Conservative Thought in the Time of Covid
With the arrival of Covid, and the reactions across the world which have involved locking down entire communities, this may be an appropriate time to have a look at what it means to be a conservative in relation to politics. There have been massive efforts, largely successful, by the non-conservative side of politics to employ the pandemic in attempting to subvert our established political order. We will only know in years to come how successful these efforts have been, but they are nevertheless a useful reminder of the political dangers which perennially exist from those who would like to run our societies from the centre.
I am hardly the first to try to define and explain what it means to be a political conservative, but have also been led to this by reading Jordan Peterson’s most recent book, which I reviewed in Quadrant in May under the title, “Abandon Ideology”, which was an instruction from Peterson himself. There I wrote:
Here we must confront the North American conservative/liberal distinction he [Peterson] embeds. This is from Rule I:
Some people are temperamentally predisposed to conservatism, and others to a more liberal creative perception and action … Those who tend toward the right, politically, are staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past … Those who rise to the top can do so through manipulation and the exercise of unjust power … It is this corruption of power that is strongly objected to by those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum, and rightly so. [emphasis added]
This is straight-out wrong, politically ignorant and offensive. This may be the kind of statements required to get such a book published during the times in which we live. But whatever the reason, you would hope Peterson might have noticed the kinds of people who had embraced his previous writings. These are sentiments that will put off all kinds of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to what he writes.
Let me add, before I go on, that the three greatest American presidents of my lifetime—John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump—had almost identical political views. Kennedy was elected as a Democrat in 1960, while by the time Reagan, in 1980, and Trump, in 2016, were elected they had left the Democrats, and ran as Republicans. Reagan famously stated that it had not been he who had left the Democratic Party, but that the Democratic Party had left him. The political values of all three were essentially the same—conservative. Just as Jordan Peterson himself is a conservative who seems to classify himself as a liberal.
Modern conservatives are classical liberals
To add an extra bit of difficulty, one of the major problems in explaining what it means to be a conservative in the modern age is that classical conservatism of the nineteenth century often ran under the banner of liberalism. That the political Left in the United States has appropriated the name “liberal” has brought endless confusion into political discourse. But let me begin by referring to the political ethos of England’s greatest Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Here is the definition of “Gladstonian liberal” from Wikipedia, which seems accurate enough:
Gladstonian liberalism consisted of limited government expenditure and low taxation whilst making sure government had balanced budgets and the classical liberal stress on self-help and freedom of choice. Gladstonian liberalism also emphasised free trade, little government intervention in the economy, and equality of opportunity through institutional reform. It is referred to as laissez-faire or classical liberalism in the UK and is often compared to Thatcherism.
It is also the essence of the economics and political philosophy of John Stuart Mill. See his Principles of Political Economy and On Liberty where these things are spelled out.
Personal freedom and personal responsibility within a society of limited government, tolerance and open enquiry guided by an all-pervading Judeo-Christian ethic are the core values of Gladstonian liberalism …
In foreign policy, Gladstone was in general against foreign entanglements … His goal was to create a European order based on co-operation rather than conflict and on mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.
These were people who paid attention to the past, learned from it, and sought change where they believed improvements could be made. They were not “staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past”, moored to some previous set of circumstances with no wish to change.
The most important core element in classical liberalism, and thus within modern conservatism, is a defence of individual rights and personal freedom, in an economic system based on property rights and the free market. No “conservative” leader has ever tried to maintain the status quo; all of the great conservative/liberal leaders have sought changes that were designed to improve the lives of individuals and which, in fact, almost invariably brought both prosperity and individual freedom in their wake.
In the UK, the Great Reform Act of 1867 was introduced by the Conservatives led by Benjamin Disraeli. Sir Robert Peel was Conservative Prime Minister (1834–35, 1841–46), best known for introducing a police force into Great Britain, but also for repealing the “corn laws” in 1846, thus introducing free trade in the markets for grain.
It is just lazy theorising to argue that conservative principles are built around a desire to stand still under the assumption that the past is best and everything that could possibly make the world a better place has already been achieved. There has never been a conservative leader in any major nation that has not sought change. It is the principles that underlay such changes, along with the careful, prudent actions that are taken to achieve whatever changes are sought, that identify conservative political rule, and separate a conservative administration from its opponents.
Origins of “conservative” as a political term
Possibly the problem with trying to define conservatism is that if you base the definition on the word itself, it seems to imply that the aim is just to conserve, to preserve something that exists already. It therefore contains a negative connotation. If one is conservative, then one is presumably opposed to changes in general. There is no positive connotation associated with the word. If one is conservative, the word on its own does not indicate what someone is in favour of.
It was, for example, common to describe the most hard-line of the Russian Stalinists as “conservative” since their aim was to preserve the Soviet communist state while others were seeking to tear it down. Supporters of the mullahs in Iran are often described as “conservative” as well, as they attempt to preserve the Islamic Republic in its current form. There are no associated values embedded in these attempts to maintain the status quo, other than the preservation of political power amongst those who hold it. No one who supports the “conservative” political perspective of the West would support either of these governments, or their underlying values.
It is, in fact, the phrase, “the ‘conservative’ political perspective of the West”, that highlights much of what needs to be separated out and identified. Conservatism is a term that reflects a particular sub-set of political values that are associated with the European Enlightenment and grew in England, its colonies and then parts of Europe during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. It has since spread to other parts of the globe, most notably the United States, but the core understanding remains embedded in the European political tradition.
As for the origins of the term itself, according to the British Conservative David Willetts in his book Modern Conservatism (1992), “the name ‘Conservative’ was first applied to a political grouping during the [English] Reform Bill Crisis of 1830–32”. But whatever meaning this particular grouping of parliamentarians may have had in mind has long since disappeared into history, even though the name has continued forward, becoming the name of one of Britain’s major political parties: the Conservative Party was founded in 1834. (There has also been a Conservative Party in Canada since the mid-nineteenth century.)
One cannot, however, identify a conservative perspective through looking at the views and policies of political parties which travel under the name “Conservative”. The meaning of small-“c” conservatism must be distinguished from the perspective of capital-“C” Conservative labels. There are connotations that are embedded in these party names, but these connotations must be recognised as separate from the political meaning associated with the term “conservative”.
There are two broad elements associated with conservative thought, the economic and the political. They are connected through their aim to develop a political-economic structure that is based on the freedom of individuals to shape their lives to the fullest extent possible. If our prosperity is anything to go by, conservatism has proved to be the format that is best able to create wealth. And if migration patterns are anything to go by, it is the political structure best able to satisfy our human desires.
Conservatism is liberalism, but neither is a form of socialism
But first, this great confusion about the use of the term “liberal” which has been confiscated by the political Left, much as they have stolen much else. Both terms, “liberal” and “conservative”, are essentially nineteenth-century. There was no specific ideology associated with liberal or conservative beliefs, other than a wish to allow individuals to try to make their own way in the world as best they were able. The rules were crafted to encourage and assist each individual—irrespective of race, colour, creed or sex—to achieve what they can in their own way. This is the basic definition of freedom.
The major difference that has mattered since that time has been the growth of socialism, and particularly its Marxist variety, which has become the centre of non-liberal political beliefs. While socialism sprang almost immediately to life with the coming of the market economy in the nineteenth century, political parties pursuing socialist agendas never achieved success until the start of the twentieth. The transformation of the pastoral societies that had existed since the dawn of the agricultural revolution into the hard industrial realities of the Age of Steam created tensions that are still unresolved.
And this is the dilemma. No one wishes to return to the levels of poverty that existed before the Industrial Revolution. We eat better, we live better. Our lives are longer and more varied. Not only do we have more goods and services, these goods and services are better, they come in a previously unimaginable range, and there is always the prospect of newer and better just over the horizon. Few would happily return to the less prosperous lives everyone led even just fifty years ago, never mind the hard lives of the nineteenth century. And even then, the standard of living in 1870 was so much better than it had been in 1820 that the core issue became how we could maintain our living standards without enduring the uncertainties that come with the economic structures that had produced such an unexpected bounty.
This was the terrible dilemma everyone recognised, the reconstitution of England from a Green and Pleasant Land into a landscape of Dark Satanic Mills. Efforts to ameliorate these problems were embodied in the Factory Acts, a succession of which were passed in England during the nineteenth century. The first, the Factories Act 1802 (sometimes called the “Health and Morals of Apprentices Act”), regulated factory conditions, especially in regard to child workers in cotton and woollen mills. It was the culmination of a movement originating in the eighteenth century, where reformers had tried to push several acts through Parliament to improve the health of the workers and apprentices. The act included the following provisions:
♦ Factory owners must obey the law.
♦ All factory rooms must be well ventilated and lime-washed twice a year.
♦ Children must be supplied with two complete outfits of clothing.
♦ Children between the ages of nine and thirteen can work a maximum eight hours.
♦ Adolescents between fourteen and eighteen can work a maximum twelve hours.
♦ Children under nine years old are not allowed to work but they must be enrolled in the elementary schools that factory owners are required to establish.
♦ The work hours of children must begin after six a.m., end before nine p.m., and not exceed twelve hours a day.
♦ Children must be instructed in reading, writing and arithmetic for the first four years of work.
♦ Male and female children must be housed in different sleeping quarters.
♦ Children may not sleep more than two per bed.
♦ On Sundays children are to have an hour’s instruction in Christianity.
♦ Factory owners are also required to tend to any infectious diseases.
This was the commencement of a race between what was recognised as unacceptable on the one hand and what forms of improvements could be introduced on the other, without undermining the processes that created the astonishing stream of wealth that was pouring out across every industrialised society. This race has continued to this day, with every so often a socialist revolution of some kind taking place—Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Venezuelan—each one demonstrating, for all who are able to learn from experience, that an economy not founded on free market principles will create deep poverty that cannot be relieved until there is a return to a market-based economic structure.
Meanwhile, each of the economies that has been built on such market principles has allowed the growing prosperity to finance major institutional changes in society that have relieved the burdens of poverty, spread wealth to an ever greater proportion of the population, reduced the uncertainties that are embedded in a market-based economic system, improved the levels of welfare provided by governments, and removed an increasing proportion of the goods and services produced from the determination of individual entrepreneurs.
The union movement and the business cycle
Along with the Industrial Revolution arose the union movements, which grew as part of a process to provide a counterweight to the owners of the businesses employing labour. The shift from the rhythms set by agricultural work which went back generations and were based on seasonal patterns, to the harsher regimes of the industrial workplace was enormous and abrupt.
Similarly, the population shift from rustic settings into the suddenly emerging industrial slums of large urban settings represented in itself a massive change in the nature of life for large numbers of the population. Workers flocked to the cities since that was where the jobs were found, but the adjustment process would have been enormously difficult. These were settings ready-made for social agitation. Even now there are efforts to clean up our cities and to limit levels of pollution. How unpleasant it must have been for those who found themselves trapped in such environments in which no alternatives existed.
While from the perspective of employees, their lives may have seemed to have been under the control of employers, to those who ran such enterprises, economic success was never guaranteed and was always one bad downturn away from complete ruin. Businesses are always caught in a vice between their production costs and finding the revenues to pay their bills. Bankruptcies were an ever-present danger.
Along with the coming of the Industrial Revolution there simultaneously came something that had never before existed at any time in history, the first of the business cycles. There had been agricultural disasters, through crop failures for any number of reasons. Famine was common and always a danger. And while we have become used to the succession of good economic years and bad, these, too, were novel features of the industrialisation, difficult to understand even now, and for which there continue to be many explanations.
Moreover, the business cycle occurred with virtually no forms of publicly provided welfare and assistance available to workers and their families who had been deprived of their livelihoods during the downturns. There were few institutional structures available to help, aside from the limited availability of resources sufficient to provide assistance to those who had been deprived of paid work.
It is no wonder that in the midst of such a setting, socialist movements to bring the capitalist system to an end proliferated alongside legislative political efforts to mitigate the downsides of the growth in wealth and prosperity. Legislatively, there were efforts made to limit the jurisdiction of entrepreneurs over working conditions while also providing new forms of income support for those who had become unemployed or were no longer able to earn incomes, having become sick or injured or too old to find work.
The socialist approach was to attempt to find some mechanism to replace the market economy. The legislative approach was to attempt to rein in the problems that were associated with industrialisation while retaining the benefits associated with strengthening economies and growing prosperity. This divide has continued up until the present day, which is the core difference between “conservative” and non-conservative, whatever labels may have been attached to this latter group.
Conservatism as a set of economic principles
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 at the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution. He did not, by writing this book, cause the economic events he described, but he brought their existence to the notice of the population at large. He heralded what was to come. His use of a pin factory as the example of the division of labour indicates how early he was in bringing all this to the attention of others. Within a generation, the coming of the steam engine had transformed the nature of industry in ways that no one could ignore. In 1776, the water mill remained the main form of power generation in industry, such as it was.
The rest of this discussion of Adam Smith is adopted from my economics text Free Market Economics (2017). It was Adam Smith who identified the important features of the economic system that was about to develop across the world, with the primary aim of demonstrating the power of individuals acting in their own interests as the major driving force of economic activity. Rather than needing governments to direct economic activity from above, and make every economic decision a matter for review by government, Smith argued that economies were social institutions that could be left to run themselves.
At its centre is the argument that individuals, if left to act in their own interests, would create a world of wealth more efficiently and with more certainty than any other possible way of arranging a nation’s economic affairs. The following passage may be the most famous, most quoted passage in the whole of economic theory. It may also have been the single most influential:
[A merchant] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … He intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
The “invisible hand” of Adam Smith was a metaphor for the market. In this passage, Smith made a number of points:
♦business people do what they do as a way to earn an income;
but in going about earning their incomes, they actually do a great deal of social good even though it was not their specific intention to do so;
♦business people are only trying to create as much value as they can because whatever value they create they can exchange for other things and in this way earn a living;
♦but, unbeknownst to these business people, in acting in their own best interests, by creating value they are led by that “invisible hand” to act in ways that often turn out to be good for society as a whole;
♦indeed, had these business people actually decided to do things with the intention of benefiting society, it is uncertain whether they could have done so as effectively as they have by just building their own businesses and running their own firms.
The clear message was that no one had to run the market or the economy in general. The spontaneous actions of individuals seeking to do what is best for themselves would provide the direction and impulse for economic activity. And leaving such matters to the market would create a greater improvement in economic output and human welfare than any other possible set of arrangements. This is how Smith put this argument:
That is, individuals have only so many resources, capital and skills at their disposal. Since individuals are each trying to create the greatest amount of value they possibly can in order to earn their own incomes, when what each individual is doing is seen in relation to society as a whole, the entire economy must at the same time be creating as much value in total as that society is capable of.
Smith pointed out the motivations behind the production of goods and services by individual businesses. This, too, was a famous and influential passage from The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
In an economy where complete strangers produce for each other, there is nothing to offer someone else to produce for oneself other than what can be given in exchange. We do not go to those who sell to us and tell them how much we need their products. We only offer something of value to them (usually money) in exchange for what we want.
This is certainly the world in which we live, and it was the world in which Smith lived. Past the village and the world of tradition—outside a world where economies are directed by a central government—economic activity was a process in which both parties saw themselves as gaining through exchange. There was, of course, the entire society of morals, laws and regulations that surrounded the operation of the market whose existence was assumed. But this commonsensical statement made an immense impact because things had never before been said just like that. It made the world of commerce and industry appear for the first time as a benevolent activity which would result in greater prosperity for an increasing number of people, which is exactly how it has turned out.
Nor should it be thought that Smith had a positive view of governments. In this quote, where Smith talks about employing “their capitals” he is referring to how private individuals manage their own wealth. This is a statement that has lost none of its relevance since the day it was penned:
The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would … assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
Smith in this passage emphasises the dangers of placing too much economic power into the hands of a government and especially into the hands of individual political leaders who believe they are capable of directing economic activity. He makes no bones about it. Such concentrations of power are a danger, not just to our economic welfare, but to our personal freedom.
Smith also wrote of the dangers of government spending, with the kind of insight that the years since have done nothing to diminish. The propensity of governments to waste was recognised by Smith in ways that every generation has had to learn over again for itself:
It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people … They [governments] are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.
The consequence of The Wealth of Nations was to move the economy of England, and thereafter the economies of an increasing proportion of the world, in the direction of market forces. There have been endless efforts made by governments since Smith’s time to mitigate the externalities of market forces while at the same time encouraging and supporting private business. That is one of the two core principles of conservative thought. The non-conservative aim has been to replace private-sector business with some form of government management of industry through some form of centralised industrial control. That no such effort has ever succeeded in creating a high standard of living has been one of the main areas of political contention since the commencement of the Industrial Revolution. This division is certain to continue.
A conservative is someone who supports the continuation of a market economy where the ownership of the means of production overwhelmingly remains in the hands of individual entrepreneurs who are private citizens, who act independently of governments, and who compete with each other while remaining constrained by the laws of the land.
Progressive ideology as a set of instructions
The modern term for the non-conservative side of politics is “progressive”. In its dishonesty, it is the perfect word because it embodies the notion of some known destination, with the policies of “progressives” aimed towards reaching that destination, whatever it might be—equality, equity, justice, fairness or whatever. Those who line up behind the progressive banner support political policies aimed at some pre-determined outcome which almost invariably means the suppression if not the actual disappearance of private business.
To use the term “socialist” or “Marxist” gives the game away. Marxists seek the “classless society” in which business ownership has been abolished, the means of production are in the hands of the state, and where only the “working class” exists, led by some group of leaders who make all of the major production decisions. Socialists similarly aim to use the levers of the state to improve the living standards of selected groups who are designated as not receiving their fair share of the bounties of the economic system. Socialism is often portrayed as a halfway house on the road to a full Marxist state. There, too, there are people at the top who can never be challenged by those over whom they rule. The elimination of capitalism and capitalists is the aim, since the owners of business firms are seen as “oppressors” whose disappearance will lift the living standards and personal freedom of those who remain.
“Progressives” portray themselves as seeking similar outcomes, although those who are identified as oppressors at any particular time depends on the circumstances and the political opportunities that happen to be in play. The villains remain those who happen to be the wealthy, with the aim, to put it at its simplest, to redistribute incomes from those with the highest incomes towards those with the lowest. Not surprisingly, it is the leaders who end up with the spoils wherever such an approach has been tried.
The term “progressive” is never defined by progressives themselves because it is a concept best expressed by the phrase, “never let a crisis go to waste”. What remains constant is the use of government power in as centralised a manner as possible at any time in the name of alleviating problems or achieving the aims of its supporters, an outcome which never occurs, although there is always next time.
Covid has become yet another crisis that the political Left has employed as a device for achieving its ends. Amongst the masks and the vaccines, the most obvious element in dealing with the virus has been the shuttering of much of the private sector along with massive increases in the level of government expenditure. This has not occurred by chance. Here again we see the Left-Right, progressive-conservative divide in play. Everyone is frightened by a pandemic, which is why Covid has proven such a godsend to the Left.
Here the aim is to emphasise just what is at stake in going back to the roots of conservative thought.
Steven Kates is Associate Professor of Economics at RMIT University in Melbourne. He was the Chief Economist for the Australian Chamber of Commerce for twenty-four years. Part II of this article will appear shortly. Show your support Donate Now