Does conservatism reflect the interests of the privileged and prosperous?

Critics of conservatism have argued that the ideology only reflects the interests of the privileged and prosperous, however it is not as clear-cut as that. Whilst one can identify several reasons why this line of argument has strong validity, conservatives will point to One Nation conservatism and Christian Democracy as examples of conservatism's wide appeal.

Critics of conservatism have argued that the ideology only reflects the interests of the privileged and prosperous, however it is not as clear-cut as that. Whilst one can identify several reasons why this line of argument has strong validity, conservatives will point to One Nation conservatism and Christian Democracy as examples of conservatism’s wide appeal.

Conservatives have pointed to paternalism as a way in which the less well-off in society are helped by conservatism. Paternalism, particularly the One-Nation form of conservatism, follows the principle of ‘noblesse oblige’, where the better off have a moral duty to help the less well-off. For conservatives, freedom is not understood in negative terms (an absence of external restrictions) like classical liberals see it. Instead, freedom is a willing acceptance of social obligations and thus is considered to be ‘doing one’s duty’. This line of thought was first put forward by Benjamin Disraeli in the 1860s and led to the establishment of the Second Reform Act of 1867, which gave the working class the right to vote. ‘Tory Democracy’, a strand of One-Nation conservatism, can also be seen to be reformist as it also aims to implement social reform. However, this is done to widen the base of support for traditional institutions such as the monarchy and the House of Lords, so in that sense it can be seen to reflect the interests of the privileged and prosperous.

The One-Nation principle of ‘noblesse oblige’ has been attacked, however, for hiding the true motive for social reform. Disraeli argued that the oppressed working class would not accept its misery for long, so reform was seen as a way of stemming the tide of revolution. This would help preserve the natural order, which was believed to develop naturally out of an organic society. Therefore, One-Nation conservatism can be seen to be merely a form of ‘enlightened self-interest.

Furthermore, the conservative principle of authority has come under attack. Conservatives believe that tradition can lead to rootedness and security because traditional concepts and institutions are familiar and reassuring, made all the stronger as it is rooted in an historical context. Because humans are emotionally imperfect, change leads to instability and insecurity, which reduces happiness. De Maistre, a critic of the French Revolution, argued that revolution and reform would weaken the chains that bind people together and lead to chaos and oppression. Thus, by arguing against change, the interests of the privileged and prosperous are upheld.

The conservative belief in authority has also been criticised. Authority, the right to exercise power other others, is seen by conservatives as a guarantee of social order because it provides security and stability. People know ‘where they stand’ and what their roles are in society. There are those that are ‘leaders’ and those that are ‘followers’. This is reflected in Edmund Burke’s belief in a ‘natural aristocracy’. This is criticised in particular by anarchists, who view any form of authority as destructive as it leads to oppression and exploitation. Therefore, for critics, authority cements the position of those at the top of the hierarchy, and thus preserves the interests of the privileged and prosperous. However, conservatives would argue that this is for everybody’s benefit.

The New Right has been criticised for legitimising social inequality. Critics say that deregulation and lower taxes is aimed at making the rich richer, and spending cuts and the ‘rolling back’ of welfare only serve to make the poor poorer. Social democrats have had particular problems with conservatism’s anti-welfare policy. Such anti-welfarism was proposed by Robert Nozick, who argued that redistribution is a violation of property rights. If property is acquired justly, to transfer it without consent amounts to legalised theft. Social democrats see this as helping the rich keep their wealth and privileged position in society at the expense of the less well-off. For them, welfare is the principal means of reforming capitalism as it can redistribute wealth to help people out of poverty. Thus, for critics who follow the social democrat line of argument, New Right economics leads to the rich being given advantages at expense of the poor. However, conservatives would argue that welfare is the cause of disadvantage as it saps self-respect and initiative by robbing them of dignity. Thus, anti-welfarism is seen to actually help the poor.

The New Right, in particular the neoliberal stance, towards individualism and meritocracy can be seen to help those who are not privileged and prosperous because it is orientated around all members of society. The free-market is seen as a mechanism that can provide opportunities for the poor to become richer because everyone can benefit from the efficiency and dynamism of the market. As long as you work hard, anyone can succeed because you are ‘assessed’ based upon skills and talents, which come through hard work, rather than natural factors that are not earned. Furthermore, the neoconservative view of state authoritarianism can also be seen to benefit the less well-off. A tough stance on law and order and a strengthening of social discipline helps the poor as everyone benefits from the secure, stable and safe society that peace brings.

Christian Democracy is a branch of conservatism that can clearly be seen to have the interests of the less well-off at heart. Christian democracy follows the paternalistic social traditions of Catholicism and advocates the social market economy, where the market economy is supported by a comprehensive welfare system and effective public services. This stresses partnership and cooperation, and thus focuses more on the social group than on the individual. Furthermore, Christian democracy advocates the importance of intermediate institutions such as churches, unions and business groups working together in social partnerships. Therefore, it can be seen that Christian democracy does not merely reflect the interests of the privileged and prosperous, and instead seeks to help those who are less well-off.

Conservatism can be seen to reflect the interests of the privileged in the way in which it identifies multiculturalism as a threat. Conservatives, particularly neoconservatives, agree with nationalists that the nation is capable of binding society together by giving it a common culture and civic identity. Multiculturalism is seen to weaken this by threatening the political community and creating the spectre of ethnic and racial conflict. Therefore, conservatives argue that privileged status should be granted the ‘host’ community’s culture or assimilation (where the cultural minority is absorbed into the ruling culture) should occur. Many cultural minorities, for example Bangladeshis in the UK, tend to be amongst the less well-off and least privileged in society. Thus, excluding them from exhibiting their cultural might be seen as reflecting the interests of the privileged and prosperous. However, conservatives would argue that multiculturalism is inherently flawed and leads to fractured and conflict-ridden societies because suspicion, hostility and even violence become accepted as facts of life. Thus, for them rejecting multiculturalism is beneficial for any less well-off minority groups.

In conclusion, conservatism has come under frequent attack for reflecting the interests of the privileged and prosperous. Indeed, nearly all strands of conservatism seem to reflect the interests of the privileged in some way – One-Nation conservatism defends  natural hierarchy – but at the same time these same strands also emphasise the interests of the less well-off, for example One-Nation conservatism’s principle of ‘noblesse oblige’. Therefore, it is far too simplistic to say that conservatism merely reflects the interests of the privileged and prosperous.

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