Compare and contrast liberalism and conservatism as traditions of political thought. Which, in your view provides a better explanation of Britain’s problems and how they might be solved.
Liberalism and Conservatism are seen as the two major political ideologies. Both set out trying to answer the questions; what is human nature? How should we organise the economy? There are similarities and differences to the two traditions of political thought and both offer explanations to Britain’s problems and offer suggestions to how these problems may be solved.
In this essay I will detail these aspects of the two political ideologies. I will discuss the two different opinions on human nature, the Liberal optimistic view of rationalism in humans and the Conservative pessimistic view of imperfection in humans. I will also discuss the different views on the role of the state in the economy such as the Classical liberal view of minimum state interference and the conservative view of providing welfare to those who are in need and keeping instinctive humans under control.
Liberalism can be dated back to the first half of the seventeenth century and to the French philosopher Rene Decartes (1596 – 1650). Bertrand Russell suggests that it was Decartes’ idea of ‘I think, therefore I am’ that established the unimaginable idea of the individual being the starting point of thinking. This proposition was quite remarkable in that particular period of history as it questioned the foundations of society. These foundations, being the church’s explanation of the world and its moral leadership, the divine rights of the monarchy and the dynamics of social order. Decartes had created a revolutionary style of thinking.
Its a strong liberal belief that humans are rational creatures suggesting they don’t operate on instinct but are capable of making calculated decisions. This rationalist way of thinking leads to the view that individuals are able to mould their own lives. The liberal theorist J.S. Mill centred a lot of his work around the idea that humans are free-thinking and he argued that guided by reason, humans would be able to seek fulfilment and self realisation. He also argued for equal voting rights on the basis that all humans are rational, therefore women should be able exercise political power as much as men. Liberals promoted the merits o f providing as much freedom as possible to the individual highlighted in their zero economic and social interference stances. This maximum freedom of the individual is seen as the classical form of liberalism later on a more social form of liberalism developed known as modern liberalism. Modern liberalism offers a more partaking view of the state and sees individual freedom more as self-development and self-realisation.
Similar to Liberalism, Conservatism has its origins in early writings. The Irish peer Edmund Burke dates the first known expressions of this ideology back to the 1779 book, Reflections on the Revolution in France. The book stated concerns about radicalism and change whilst highlighting the advantages of inequality in society. He displayed a less optimistic view of human nature than that of the Liberals. He tended to see the floors in the human.
Classical liberals have an optimistic view of human nature whereas Conservatives have a pessimistic view. Liberalism is based on its commitment to individualism. They have a strong belief in the importance of the human individual and the individuals’ freedom. This idea is supported by their minimum governmental influence stance. They would argue that state should only function to keep social order and provide personal security rather than influence the individual. From a liberal viewpoint, humans are self-sufficient therefore should be left to do as they please due to their ability to look after themselves, despite this some Liberal tinkers have suggested that humans may be quite selfish in their aims to be self-reliant. Not all theorists have adopted individualism with such trust; many Conservatives have treated the idea with suspicion. They believe unrestrained individualism could be damaging to society because individuals aren’t perfect in their opinion, people are insecure and shy and even go as far as saying all humans are naturally immoral. Conservative theorists are of the opinion that people require the safety of a community unless they will become separate and exposed. To deal with immoral behaviour they also tend to offer a lot of power to law enforcement.
Liberals and Conservatives also have alternate theories regarding society. The Liberal school of political thought prefers to see society as a collection of freethinking individuals who are able to make calculated decisions. Theories of this nature are largely found in classical Liberalism where they set about guaranteeing people the greatest amount of freedom possible. Despite the need for the state to enforce order the individual should be able to run their lives as far as possible. Liberals suggest the state should be there to protect the natural rights of the people but most importantly respect them by interfering socially as little as possible. There is much emphasis placed on the importance of freedoms of speech and the freedom to practice any religion one chooses.
Conservatives follow the functionalist view of society. They believe society is built up of a number of different institutions such as the church and the family that function with leadership and discipline to provide social stability. They don’t see society as being made up as a collection of freethinking individuals but more a society of functional institutions that operate as an ‘organic whole’. In their opinion it is also traditions, customs and values that hold this organism together this relates to their support for continuity in society. It is the break down of these customs, values and institutions that producers social problems.
So far, I have detailed many areas where the tradition clash, an area where the two traditions are in agreement is there approach to the way the economy should be managed. They both place great faith in the price mechanism seeing it as the best way of allocating resources most efficiently. They both recognise the benefits offered from a system of competitiveness, a system that rewards good business management, good education and hard work. Despite their similarities in their opinions there are differences as the Liberals take the idea of free market economics to the extreme. The Liberals a firm believer in zero state interference in the economy and other interference from welfare groups like trade unions. On the other hand Conservatives have a less severe approach to market intervention as they recognise the social benefits of redistribution of wealth and income.
Social change is an area where again there are differences in the two traditions of political thought. The Liberals are strong devotees of change, firmly believing that the best way forward is the total liberation of the markets from any constraints imposed by the state or any other institutions. They are also believers that change should be made to society’s perception of individual achievement. They suggest there should be greater emphasis on individual initiative and punishment for individual failure. In contrast to this Conservatives generally regard change as something dangerous and risky preferring to stick with what is known rather than try something untested and possibly detrimental. From a Conservative point of view continuity is most valuable and strong leadership and management should oversee any change. This ties in with their view on revolution. To revolt would be to throw away the old and replace with something untried. Society is too complex to predict the success of a new system. The people would be better to stick with what works.
The Conservative and Liberal schools of political thought have both provided views on human nature, society, the economy and change. Using these views and values as foundations they have provided explanations and solutions to the problems in Britain. Poor levels of education, high levels of crime and high levels of poverty and unemployment in certain areas are just some of the problems they would find with Britain.
Conservatism would explain poor levels of education as being rooted in the breakdown of particular social institutions. They argue that due to the breakdown of the family i.e. high levels of divorce and single parent families, children are not equipped with the correct values to gain the most from the education system. They find support for this argument in observing the educational attainment of students of West Indian origin. They on average attain least qualifications whilst also having the highest rate of single parent families. Conservatives would maybe try to solve this problem by encouraging families to stay together. They could do this by implementing stricter divorce laws or tax concessions to married couples.
Liberals would argue against this and prefer the idea that poor levels of education are due to there not being enough rewards for individual attainment resulting in students not being motivated enough to work hard. They would also argue that state interference is to blame because education is a state-funded industry. If it was left to the market system and students had to pay a price to go to school they would be able to fully appreciate its value. The liberals would solve the problem of poor levels of education by overthrowing the current system of public funded schools replacing them with private enterprises.
Crime and disorder is viewed by conservatives as something that is inevitable due to the nature of humans. As stated before Conservatives have a pessimistic view of human nature therefore show little enthusiasm for those who try to explain crime as being a result of poverty or social deprivation. To them crime and any other form of dishordly behaviour ranging from vandalism to rudeness is just a natural human activity resulting from their corrupt core. According to the Conservative tradition a criminal is just be a morally bad person and they would be treated as such. The Conservative way of solving a nation with high levels of crime would be deal with it reactionary rather than to tackle it at its cause this is because human nature is not something that can be changed. The Conservatives would strengthen the police and use tougher measures of dealing with criminals. The Conservative thinker Thomas Hobbes believed that humans were driven by non-rational desires such as the desire to exercise power over others. This view led Hobbes to suggest a strong autocratic government be required to keep people in order and prevent society from descending into chaos.
Liberals have a less pessimistic view of human nature and tend to see individuals as being more rational but still they recognise its within humans to be quite self orientated and therefore be prone to exploiting each other. Liberals would give some support to solving crime with the use of the law but would place a bit more emphasis social explanations.
There are similarities in Conservatives and some Liberals in accounting for problems in Britain. They both tend to accept that negatives in human nature may be responsible, the Conservatives believing that humans are naturally immoral and Liberal writers suggesting that they are selfish and prone to exploiting others for the own gain. I would tend not to be very sympathetic to these thoughts, as generalisations of the human race sometimes seem to be quite simplistic and maybe inappropriate considering the complexity of each human being.
When society is used to explain problems in Britain the two traditions of thought are quite contrasting. The conservatives finding the breakdown of traditions, institutions and values being accountable whilst the Liberals placing responsibility on the states and other groups interference in social life. I don’t think either give a decisive explanation of problems in Britain but the Liberal point of view seems to claim most merit as it is more open to suggestions of problems being caused social circumstances. Modern Liberalism in particular is keen on stressing the social issues that may be responsible for the problems.
Poverty is another problem where Conservatives and Liberals have differing points of view. Liberals largely account poverty and related problems such as unemployment to obstacles that get in the way of the market from running free when its at its best. Liberals are of the belief that the market is the best way of allocating resources and when the state gets involved it leads to problems. Equally when other groups intervene with the free running of the market there will be adverse effects on its performance. Trade Unions are an example of market interference and in the Liberal opinion responsible for causing problems such as poverty. They argue that through collective bargaining trade unions are able to negotiate wages far above the market value. These excessive wages reduce the productiveness of firms resulting in them loosing competitiveness in the market. As the firms are unable to compete they are forced to close down and those employed become redundant leading to rises in unemployment and inevitably poverty.
Other political ideologies tend to believe that poverty is mostly caused by failures in the market system in contrast to this, the Liberal views it as being a condition mainly brought on by self-choice. Traditionally Liberal theorists have emphasised that individuals are able to make the choices for themselves the best. Those choices include what to spend of their income and what to save of it. The financial choices include making provisions for the future so they are able to support themselves in rough times e.g. unemployment. Liberals consequently provide opposition to state involvement on the basis that if a person relies on the government in times of hardship they will be allowing others to make the choices you should be making. They also believe that welfare payments to those living in poverty only serve to remove the incentive to work. It also causes politicians to allocate resources to areas such as social security from where it could be used more effectively.
Conservatives argue that unemployment a cause of poverty might be partly be explained by the ineffective working of the market system in contrast to the liberal view of the supremacy of the market. Conservatives in contrast to the liberals perceive unemployment and poverty as a social condition as well as an economic condition due to their organic whole approach to society. From the belief that each part of society acts together to provide stability comes the idea that there is a social responsibility to deal with poverty. Conservatives see poverty as a form of hopelessness that in some situations can be avoided so leaders in society often have a duty to the poor to assist them. This is an area where the two ideologies contrast, as liberals offer nothing in the way of welfare. But when taking into account their degree of social responsibility in comparison to that of Marxism and Social Reformism they don’t seem to contrast that much.
Poverty and unemployment is probably an area where Conservatives and Classical Liberals struggle to offer complete explanations. The explanations given seem quite vague. Also neither seem to offer a credible solution.
Through comparing the two traditions of thought on their philosophies and perceptions of current issues its possible to draw some conclusions. It is possible to say that the two schools of politics are quite similar despite fundamental differences at the root of each. They have completely contrasting views of human nature but offer similar opinions. Both traditions show little commitment to social responsibility and this is reflected in their main area in which there is agreement. This is the superiority of the use of the market system to allocate resources. The largest area of disagreement is their view of society, one believing in society being an organic whole the other seeing it as collection of free thinking individuals is completely contrasting. I don’t think either provides very good explanations for problems. Liberals may have more credibility, as their analogy of human nature seems to have more merit. To claim all humans are immoral maybe a bit far fetched but to say they are selfish is maybe more understandable.
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