Essays, Politics

A2 Essay: Is Conservatism Defined by its Support for Free-Market Capitalism?

A wee essay I wrote in January 2017, when I was in sixth form, on the relationship between conservatism and free-market capitalism – enjoy!

Despite being a broad ideology, conservatism as a whole is defined by its pragmatism above all else. It would be incorrect to state that it is defined by support for free-market capitalism because this would only be true for particular strands, chiefly the New Right; indeed, conservatives’ embrace of capitalism throughout the 20th Century is not indicative of an ideological preference, but rather a pragmatic acceptance of ‘what works’.

Traditional one nation conservatism holds no allegiance to free-market capitalism and is arguably incompatible with it. Benjamin Disraeli founded the strand on the basis of social obligation and pragmatism; he proposed that it was in the long-term interests of the wealthy to help the poor as it would increase social mobility and calm any potential revolt amongst them. He argued that if one desired wealth then they were obliged to use some of it to help those less fortunate. This perspective is antithetical to the purpose of free-market capitalism, which is meritocratic and individualistic; people are rewarded based on their efforts, and so they take absolute supremacy over society. One nation conservatives would instead argue that society is superior to the individual, an idea which was present most recently in David Cameron’s government, who argued for the ‘big society’. Free-market capitalists would argue that all individuals must have complete economic freedom and that the market should not be restrained by the state, which it would be if the redistribution of wealth were considered an obligation. Nonetheless, one nation conservatives have embraced capitalism, including Cameron, as well as prominent political figures such as Harold Macmillan and Boris Johnson. As stated in the introduction, this is because conservatism is fundamentally a pragmatic ideology. Conservatives recognise the benefits which capitalism brings to society and its ability to generate mass wealth, so subsequently feel no need to restrict it. They have instead sought to reconcile their political beliefs with the free market, focusing on equality of opportunity and mass employment.

In comparison, the neoliberal New Right is absolutely defined by support for free-market capitalism in that it was born from free-market economists’ writings; when in opposition, Margaret Thatcher broke from the post-war consensus which the Conservative Party had followed by endorsing the works of Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek, two prominent free-marketers. Thatcher, as well as her U.S. counterpart Ronald Reagan, pursued policies of deregulation and privatization whilst in office which emboldened the free market. As such, neoliberalism is a fundamentally economic strand of conservatism. Even the social policies enacted by Thatcher, such as her belief that there was “no such thing as society,” are rooted in economic liberalism. Laissez-faire economics is inherently individualistic, therefore Thatcher’s support for it would naturally influence her socio-cultural policies. However, the previous dominance of the New Right could allow for the opening statement to be considered true in a certain respect. During the 1980’s and early 90’s, conservatism was defined by its support for free-market capitalism; it may, therefore, be more accurate to argue that, as a pragmatic, reactionary ideology, conservatism can be defined by capitalism at any given time in history where it is electorally popular.

Furthermore, the statement infers that conservatism as a whole is an economic ideology, which is untrue and ignores the prominence of social conservatism. This aspect of the ideology has returned in recent years, particularly with the election of Donald Trump and certain aspects of the Brexit movement. Trump, as well as Prime Minister Theresa May, appear primarily concerned with creating socially conservative consensus’ on matters such as welfare and immigration over support for the free market; this is evidenced by Trump’s insistence on enacting financially irresponsible policies such as a U.S-Mexico border wall and provoking trade wars with countries such as China. While this would hurt America economically, it is considered irrelevant because they would embolden nationalism. In the UK, May has stated that controlling immigration is her priority over retaining single market access in the Brexit negotiations; similarly, to Trump’s position, this is an indication that she considers social issues of greater importance than the economy, and, by extension, the free market. Additionally, she has spoken of the need to “reform” capitalism so that it benefits the working classes more. This is yet more evidence of conservatism being defined by pragmatism, as these policies are reactions to the EU Referendum outcome as opposed to innovation. While this particular strand of conservatism is still in its infancy, there is nonetheless a clear emphasis on social conservatism over economics, further disproving the opening statement.

To conclude, conservatism is a broader ideology than merely supporting free-market capitalism, as proved by its existence before the birth of capitalism and its subsequent variety of differing strands. As evidenced by Theresa May’s proposed platform of social justice and wealth redistribution, conservatives are more than willing to speak out against free-market capitalism if it is logical to do so – i.e. is in the interests of the electorate. Nonetheless, much like socialism and liberalism, conservatism remains a vast, encompassing ideology and thus cannot be tied down to one specific connective theme.

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