The need to keep and maintain and avoid sudden political and social change is a very important theme for Conservatives, particularly for those who belong to the Traditional stream. This means that many Conservatives have tended to place an emphasis on the notion of tradition; that is, there is a need to respect and honour different institutions or different practices that have a long history.
First of all, as Edmund Burke argued, by surviving over decades, or even centuries, some of our social institutions and practices have proved to have merit. The simple fact that they have been able to survive so long is proof that they can work well, and that people value them. Furthermore, due to their longevity, they have come to incorporate important historical wisdom and experience. Consequently, it is argued that different social institutions and practices should be maintained and developed, not only for the benefit of today's generation, but also for the benefit of future generations. Some of these ideas can be seen at work when considering how some Conservatives in the UK have argued for the continuation of the monarchy. As part of these debates there are frequent references to the fact that the monarchy is an institution that has a long history and that, as a result, it is an institution with a wealth of political and constitutional experience and wisdom.
In addition, the Conservative emphasis on tradition derives from the belief that it can contribute to maintaining a sense of belonging and stability among members of society. The existence of a range of social and cultural practices that are familiar to people and have a long historical background is thought to reinforce the idea that individuals are rooted in society and have a strong connection with the generations that preceded them. Furthermore, it is argued that the fact that some of these customs are things that can be supported by all members of society can promote a sense of unity or social cohesion.
In general, the emphasis on tradition highlights an important difference between Conservatives and Liberals. Liberals tend to measure the value of institutions or social practices on the basis of their ability to serve the needs of individuals, rather than on the basis of their age and history - if institutions do not serve these needs, then they should be amended or revoked. Conservatives, however, disagree and argue that the survival of a particular institution or practice over time is itself sufficient reason to honour and respect them.
There has been a tendency among Conservatives to question whether human beings can use their reasoning to gain a full understanding of the world with all its complications. As a result, great doubts were expressed about the value of promoting a body of abstract principles, such as freedom, equality or tolerance, as guidelines to guide us in politics and in deciding how society should be organized. Rather than emphasizing abstract principles, many Conservatives have stressed the need to put faith in our practical experience, and to act in a pragmatic manner. This means that our political decisions and actions should be informed by consideration of what appears to be practical and appropriate at the time, rather than by a body of general assumptions. In other words, the choice should be whatever is likely to 'work', whatever that may be. One well-known Conservative associated with this viewpoint is the Englishman, Michael Oakshott (1901-1990). In his view the world is far too complex to be organized on the basis of a body of abstract principles. Indeed, the emphasis on pragmatism has encouraged a number of Conservatives to claim that they do not really profess a political ideology. Instead, thinkers such as Oakshott prefer to describe Conservatism as a 'way of thinking' or a 'lifestyle', where knowledge is something 'practical' that will be developed through life experience, rather than something 'technical'. accumulated through the study of textbooks and written sources.
While pragmatism is a feature that has traditionally claimed a central place in the Conservative world view, it is important to note that it does not claim such a prominent place in more recent Conservative debates. Indeed, the emphasis placed on fundamental principles is one of the distinguishing features of the New Right, which emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century from a number of earlier Conservative streams, such as the Traditional stream. For example, in the case of neo-Conservatives and non-Liberals such as von Hayek, Freedman and Nozick, the need to significantly restrict the active role of the state, particularly within the economy, is treated as a fundamental principle that should be strictly adhered to. However, in the opinion of Paternal Conservatives, such as the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold Macmillan, care should be taken not to allow the influence of the state to extend too widely, but at the same time consideration should be given to allowing the state to intervene in social or economic areas if there is a pragmatic case for doing so.
Liberalism and Socialism are political ideologies which tend to interpret human beings as 'good' in nature or that at least have the potential to be 'good', as long as their social circumstances permit that. Conservatives, however, tend to reject such assumptions and think of us as imperfect, impaired beings. This emphasis on the imperfect nature of humans manifests itself in a range of different ways.
To begin with, it is argued that our understanding of the world and its complexities is limited. This links back to the earlier emphasis on pragmatism. Because we do not have the ability to fully understand the world, it is futile to try to organize society based on a series of abstract principles. It is better to operate in a pragmatic manner based on the circumstances we face at the time.
Secondly, it is argued that human beings have important psychological weaknesses. It is claimed that, on the whole, we are creatures that shy away from loneliness and a lack of stability and that, as a result, we crave safety and security. It is interesting to contrast this uncertain picture of individuals with the liberal picture of confident individuals who have the ability to set a course for their own lives. It is this belief that individuals seek reassurance and a sense of belonging that has led Conservatives to place great emphasis on order, sometimes setting this as of more importance than freedom.
Thirdly, there is a tendency among Conservatives to claim that human beings have moral shortcomings. It is said that we are essentially selfish and greedy creatures who tend to desire power. Such a belief in the moral weakness of the individual has led a number of Conservatives to reject the belief that crime and social disorder are things arising from unfortunate social circumstances, such as poverty or inequality. Rather, it is claimed that they are the result of a fundamental moral weakness on the part of the individual. More often than not, it is possible to trace the basis of this interpretation back to ideas about original sin, and the Christian interpretation of human nature (associated with philosophers such as St Augustine) who consider that human beings are corrupt creatures who have inherited Adam and Eve's weakness and guilt. This is a further reason why conservatives tend to place emphasis on the need for order and for a government that administers a strict justice system in order to maintain that order.
An organic society
Conservatives have traditionally placed emphasis on the idea that every individual is rooted in society. It was maintained that it does not make sense to think of the individual as a creature that can exist apart from society. Instead, everyone is born to be members of larger social entities, for example the family, the community or the nation. Such links contribute to sustaining us, shaping our characters, and contributing to fostering a sense of belonging which Conservatives think is vital. Indeed, this interpretation of the significance of the connection between the individual and the wider society has caused many Conservatives to respond to the liberal emphasis on the freedom of the individual by arguing that there is also a need to remember the individual's duties or commitments towards society.
Therefore, the well-being of society as a universal entity has been an important consideration within the Conservative tradition, particularly among members of the Traditional stream. In noting this, it is also worth highlighting the particular interpretation of the nature of society that has been embraced. Traditionally, Conservatives have interpreted society as an organic entity: a living entity where different parts work together just like the heart, lungs, liver and brain do in the human body. In the case of the body, all of these organs need to work together in harmony or the whole body will fail. Many Conservatives think the same is true of society. Key elements such as the family, the local community, the church, together with a range of other traditional organizations, are thought to act as organs that support the life of the society and ensure that it runs smoothly from day to day. As a result, there has been a tendency among Conservatives to oppose developments that bring about a change in the nature or function of some of these organizations. For example, in the case of the family, concern was expressed about developments such as the changing patterns of parental work, the change in parenting practices, and most significantly, the change in our interpretation of what the family unit is and who can be parents. The Conservatives believe that such steps could jeopardize the fragile fabric that sustains society.
In recent decades the organic interpretation of society has claimed a slightly less prominent place in Conservative discussions. This is mainly due to the growth of the New Right and the way in which the neo-liberal branch of this stream has contradicted many more traditional Conservative assumptions about the nature of society. In the present context what is significant is that the neo-liberal New Right tendency to embrace the abstract individualism that was previously such a prominent feature of Classical Liberalism, has led to the creation of a world-view which, in effect, rejects the notion of society as a composite, cooperative entity. As Margaret Thatcher, one of the leading politicians of the New Right tradition, claimed there is no such thing as society, only a collection of individuals and their families.
Traditionally, Conservatives have argued that hierarchy and inequality are inevitable features of any society. This means that they assume that ensuring meaningful social equality, for example in terms of status, wealth or power, is an impossible objective. In that respect, there is an element of overlap between Conservatism and Liberalism. However, while Liberals treat the existence of inequality as a compromise that must be accepted in order to allow for variations in tastes or abilities among different individuals, Conservatives tend to interpret it as something deeper which is key to the functioning of society - in effect, something that should be interpreted in positive terms.
The practice of treating social inequality as a natural and positive feature stems from the organic image that is part of the Conservative world view. As already explained, many Conservatives have chosen to interpret society as a living entity where different parts work together just like the different organs of the human body. In the case of the body, each of these organs performs a particular function, and Conservatives have argued that different groups or classes within society should be thought about in the same way. There is a clear echo of the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato in this vision. Plato insisted that members of society naturally belong to one of three different groups: i) the King Philosophers who control on the basis of their wisdom; ii) the soldiers, who protect the city on the basis of their spirit; iii) and the traders, who create wealth and sustain the life of the city on the basis of their tendency to desire more.
Based on the belief that everyone within society has their natural place and function, conservatives have insisted that it must be accepted that some should lead while others follow; some should control while others work; or that some should go out to earn a wage while others stay at home to raise children. It was ideas such as these that were responsible for the fact that early Traditional Conservatives such as Edmund Burke argued in favour of the idea of a 'natural aristocracy', which is the assumption that the ability and wisdom to take on leadership roles within society is intrinsic and only belongs to some of the higher classes. Furthermore, the belief in a hierarchy or natural inequality has led to a typical Conservative approach to justifying policies aimed at supporting less fortunate members of society. Unlike Liberals or Socialists, this is not done on the basis of considerations relating to freedom or equality, but rather by emphasizing that it is the privilege and duty of the rich to support the poor. For example, this was a notable feature of Benjamin Disraeli's arguments, the nineteenth-century Conservative Prime Minister who introduced measures in areas such as housing and health to improve conditions for the working class.
The above belief in a hierarchy and the inevitable nature of inequality is reinforced by the Conservative emphasis on authority. Conservatives tend to interpret authority as a natural thing that, just like society itself, already exists and is imposed upon us 'from above'. Consequently, unlike Liberals, Conservatives do not consider that professing valid authority is dependent on the explicit consent of the person who is to obey. It is said that this would be meaningless, as the role of the authority holder is to provide guidance, support and assistance to those who lack the ability, knowledge or experience to decide for themselves. As a result, parents in the home should have authority in relation to their children; at school the teacher should have authority in relation to pupils; in the workplace the manager should hold authority in relation to his employees; and in the case of a society government should have authority in relation to individual citizens.
The idea of authority that derives 'from above' is not seen by Conservatives as a bad thing. Rather, it is believed to contribute to the promotion of social stability, creating a sense amongst the population of what is expected of them. In addition, it is said that clear authority contributes to the promotion of discipline. For these reasons, Conservatives have tended to be a party which is suspicious of attempts to challenge political authority. Indeed, in the case of nineteenth century Authoritarian Conservatives, doing this would be totally unacceptable as they treat political authority whatever its form as an absolute.
Conservatives generally place great emphasis on the concept of property. They believe that our ability to own private property or assets has several virtues. Like many Liberals, Conservatives recognize the argument that ownership of property is an expression of merit; that is, the fact that a person succeeds in amassing a substantial stock of property or wealth derives from his willingness to strive through his life and to use his personal talents constructively. However, many Conservatives have argued that ownership of property also has wider social and psychological benefits.
Firstly, possessing property such as a house and a car, or having substantial savings in the bank gives people an element of certainty as they are resources that can be used to support us if we are faced with difficult circumstances (e.g. unemployment or long-term illness). Secondly, it is claimed that a society that allows ownership of private property is one that motivates its members to respect the law and behave in an orderly manner. It is assumed that those that own property themselves are likely to respect the property of their fellow citizens. They will appreciate the need to protect property by supporting crime prevention arrangements and maintaining order. Thirdly, at a deeper and more personal level, it is argued that possessing property is a means of allowing individuals to express their personality; that is, our property is almost an extension of ourselves and a means of conveying our character.
Yet, despite the emphasis on the social contribution of private property, traditionally Conservatives have not argued that the ownership of property by the individual should be recognized as an absolute right. Rather, it was insisted that the individual's right to manage his assets and wealth was a matter that should be balanced against that person's duties to society more generally. However, as the Right New ideas gained ground over the last few decades (and particularly as the neo-liberal arm of that movement gained increasing influence), an increasing number of contemporary conservatives were seen to be developing an increasingly uncompromising attitude towards the issue of private property.
Despite the important differences between different streams, some elements can be identified that tend to be associated with the Conservative world view; elements that allow us to differentiate somewhat between Conservatism and other political ideologies, particularly Liberalism or Socialism.