To what extent do Conservatives agree about the role of the state?

All conservatives agree in a need for the state. Yet there is significant disagreement regarding how it is involved in the economy and the nature of tradition. Conservatism is different from socialism and liberalism, since it values the importance of discipline, order and authority in creating security. The state is the main vehicle for this and can help preserve rights and liberties. Traditional conservatives see the rulers of the state as a natural aristocracy who operate in a paternalistic manner. The enlarged state leads to social stability and can be desirable in one-nation conservatism. The area of disagreement mainly centres around New Right supporters of ‘rolling back’ the state: they argue that the state is driven by bureaucratic self-interest, which ultimately threatens freedom and liberty.

In terms of the need for the state, there is a great deal of agreement among conservatives. For traditional conservatives such as Hobbes, this is firmly rooted in his understanding of human nature. Hobbes insisted that the state was necessary to prevent violence and anarchy. Without the state, life would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Conservatives argue that equality is a myth, for example Edmund Burke advocated rule by natural aristocracy. This leads to a paternalistic state, one which emphasises hierarchy and authority, like that between parents and children. It is not mindless obedience, but one of respect. For traditional conservatives, decision making should be based upon what is known to work (empiricism). This need for a state is an area of agreement for most conservatives.

However, this contrasts in some ways with the New Right. Neo-liberalism calls for a reduction in the state, but the state which remains should be authoritarian in nature, much like Hobbes had argued. Thatcher described the state as a ‘frame’ to the larger picture of society. Moreover, this limited state should be strong in order ‘to preserve both liberty and order’. The state should ensure a unity, rather than a diversity, of ideas. The danger for neo-conservatives is not that people will choose the wrong morality, just a different one, which affects the cohesion of the state and, by extension, society. This concept of unity was used by John Major in his ‘Back-to-Basics’ message, which emphasised traditional family values.

The role of the state in the economy is the most significant area of disagreement among conservatives. Michael Oakeshott saw pragmatism as a defining idea and tradition forms a key part in this. Consequently, he felt free markets were volatile and that state intervention in the economy was necessary. These ideas were echoed by the post-war Conservative governments of Macmillan and others, who emphasised full employment, continued spending on the NHS, state house building and reducing the standard working week from 48 to 42 hours. This arose from a belief in a paternalistic role for the state. This is in complete contrast to neo-liberal economic ideas, which focus on rolling back the state. For instance, Robert Nozick argued against state intervention; only a ‘minimal state’ can ever be justified. In order to allow individuals to flourish, tax must be low and the welfare reduced in order to remove dependency. Both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives are united in an ideological dislike of welfare dependency and favour self-help. Ayn Rand claimed the state must ‘keep its hands off’, since the ’common good’ of a state was the ‘justification of every tyranny’.

Most conservatives believe that the state has a role in maintaining tradition. Edmund Burke advocated a rule by natural aristocracy since this was based upon a traditional and empirical understanding of the state and how to rule. This leads to a paternalistic state, but one which nonetheless emphasises hierarchy and authority, like that between parents and children. This is not ‘mindless obedience’, but one of respect. For traditional conservatives, decision making should be based upon what is known to work (empiricism). This was echoed by Disraeli, a one-nation Conservative, who emphasised the importance of the great objects of state, namely the monarchy and church, which would create a state formed of all classes. Disraeli’s one nation emphasised hierarchy, as well as paternalistic rulers, who responded to its subjects due to noblesse oblige. This concept of those in power giving back to those below them was not just a pragmatic response to avert revolution, but a genuine desire to help the working classes.

In Sybil (1845), Disraeli wrote that ‘power has only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the people’, and to prevent the creation of two nations of the rich and the poor. This is in stark contrast to the New Right ideas of Rand, who saw that the state should confine itself to issues of law and order and national protection. Since humans are rational beings, the state does not need to be governed by a traditional natural aristocracy, but a grocer’s daughter (Thatcher) or a grammar schoolboy from Brixton (Major) would serve just as well. Yet at the same time neo-conservative forces emphasised that traditional family values should be promoted by the state, in total contrast to neo-liberalism. This shows that there is disagreement within the New Right itself on the role of state, not just within conservatism.

In summary, conservatives agree about the need for the state, but they disagree on the role of the state and this disagreement outweighs the areas of consensus. Traditional conservatives such as Hobbes have a great deal in common with neo-conservatives, in that a strong state can maintain law and order. Yet the biggest disagreement occurs between the neo-liberal wing of the New Right, who argue for a minimal state in order to ensure individual liberty, primarily focused on state intervention in the economy. In contrast to traditional and one-nation ideas, neo-liberals do not place as much emphasis on tradition, so a more meritocratic approach to a state is also supported.