believed it would be extremely dangerous to base politics on the belief that people are or could be completely rational or predictable in dealing with one another.
This view has several implications, that the maintenance of peace and order in society requires a proper framework maintained by the state, that individuals aren’t capable of self-regulation and it blames human nature for problems in society. Talent and ability are not equally distributed within society so trying to impose equality in society will fail. Conservatives believe there will not be exploitation of the less privileged because those in a privileged position have the responsibility to use their advantages for the benefit of others.
“Those who attempt to level, never equalise. ” (Burke, 1790) Politically, conservatism spawned two traditions, one nation conservatism, and libertarian conservatism. One nation conservatism was developed by Benjamin Disraeli, his aim was to broaden the support of the Conservative party in the UK (not supported for it’s believes and values, but rather for its ability to win votes). He believed that the interests of uniting the British people should be far greater than the interests of those dividing them.
He believed that it’s the duty of the more privileged to look after those who are impoverished or in need. He also realised that the growing inequality in Britain had the potential to lead to a violent uprising, and seeing as the duty of conservatism is to protect property, they had to make sure this didn’t happen. As things tend to be with conservatives, the main aim was to protect the long-term interests of the wealthy, this is achieved through false class consciousness and ideas of support (albeit minimal).
One nation conservatism still operates under the belief that there is a natural hierarchy within society, with the wealthy on the top and the poor bottom, even though it sounds rough, the wealthy are only at the top because they worked to get there and therefore deserve it. Those at the top however, have a duty to alleviate the suffering of those at the bottom. Libertarian conservatism combines the ideas of libertarian politics, with classic conservative values. The biggest example of libertarian conservatism is the ‘New Right’ in the UK and US in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was actualised in Britain by the advent of Thatcherism.
While the classic conservative values were still present, it was open to things like limited state intervention and radical changes. It also introduced ideas that were foreign to conservatives like a limited welfare provision and was actually seen as a return to a more classical liberal style of government, which was previously the complete opposite to conservative ideals. The first of the two ideas - the rejection of radical change, is spurned from the idea that the society we live in is the best we can hope for, it is the product of evolution, as we as humans have worked hard to reach the position that we are currently in.
Like a good wine, our society has matured over time, so also like a good wine, why not preserve it? It’s important to learn from lessons passed down from generation to generation, and we owe it to our predecessors to learn from from the lessons of history, as it brings accumulate wisdom. Most of our modern society’s are built on tried and tested institutions which hold hundreds of years of inherited knowledge, to suddenly turn these on their head is not needed. Stress is put on historic institutions, such as church, family, monarchy, public schools and parliament.
The reason for such stress is the belief that they are vessels where the knowledge of the past is preserved, and as mentioned before preserving historical knowledge and institutions is a weapon against radical change. One of the main arguments that conservatives also incorporate in relation to historic institutions is that they stand as symbols of the nation and its history, and that by changing any of these things, that nation will lose it’s identity, its character, and all signs of the nations achievements.
This idea of conservatism also supports the theory that human beings are not equipped to produce anything better than we already have. Imperfection is a fact of human condition, and conservatives are often pessimistic of intellectual systems, as they’re seen as tools for destruction of natural order. ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capitol of nations and ages’ (Burke, 1790).
This theory tries to be realistic in its view of humanity, humans are not the altruistic creatures of liberal or socialist imagination, this is a Hobbesian view, as he said - ‘the natural state of mans life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish & short’ (Hobbes, 1651). The second idea, the belief in hierarchy has a simple basis, that it is natural, desirable and inevitable. The idea of equality is intellectual & biological nonsense. Every human is unequal in abilities, capacities, energies & talents, it makes no sense to try and promote the idea that every human is born with the same potential, it just isn’t true.
Therefore, inequality is expressed through social order, and justly, because it is far more beneficial to society to have those most able in positions of power. Historically, patterns of human authority naturally flow into hierarchy. Many skeptics of conservatives say that inequality is just another way of exploiting those less fortunate, the rebuttal to this however, is that inequality is simply the mirror of nature. another base in the belief of hierarchy, is that hierarchy is itself, the basis of order.
One of the biggest fears that conservatives share is the fear of chaos, that things will fall out of control and descend into mayhem, which is why they believe a hierarchy is needed as it stops signs of chaos before they start, if all the right people are in the positions they should be. Ideas like liberal individualism and socialist egalitarianism both undermine the natural order, and present the risk of chaos to a conservative way of life. Violence and anarchy are the results of when institutions fail to tame our nature. Many opponents of conservatism say that this point of view harbours greed-mongering politicians.
To conclude, while both ideas of conservatism have their differences, it is clear they have many more similarities, both of them point to the idea that the people on top deserve to be there, and those on the bottom deserve to as well. There is no room for those from the bottom to get to the top, and everything is done to prevent those from the top falling down to the bottom. This is all executed under the guise of ‘tradition’ and maintaining ‘natural order’ however it seems obvious that it is all designed with the idea of preserving hierarchy’s that are frankly archaic in todays world.
Burke, E, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, Pearson Longman,
Hobbes, T, Leviathan, 1651, Oxford University Press