NAU-POS254-Classical liberalism and conservatism

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Northern Arizona University

POS 254 Political Ideologies

Summer 2009

I. Liberalism[edit | edit source]

Liberalism, from the Latin "liber" meaning "free" is the attempt to promote individual liberty or freedoms. Liberalism ideals stem from the Age of Enlightenment. The early Liberals desired a more "open and tolerant society" where people could be "free" to pursue their own self-interests with little interference from religion or government. They often rejected many fundamental beliefs about earlier forms of government. For example, Belief systems such as the “Divine Right of Rulers or Kings”, hereditary tradition, Religious right to rule or govern and other examples that avoid the liberal assumption of equal dignity or individual worthiness. Emphasis is also concentrated on individual rights and opportunity. From this view comes the belief that all humans are capable of living free and have the ability to control and direct their desires to promote their own self-interest. Each philosopher that is described has their own view on human nature, whether that is naturally good or evil. Liberalism or those who believe in its values consider all human beings to be typically rational, sometimes self-interested, competitive people and are capable more or less of living free. This ideology is dominant among the Western World, where political debate on government principles of rationalism, consent, freedom of speech, press, etc are widely practiced and questioned on limitations and practices.

"Religious Conformity"- Liberals believe in freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. During the middle ages, the medieval period, this was a counter-idea. The church became threatened by the idea of liberalism and called for the Kings and other secular authorities to enforce conformity to the Church doctrines because this was the "true and universal path to the Kingdom of God." Many times the Kings were trying to enforce their own belief system of who should rule and who will not. Religious leaders were often among the persons of royalty or better treatment, and liberal’s ideals threatened their way of life.

"Ascribed Status"- A person's social status if fixed at birth and there is little to nothing they can do to change it. Feudalism reinforced one's ascribed status when one lord or knight would give use to a "lesser" knight, or also called a vassal, for military service. The lord maintained land ownership and the vassal could only have the right to use it and enjoy it's fruits. Parcels of land would be split for use of others in return for other services creating more vassals to the land owner. Over time these relationships became hereditary creating ranks, statuses, and loyalties. Feudalism created two classes of people; nobles and commoners. The nobles became the aristocrats, the land holders and were believed to be superior to the commoners; the majority of the people who lived in towns also called the bourgeoisie, had no representation.

II. Revolutions[edit | edit source]

A. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Wrote the first major work of political philosophy; Leviathan in 1651. He believed that "the people of a country should obey those who have power over them." He refused to believe that it was God's will (Divine commands)but one's self-interest(Natural Right). People needed to obey those in power as long as those in power protect you since the only reason for government is security. In his thought everyone was equal and has a natural right to be free. Created the idea of a social contract where governments would need to establish a "political authority" to provide security, protect society's interests since it was man's "restlesse desire for power." The government should be founded by the consent of the people and by establishing a government the people authorized sovereignty; do anything necessary to maintain order.

B. John Locke (1632-1704)

Wrote Two Treatises of Government as well as the Letter concerning Toleration. Both of these works were published after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 while he was in exile in Holland. In his Letter concerning Toleration he argued that it was "wrong for governments to force their subjects to conform to a particular religion." He believed that it was a public versus private matter and government should not be involved in any matters unless it threatens "public order." This idea of toleration for all sects of Christianity, as well as other religions, is in contrast to another man of the Revolution, spoken of above, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that a uniform religion was needed for a stable society, while Locke argued that confrontation would rise from restriction on beliefs by the government. An interesting note on this is that although Locke spoke for toleration he did not sympathize for atheists, believing that the oaths and other such pacts with them would not be upheld due to the fact that they had nothing to hold them to it, no moral code from above. He also spoke against the Catholic Church. This letter was understandably controversial.

In his writing of Two Treatises of Government (1960), he broke these into two pieces, hence the name. The First Treatise was written in contrast to Robert Filmer's Patriarcha which was in support of the Divine Right belief held by monarchs. The idea of Divine Rights is that kings are put on the thrown by God and have a divine right to rule, Queen Elizabeth was a believer in this. Locke could not accept this due to his belief in reason and every mans right to govern himself under the Lord. The Second Treatise was made up of 19 chapters, all dealing with property, natural law and other societal issues. He argued that everyone should be free and equal, as well as establish a government where one has "life, liberty, and property." He goes on to say that one can forfeit these rights but they cannot be taken away, and that people are unwilling to "respect the rights of others" so they need to enter into a social contract to protect these rights. This contract would be established to allow a political society that included laws and a government that could make, interpret, and change them as needed to protect the state of nature. If the government overstepped its duty of protection, the people have the right to overthrow it and establish a new one. This is where the role of government and the people could agree to create and obey a "limited or constitutional government." He concludes that it would be irrational to give anyone "total or absolute" control. John Locke describes the State of Nature, discussed above, as being the most basic world that human beings live in. In this State of Nature, we live by the laws of nature which determine, simply, that humans have the right to live as they choose but if they were to exercise their power in a negative way over another human, they would be betraying the basic laws of Nature. From this act, a state of war is derived from nature, which is when a man attempts to manipulate other men to do his will or by simply wasting food which would endanger the lives of other humans, who otherwise could have eaten that wasted food. Along with this, Locke discussed the two basic rights that humans have in regard to the laws of nature, which are giving man the right to punish those that betray the laws, as well as the right to prevent someone from doing so by ways of reparations. Locke also speaks a great deal about property and how one can attain it in this state of nature. He stresses that through labor a human has a right to acquire their own property. An example of this would be if someone were to gather apples. The apples one has gathered would be his because he gathered them for himself and no one would have the right to take those away because it is his property, and that would bring a state of war. Locke makes very clear that there is an a boundary to which someone can reach of overabundance, that is, if someone were to gather too much food or acquire more land than one could manage or properly cultivate to the full extent. In this over acquiring of land, food, etc., that person would be breaking the law of nature by not using what he has to its full use when someone else could be benefiting from it. This is where the theory of money comes into play; it puts a value on things that gives people the ability to acquire more than is needed to live. According to Locke, labor is the key to ones’ property; everyone has the right to claim their own property, as well as have the right to defend it if endangered in the state of nature.

C. American Revolution

Not a result of Hobbes or Locke's works but because of social, economic, and religious factors combined with philosophical and political issues. The United States did not believe the British government should be allowed to raise their taxes or establish a levy tax abecause they did not have elected members in Parliment to represent their interests. In 1775 the American Revolution began and became a fight for the rights the colonists believed the Parliament should have protected but instead violated.

Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense paved the way for the American colonists to declare their independence from British rule by printing rhetoric that informs the colonists that they should be a "independent, self-govering state." The government failed to protect their natural rights and violated them and because of this the government needed to be overthrown. They did not provide the protection it was established for. It now was a "necessary evil" that controlled the colonists lives.

July 2, 1776 the colonists declared their independence from England and wrote the Declaration of Independence; a document stating all of the violations of the King. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration, closely modeled the document after Locke's ideas; "... with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are the Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness..." The Declaration had flaws that colonists saw as "embarrasing" so they drafted a Constitution that took effect in 1789 that would provide a strong central government but with limited powers.

D. French Revolution

There was a desire to overthrow the "old order" of government that featured aristrocratic privilege, ascribed status, and political absolutism. The revoluationaries wanted to establish a limited form of government that would protect the "natural rights" of the French citizens. As the current government ruled there did not protect the citizens and refused to acknowledge their "natural rights." By overthrowing the "old order" they could establish tolerance, equality of opportunity, and a constitutional government. They believed that "Every man has a right to be free because all are born equal, and should have an equal opportunity to succeed." They also believed in "Fraternity". This meant that a citizen was not to pursue their own private interests but had a responsibility to participate in public life for the common good. As the revoluation continued it became more and more radical; wanting more democracy, help to the poor and less concern for the protection of property. Under the pressures the monoarchy fell and the Republic of France was estabilished September 22, 1792. The reign of terror began from June 1793 until July 1794, where the guillotine became the symbol of the revolutionaries, because citizens betrayed the Republic. Order was restored under the Constitution of 1795 where property-owning bourgeoisie was restricted and a five member Directory was created to head the government.

III. After the Revolutions[edit | edit source]

A. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

The original leader of the Utilitarians (Philosophic Radicals) focused on the masters that nature placed on man and looked into the utility of our choices or Utilitarianism. This idea was based off of the goal of making society rational, Bentham said that the first step is to recognize that people act out of self interest. More specifically he broke it down into people want to avoid pain and experience pleasure. He wanted to use this basic nature to improve the governments capability by understanding the people it is supposed to work for. He meant by seeking pleasure that people were seeking something that helps them achieve what they want, so the item in question must have utility. While people may not always be able to see what choices have utility and what choices cause pain Bentham felt that it was the governments jobs to ensure that while pursuing ones pleasure one doesn’t cause others pain. Based off of this idea of society two ideas about how the government were formed. First the government can serve the people’s interests and happiness by leaving them alone, agreeing with the laissez-faire idea. Second was the idea that the government cannot promote the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people if it was controlled by only a fraction of the society. He felt that almost everyone should be able to vote to ensure that the greatest happiness could be achieved.

B. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

A Utilitarian who wrote On Liberty he felt that the biggest threat to freedom was government, and therefore the greatest threat would be those that elect the government as the majority that control the government can use their power to restrict those that do not agree with the majority’s ideas. To prevent the “tyranny of the majority” by saying that the only reason power can be used on any member in the civilized society that is against the will of the member is to prevent harm to other members. One cannot use power to force a member to do something “for his own good”. As long as a member does not threaten or harm other members the government and the society should not try to control the members life. While the member may do things that the majority of society dislikes this cannot be stopped as only competition between ideas can lead to progress. He also felt that custom was something to be avoided as it held people back from reaching their full potential. Custom would hold back improvement due to the ridged structure and if life becomes one large custom then people will not know how to react to something new and different other than to follow the custom. This is a great threat as the new things or ideas may be of great importance to the people's lives yet the old fashioned thought would not allow them to be free.

Chapter 1 of Mill’s On Liberty is an introduction to the ideas he will be presenting in the book. The overall essay discusses the amount of power a government/society can justifiably place on an individual. Liberty, he argues, is unquestionably the right to any man/person (aside from children and “backward” societies) and cannot be taken away from the individual, unless certain circumstances arise. This is where the “harm principle” comes in, where Mill states “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” He also discusses the protection against tyranny, both against tyrannical rulers and the majority that try to impose their beliefs and actions on the minority. Mill concludes that liberty is, first, comprised from within oneself, belonging of freedom of beliefs and thought, ideals and values. Secondly, liberty must come from the freedom of pursuits, to live life as one would choose to live. And, thirdly, it requires the liberty to interact with other free individuals, of consenting adults, in any way they so choose, aside from harming others.

Chapter 2, Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion is a discussion of whether people have the right to censure others ideas and thoughts, either of their own accord or through the government in place. Mill offers many examples that he discusses throughout this chapter and his belief that sometimes general thought, a majority opinion may be wrong. He goes through criticisms of silencing individuals and his responses to these. One example is that no matter if the person is right or wrong, they are rightfully allowed to speak their mind and “conscious conviction.” Mill responds that a person can only truly know if they are right or wrong by having the right to put out their ideas for public scrutiny to disprove them. Another is that the government is supposed to maintain certain beliefs that are seen as good for the public but Mill states that the use of opinions is not a detrimental thing, which they may serve for a good purpose. He discusses the histories of Socrates and Christ, using them as examples of radicals that are admired today. Both men spoke out what are now seen as truths and were both put to death for their ideas and words, acts seen as some of the worst mistakes in history. These deaths also didn’t silence the ideas, which kept growing and spreading. After this, Mill discusses opinion that is held as a common truth, if not confronted or objected, it will just become unrevolutionary, a dead idea that will no longer be understood. His main point is that discussion is always the basis for growth but only through a fair and understanding manner can it create a useful and thriving outcome.

In Chapter 3 John Stuart Mill writes that society needs individual autonomy except if harming others. “no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. Mill puts limits on the personal freedoms he talked about in pervious chapters. Humans are imperfect and individualistic and need different experiences in life. Individual liberty is usually accepted by the majority of the population but individual liberty should not harm others and should be expressed in a way in which both the individual and community can progress. Community and humanity shouldn’t conform to each other. Change is a part of the human desire and whether the change is perceived as good or bad varies with the individual. He writes that any elimination or suppression of a person’s individuality and freedom is a form of tyranny. “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.” (Mill 80) Humans are different from each other and should be allowed to express and live their differences. However as important as it is for individuals to express themselves, it also should be respectful to other individuals and they should not be allowed to trample on their liberties. A society that encourages free thinking, the circulation of ideas, individuality as well as working together within society can be happy.

In chapter 4 Mill discusses if and when society should limit an individual’s freedom. Society initially had to put into place limits on government to avoid tyrannical rule and enjoy personal liberty. The tyranny of prevailing opinion however is just as evil as a tyrancial government. Government has been established to serve the majority of the people’s will. However while giving voice to some; it silences the voice of the minority. Mill claims that the majority opinion is usually biased due to self interest of that the group, whether opinions of the minority are presceved as right or wrong they have the right to contribute ideas and speak their mind. Mill argues that no one should impose their values on others. People have the right to behave the way they would like as long as it is the individual experiencing the negative consequences of that choice and not the rest of the society. Mill writes that religion should not be a factor in making a decision. Religion doesn’t make a person morally right or sound. The nature of humans shouldn’t be to conform to the majority values or religious doctrine but to explore possibilities and be spontaneous. Eccentrics are social outcast and are looked down upon or even shunned but Mill would argue that eccentric behavior is the mark of genius. To leave the norm of society and explore new ideas leads to a progressing society that is happier. Mills discusses that as important as individual autonomy and liberty is one must show respect fellow to individuals in the community. The individual acknowledgment of one to another is an exchange in protection within that society. It is the obligation of society to inform others if a person is harmful to others, and for those who do pose a threat it is up to the community to come to reach a consensus on the best way to punish. As important as the individual role is to society, society has a responsibility to the individual to help them grow into a rational moral adult. If the person is a threat to society, it is society that is too also be held responsible. When one is an adult, society looses the right to tell that person what is the right choice. If the person makes choices that is no harm to society but not a threat only an outcast to society, then it is still in society’s best interest to maintain that person’s right to liberty. The state Mill argues should create strong minded, educated individuals who think for themselves. Giving the government power is trusting and could have an unnecessary influence on a person’s life. Most power given to the government is the extension of a particular groups interest not necessarily that of what is best for the entire society.

IV. Conservatism[edit | edit source]

Conservatives have been identified as anyone who resists change. Michael Oakeshott wrote "On being a conservative" describes what being a conservative means: "to prefer the familiar to the unknown,to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss." In his idea what makes a conservative is "politics intelligible is nothing to do with natural law or a providential order, nothing to do with morals or religion; it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about." Conservatives believed that change would be a threat to their identity and could lead to extinction. Their beliefs are independent of religious beliefs of human nature and are concerned with the present, not the past or future.

V. Edmund Burke (1729-1797)[edit | edit source]

Developed his ideas in response to the French Revolution. He believed the revolutionaries ideas and concepts of freedom was misguided and did not understand human nature. He wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France three years before the Reign of Terror began. In rejecting the revolution he began to see individuals in the organic view; relating to one another and to the society as you would relate to the human body; as one interdependent living organism. He believed that freedoms needed to be kept under control otherwise it may threaten social order. Without government control, people would endanger themselves and others. He thought government should include features that were desirable to the majority of society; representative government, a natural aristocracy, private property, and little platoons.

B. Michael Oakeshott Tradition is the main point to Oakeshott article “On Being Conservative”. Tradition is what guides political actions. Humans are to enjoy what is available rather than to look for something else. This reflection brings gratefulness for the inheritance enjoyed from the past. (but not holding on to the past because it is gone) To be a conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown. Oakeshott rejects the idea of utopian bliss presented in more liberal theories. Enjoying the present and familiar is what creates harmony and is the opposite of ignorance. The conservative disposition is to live in the present. To be mature is to enjoy what is available rather than look for something new. To live maturely isn’t to look to the future with urgency or optimism of what could be. What is important is to live in the present and fulfill one’s own goal and aspirations. Government should be a “limited activity, namely the provisions and custody of general rules and conduct.” Not imposing but enabling people to pursue their life in the way they would like to. The possession of private property permits a man to choose among groups and to move freely within society; and a freely competing economic system is the essence of personal freedom. Humans Oakeshott writes are lazy and find change tiring. To present change is a risk to their identity and the need for familiarity. Governments are there to reflect change not impose change. To rely on what is familiar is the opposite of ignorance and apathy. Individuals have always sought what is familiar he states, comparing how even ancient myth warns against innovation. The government should play a limited role. It is there to keep order and stability. It should be a product of structured familiarity and a product of reflection and choice. To engage in reform of morality or religion is to be inconsistent with the notion of individual freedom. Individual freedom can be pursued to its fullest when government is not enforcing morality and religion. Change should be a slow gradual process and only when reform is needed. To have innovation and growth means that there is a defect and thus change is needed in response to improve the human condition.

VI. Revolution and Reform[edit | edit source]

Reform is like an innovation which is stated to mean to do something entirely new which would mean that new would be better than old. It goes by the old ways and Burke says they want change based on abstract reasons. Burke said that the French Government were perfect but they do expect a change within the government and that is reform comes into place. Burke believed the French Revolutionaries are people who lived in a house with a leaky roof and broken windows. They decided that the French wanted to make new homes and to have a good shelter for the people but never had any experience with carpenter and architecture but had to do it to protect the people. Burke states “The revolutionaries had forsaken the tried and true way to reform for the path of innovation because it was safer and sure.” Reform and revolutionaries introduce Representative Government, Nature Aristocracy, Private Property and Little Platoon.

A. Representative Government 1774 Burke stated in “Speech to the Electoral Bristol” Certainly, Gentleman, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, and his satisfactions, to theirs and above all… to prefer their interest to his own. Burke was a member in parliament, but he has also favored democracy within the British Poll. The large landholders had the right to vote or could also stand for election. Burke thought that the interest of people should be represented with in the government, but did not have to vote to his or her interested should be well represented. Having the right to vote is to have the right person in office. Burke thought that democracy would threaten the representative government.

B. The Natural Aristocracy True Natural Aristocracy is the rare people that have the ability, the experience, and the inclination to govern wisely in the interest of the whole society. These people are also known as the natural leaders and also have the leisure for the children to study. These people are most like to come from hereditary aristocracy. Burke did not say that Natural Aristocracy and the hereditary are the same. It does take both to be somebody and to achieve something.

C. Private Property Aristocratic privilege was within a connection that Burke saw between aristocracy and property. Property was to be more stabilizing and conservative within the society. Owners of property, especially land would be more strengthen within themselves of what they own. They will be more interested in what they own and as well to use their property for their own usage. They have their right to do what they wish to please within their area of their property. Burke also discussed when a property that is being passed down from generations to generations to their family they show indistinguishable from one another. This proves the hereditary aristocracy.

D. The Little Platoons Powers should be spread out throughout the society. Instead of all the power given to the government itself and the local concerns should only be held with the local instead of the national. The rituals and beliefs like churches, families, and other groups should be respected with what they do. This is where government would have to be strong to protect the society of all rituals and religious beliefs. The little Platoons will make liberty possible will not be control over the government due to have their own separate powers. The Platoons will conduct their powers to share and to have their own separate control over the society, but will be one as a nation. You may have a nice singing voice but its better singing in a choir that you cannot make the melody on your own Burke stated as an example of Little Platoon.

Notes[edit | edit source]

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