Society and the Individual: Liberals vs Conservatives in North America

If you ask me, What is today the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative?, I would suggest that the liberal and conservative differ over the individual’s relation to society. This is an old distinction, and no doubt you’ve heard it before. Still, it’s useful to regard a lesson long ago learned.

Let’s begin with the contemporary or neoconservative position, from which we shall depart to consider historical and geographical variations. You’ll recall Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals. At its simplest, this assertion tells us society is an abstraction. There is no concrete object to which a person may point and say, There is society. To speak of society, in other words, is to speak of something that exists only in the mind. Society is a mental construct. Thatcher however was not interested in philosophical matters. Her statement reflects a fundamental and practical current conservative principle, that the basis of the good society is the good behaviour of the individual. I shall define ‘good’ presently. For the conservative, society is the word we apply to aggregated individuals. From this follows certain conclusions. The acts of government ought to be limited in such a manner that the individual is free. For the conservative wants to promote the free, responsible, and productive citizen. To achieve this end certain preconditions are necessary. There must be stability and order, so that the individual is protected from the harmful actions of others; this calls forth the rule of law. The rule of law, set forth and enforced by the state, must be as extensive as is necessary for order, and as limited as necessary for responsible individual freedom. Law-bound individual freedom and responsibility constitute the basis of conservative society. The end of conservative political philosophy is the free but responsible individual.

Conservatives have tended to approach the public good through the back door of pessimism. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his political treatise Leviathan, put the conservative case for the rule of law nicely. He argued that people are by nature selfish and acquisitive and that unless law constrains them they will engage in “a war of all against all,” each person struggling against all others for personal advantage. His chief concern was that acquisitiveness would lead, in a lawless society, to theft of private property. And indeed, for both liberal and conservative one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. But for now we should note that the basic fact of life for Hobbes was that it is, in its natural state, “nasty, brutish and short.” The good society, which for many conservatives means above all else a lawful and orderly one, must overcome human nature with force or the threat of force. Conservatives, in other words, have a rather pessimistic view of human nature and the potential of human beings to evolve. Thus, the conservative does not speak so much of ‘social problems’ as of individual crimes and failures of character. The conservative may prefer to treat homelessness as a criminal matter and urge the passing of laws to clean the streets of the Undesirable. Poverty may be seen as a failure of the individual, in which case the solution is to provide incentives and disincentives to the poor. The good society comes about when the individual obeys the law, acts responsibly, and takes advantage of the system’s incentives. Conservative government is limited in its scope to securing the optimal conditions for individual advancement, and the individual is limited only by the rule of law and by economic incentives and disincentives. Conservatism is the philosophy of conservation in the sense that it regards the natural world as static: human nature does not change, and so neither do the basic laws of society and economics. This does not constitute a denial of the need for reform; rather, reform is seen as a gradual accommodation of changing social conditions to fundamental economic laws. The best of all possible worlds will come about not because of reform, per se, but because individuals act freely within the channels established by law and convention.

Some of what I have said needs clarification, for the conservatism I am describing is an abstraction. We may distinguish between many particular kinds of conservatism, for instances, contemporary American or classical British conservatism. There are variations both of geography and history, and even within a specific time and place we should expect a diversity of thought. The Progressive Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli and the Social Darwinism of Charles Sumner are both placed under the heading Conservative, yet in many ways these philosophies are at odds. Furthermore, classical British conservatism is closer in many ways to modern American liberalism than it is to British neoconservatism. Classical British conservatism tended toward a collectivist view of society and perceived individualism as a challenge to the ‘social contract.’ In general however conservatism is the ideology of natural law, and its prescription for the public good is the strong interventionist state, at least where individual moral conduct is concerned.

Classical British and American liberals, unlike their modern counterparts, were the advocates of “laissez-faire”, that is, the theory that individuals ought to be left alone in their market dealings. This is usually thought of today as a conservative position, but it was not originally so. Classical liberalism and laissez-faire were based upon a profound mistrust of the state, for liberals felt the state if unchecked would lead to autocracy. The British liberals who established the United States of America opposed the absolute powers of the Monarch as well as the exploitative arrangements of mercantilism. Liberals sought in its place constitutional government and limited democratic representation. We should note that not all classical liberals were democrats, and that none of them proposed universal suffrage. Representational democracy at most meant that owners of property (that is, the white, male bourgeoisie) and not the nobility should be in charge. In some limited ways, liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the question of state intervention, and this exchange tells us important things about the respective ideologies. ‘Laissez-faire’ meant something other to the market anarchist Adam Smith than it does to the contemporary corporate CEO who calls for wholesale deregulation. Unfortunately, our technical terms have not kept up with historical changes. I shall return to the matter of these changes a bit later. Right now, I shall try to articulate the liberal principles which have obtained over time.

We begin with the classical liberal view, which remains to this day, that human nature is contextual and that it may and does evolve over time. The liberal may not even believe in a human nature as such, but rather may argue that people will behave differently in differing contexts. In short, human nature is culture; it is a social creation. This explains the liberal interest in social reform. Liberals often see crime, for instance, as social in nature, by which they mean to say that the individual is not the sole cause of his or her behaviour. The root of crime is felt to be the prevailing social conditions, and social reform is typically the proposed solution. Imprison all the criminals you wish, the liberal will say, and you will still have crime and criminals as long as the social conditions obtain. Indeed, the penal system shall only make crime worse (prison is simply another culture informing, or misinforming, the indivdual). The source of the crime is external to the individual. The liberal would likely regard Hobbes’s description of savage nature, and the theory of the state to which it leads, as inappropriate to the modern society. Classical liberals and conservatives disagreed not only generally about the use of state power, but specifically over the punitive functions of the state. Capital punishment was seen as especially repugnant by liberals because it gave to the state the ultimate right: to intervene into a human life itself. The liberal view of capital punishment was based upon a mistrust of the state in combination with an optimistic approach to the good society, which claimed that social reform can better lead to harmony than can punishment or threats of punishment.

You’ll recall that I have set two matters aside for later comment. The first was the observation that conservatives (and often liberals) argue that one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. The second was the observation that ‘in some limited ways,’ liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the matter of intervention. I claimed that this exchange – which I shall substantiate – tells us important things about the respective ideologies. I shall now say what I mean by all this.

The rights of private property are thought to be important for a number of reasons. Plunder is not consistent with the good society. There must be some means by which to prevent or at least discourage robbery and other forms of injustice. In the absence of such means, we would likely see the war of all against all described by Hobbes. Without state protection of private property, the economic system would be sustained only by the private use of force. This was indeed the case before the emergence of the constitutional state. The rich hired private armies to protect their economic privileges. Later, the owners of private property (who came to be called capitalists) found it advantageous to exchange their private armies for state armies. They lost private control of their soldiers but gained also, for the costs of maintaining an army were passed to the state. The result was that the costs of protecting private property could be broadly distributed among the social classes; they would no longer be confined to the capitalist class. Security of private property rights gave investors the confidence they needed to conduct business activity. Again, without state-supported private property rights, either private provisions for these rights must be made or else the capitalist economic system must collapse. From this fact emerged the capitalist state.

The preceding paragraph establishes the terrain on which liberals and conservatives have both agreed and fought many battles. Some classical British conservatives argued that private property carried with it not only privileges but responsibilities. Their ideology was rooted in the fact of the Monarchy and in the “organic” conception of society, the view that society was an organism in which all parts depended upon one another for their survival. This view balanced (at least in theory) privileges and responsibilities. Classical British conservatism was paternalistic, by which I mean it regarded individuals as bound to one another in the manner of a family. Corporeal metaphors were also common; hence, the nation was like a body and the king was like the head of that body. As a result of a mixing of metaphors, we today speak of the head of a family. Classical conservatives did not challenge the authority of the Family Head, but neither did they believe that the strong could use their strength in any manner whatsoever. Classical conservatism was profoundly moral, profoundly rooted in the idea of a natural moral law. We may note in passing that contemporary conservatives tend to have kept the classical notion of a natural moral order while discarding or underemphasizing the classical belief in the organic society; in other words, they have privatized natural law. Classical liberals, as we have seen, rejected not only natural law – they believed law is rational and created by ‘Man’ – but the paternal model of social relations as well. Their hatred of the Monarchy led them to reject the ‘strong state.’ The paternalistic state seemed to the classical liberal synonymous with tyranny. The conflict between classical liberals and classical conservatives was thus over the nature and responsibilities of the state, at the heart of which stood the individual. Both argued in a specific manner for limited government, and yet there was disagreement over the character of the ideal state. Although it is a gross simplification to say that liberals feared tyranny and conservatives lawlessness, nonetheless debates regarding the role of government tended to concern these and related themes.

I now return to historical change. The social and economic influence of the modern industrial corporation had been anticipated both by classical liberals and conservatives, yet it is largely this development which led to the modernization of these ideologies. Liberals had always argued that government must be kept as limited as possible to leave larger scope for the individual. Conservatives however felt that the state had a responsibility to keep human nature in check, especially when it threatened the propertied minority. Even today conservatives call for less government and more state power, that is, more police, more military expenditure, more and tougher laws, more prisons. In other words, classical conservatives were the supporters of the activist state and classical liberals were opponents of big, tyrannical government. (By the middle of the 20th century this had reversed somewhat, as liberals called for an interventionist foreign policy and conservatives argued the isolationist position.) Gradually, however, the capitalist economic system produced considerable concentrations of private wealth and economic power. This was defended by the Social Darwinists, who saw wealth as an expression of moral and biological superiority. For classical liberals, however, the notion of unimpeded individuals meeting face to face in the free market to compete with one another as buyers and as sellers was becoming outmoded. Classical liberals such as Thomas Jefferson had been deeply suspicious of the moneyed incorporations (what we today would call corporations) and believed they would distort the economic system and make a mockery of democracy. Jefferson considered the private business corporation as an aristocratic instrument, a way of establishing and extending private privilege at public expense. The economic man of classical theory was now forced to contend with the economic corporation of modern reality, both as a buyer of goods and as a seller of labour. In this exchange, the corporation could exercise many unfair advantages. The transformation took many decades, but by the middle of the 20th century many liberals had abandoned laissez-faire in favour of a limited activist state. They reasoned that since the conditions of the economy had changed, the conditions of government must change also. The New Deal was essentially a conservative impulse, being an attempt to keep the capitalist economic system from collapse. Government was called upon to restore balance and health to the economy. Notice however that the state has also been used by liberals to protect the individual from the potentially tyrannical power of the private corporation.

Conservatives took a differing course during the development of the private corporation. Generally, they were supportive of the judicial decisions which constituted private corporations as legal persons. Three strains of conservative thought informed this support. The first was the conservative faith in the rule of law, the second was the idea that especial responsibilities are conferred upon the powerful, and the third was that the economy is grounded in the law-abiding individual. Conservatives advocated the entrenchment of property rights in law as a necessary precondition to economic development, and they furthermore assumed that from these rights would follow responsibility. The same laws which constrained the citizen would constrain the investor. ‘Corporate’ laws were unnecessary since the corporation, like society, did not exist; the corporation was only an abstracted manner of speaking about individuals engaged together in a co-ordinated business effort. The incentives and disincentives necessary to guide the corporation were already in place at the level of the individual economic agent. This was enough assurance for most conservatives.

Liberals may agree that ‘society’ is a fiction, a thing invented, without conceding the conservative position that it does not exist. The point for them is that it is a practical fiction. Consider public investment. An individual citizen cannot alone cause a highway to be built, but a society can. Government is the instrument by which individual contributions are mobilized in the service of social ends. While it is true that society is an abstraction, it is not the case that it is merely the sum of its parts. We shall discover the same if we regard the private corporation. Here also we find an institution designed to mobilize resources toward a collective end. Not only is the private corporation not the sum of its parts, it is designed not to be and derives its utilities precisely from this fact. The corporation is an autonomous instrument in the sense that it supersedes its constituent individuals; it is a legal fiction endowed with certain rights and privileges, among them being immortality. Indeed, the corporation came into being as a way to obviate the legal, economic, and social limitations faced by the individual investor. In this sense a corporation does for capital what a union does for labour. Both would be quite pointless inventions if they were only a collection of individuals and not a legal fiction endowed with special properties. And the same, liberals argue, is true of social institutions and the society which it serves. Society is more than the sum of the individuals from which it is abstracted, and only with the broad view that the concept of society offers can grand projects in the public interest be launched.

Well, a conservative may say, that’s precisely the problem with society. Modern liberalism is based on the false assumption that things can be made better with a little manipulation at the top, that is, at the level of big government. Conservatives prefer to let individuals manage reform themselves, by creating the conditions in which they can exercise their law-bound freedom. In practice, this means state intervention in order to present the individual with incentives and disincentives. Conservatives do not accept the proposition that society (or racism, sexism, exploitation, structural poverty, and so on) is to blame for dysfunctional behaviour. They admit certain disadvantages, such as physical and mental disability. Beyond this they regard the individual as alone responsible for his or her fate. Liberals, conservatives may argue, are wrong on a number of points, but these especially: they are wrong about ‘victims of society,’ they are wrong about human nature, and because of this they are wrong about reform.

As always there is today disagreement about the role and nature of the government. Liberals insist that government is too much involved in helping the rich, and conservatives insist that government is (in the words of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution website) “a captive to big special interests,” meaning people on welfare, the homeless, feminists, and unions. It is interesting to note that both sides are engaged in a battle on behalf of social and economic justice. For one side justice means advancing the rights of people of colour, for the other it means income tax cuts. We should note that both sides feel the injustice deeply; neither is, I think, insincere. And contemporary government is complex enough that both sides can support their case. For when we talk about ‘the government’ we are talking about a motley collection of interrelated but also contesting arrangements. One part of government saves the taxpayer money by firing staff or causing others to, and another promptly spends that taxpayer money helping these folks find jobs elsewhere. One part of government indeed serves the rich, and others serve the so-called special interests. Then there are the many other parts of government serving other ends and getting in the way too. In a diverse society with many competing interests, we should expect just such an arrangement. The behaviour of modern democratic governments reflects the complexity and conflicts of the modern world. This does not mean that a particular government cannot lean either in the direction of liberalism or of conservatism. The point is, government is heterogeneous, and there will always be contradictory efforts within a representative democratic government itself. Even within a single ministry, you will find that public policy often discloses the apparent illogic of contradictory mandates. Once we understand the heterogeneous nature of representative democratic government, we are better able to explain the endurance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. Each group describes an aspect of political reality. And that reality as a whole is diverse and complex enough to render each perspective compelling.

Does this mean that liberalism and conservatism are both equally correct? This is a difficult question to answer. Consider the competing views of human nature. The conservative has little patience for the liberal view that criminal behaviour should be regarded as a symptom of a deeper social problem. The liberal tends to believe that criminal behaviour can be prevented, or at least lessened, with an improvement in social conditions. Even the notion of crime puts the liberal ill-at-ease, for much of what is criminalized by the conservative – poverty, homelessness, unemployment – is felt by the liberal to be no fault of the individual. The conservative usually doubts that crime is produced by ‘the system’ or by society; instead, crime is seen as a matter of individual character. Who is correct? The liberal can reasonably argue that in a perfect society, one without social inequality and injustice, there would be no crime. But of course this is a circular argument, for a perfect society presupposes the absence of crime. In any case, there is no empirical basis for the liberal claim because there is no perfect society for us to observe. The conservative can reasonably argue that crime is a failure of character, for one’s character is always one’s character, whether it was shaped by individual will or by social conditions, or more likely, by both. The conservative social and economic systems are based upon the Hobbessian belief that individuals are selfish and acquisitive; since the systems are designed to reward these traits, they tend to produce them. Is Economic Man thus an expression of human nature, or is he a self-fulfilled prophecy? The world as it is does not allow us to test theories of human nature under the controlled conditions of a laboratory. All we have is the messiness of the world as it is. Human nature and human culture are integrated one into another. Perhaps no political philosophy has adequately represented the complexity of this integration, and perhaps no political philosophy ever will. It is precisely the limitations of political ideologies that has ensured their survival as ideologies, that is, as systems of ideas. The limited nature of our political ideologies is not likely soon to change. [-January 1999]

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