Philosophy & Ideas

Conservative Thought in the Time of Covid (Part II)

The modern term for the non-conservative side of politics is “progressive”. In its dishonesty, it is the perfect word because it embodies the notion of destination, with the policies of “progressives” aimed towards reaching that destination: equality, equity, justice, fairness or whatever. There is some abstract outcome in the mind’s eye of those who line up behind the progressive banner, with the political policies adopted aimed at some pre-determined outcome which almost invariably means the suppression, if not the actual disappearance to the greatest extent possible, of private business.

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To use the terms “socialist” or “Marxist” gives the game away. Marxists seek the “classless society” in which business ownership has been abolished, the means of production are in the hands of the state, and where only the “working class” exists led by some group of leaders who make all productive decisions. Socialists similarly aim to use the levers of the state to direct the economy as a means to improve the living standards of selected groups who are designated as not receiving their fair share of the bounties of the economic system, which is often portrayed as a halfway house on the road to a full Marxist state. There, too, there are people at the top who can never be challenged by those over whom they rule. The elimination of the market economy is the aim, since the owners of business firms are identified as “oppressors” whose disappearance will lift the living standards and personal freedom of those who remain.

“Progressives” portray themselves as seeking similar outcomes, although who are specifically identified as oppressors at any particular time shifts depending on the circumstances and the political opportunities. The villain remains those who happen to be the “wealthy”, with the aim, to put it at its simplest, the redistribution of incomes from those with the highest incomes towards those with the lowest. The pretence is made that the goods and services that represent a nation’s wealth will continue to flow even with producers robbed of their productive assets. Not surprisingly, it is the leaders who advocate these policies who end up with the spoils wherever such an approach has been tried.

Conservative Thought in the Time of COVID (Part I)

The term “progressive” is never defined by progressives themselves because it is a concept best expressed by the motto, “Never let a crisis go to waste”. What remains constant is the use of government power in as centralised a manner as possible at any one time in the name of alleviating problems or achieving the aims of its supporters, an outcome which never occurs, although there is always next time.

Covid has become yet another crisis that the Left has now employed as a device for achieving its ends. Amongst the masks and the vaccines, the most obvious element in dealing with the virus has been the shutting down of much of the private sector along with massive increases in the level of government expenditure. This has not occurred by chance. Here again we see the Left-Right, progressive-conservative divide in play. Everyone is frightened by a pandemic, which is why Covid has proven such a godsend to the Left. To emphasise just what is at stake we need to go back to the roots of conservative thought.


Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France

The first of the great conservative writers is generally deemed to have been Edmund Burke, whose most profound observations were expressed in his 1790 volume, Reflections on the Revolution in France. There is nothing else like it in the entire history of political writings. Having supported the American side during its revolutionary wars that led to American independence, he was the most articulate and accurate of the opponents of the French Revolution from the moment the Bastille fell in 1789. Written before the guillotines were rolled out, before the advent of Napoleon, before the Napoleonic Wars, and of course well before the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, he captures with accuracy the political descent in France that was to convulse other nations in times thereafter.

His was the first great conservative political tract because it was the first great anti-socialist political discourse, written even before the madness of the French Revolution was identified as the first of its kind, with many other almost identical political disturbances to follow. Here, however, we will dwell on the political lessons Burke drew which are still relevant to us today. And here the focus will be on the absence of ideology. A proper understanding of what it means to be a conservative accepts the importance of change, but also builds that change not on some abstract principle applied in haste, but based on a prudent and cautious approach founded on careful considerations based on the wisdom that has been hard-earned, not just from studying the past but from having lived through it.

The first issue is whether to be conservative means to oppose change. The past has all the answers, conservatives supposedly say, so that tampering with the existing order is a profound mistake. In reality, this is what Burke wrote.

A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve. (Burke [1790] 2004: 106)

The issue is never change itself, but always which changes there should be, how such change should be introduced and what the basis should be of any of the innovations introduced. Burke argued that changes should be based on a careful and prudent assessment of the options as they exist with a strong deference to keeping what has worked in the past over radical shifts. He was looking at the first of many similar revolutions that aimed to undermine the entire political system all at one go:

The dislike I feel to revolutions, the signal for which have so often been given from pulpits; the spirit of change that has gone abroad; the total contempt which prevails with you, and may come to prevail with us, of all antient institutions, when set against the present sense of convenience, or to the bent of a present inclination: all these considerations make it not unadvisable, in my opinion, to call back our attention to the true principle of our own domestic laws. (Burke (1790) 2004: 110)

And where will these true principles be found? They are found in looking at what has come before:

If you are desirous of knowing the spirit of our constitution and the policy which predominated in that great period which has secured it to this hour, pray look for both in our histories, in our records, in our acts of parliament, and journals of parliament, and not in the sermons of [radical preachers] and the after-dinner toasts of the Revolution Society. (Burke (1790) 2004: 117)

These radicals and revolutionaries will turn over one’s society in the name of some principle built on an ideology that promises some kind of advance but offers only harm. Instead, what is needed is a spirit of compromise and prudence in thinking through what is to be done:

These opposed and conflicting interests which you considered as so great a blemish … in our present constitution interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. They render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable. (Burke (1790) 2004: 122)

But here is the thing. This is Burke discussing the French Revolution in 1790. What difference does any of what he wrote make to us today? And while he was drawing out a series of principles in dealing with political change, little of this has much to say to anyone today, especially since he was apparently trying to defend the French monarchy against its replacement by a representative assembly of delegates. That was not his point, but none of this is of significance today.


John Stuart Mill

The central figure in the development of the conservative perspective was John Stuart Mill, although he is seldom seen this way, in part because his own view of the world was never ultimately embedded into the mindsets of most of those who took up the name of conservative. Mill is instead associated with liberalism, which is the actual perspective of those who seek to promote a conservative worldview today.

He succeeds Burke as the next great political philosopher in the English tradition with the publication of On Liberty in 1859. Burke in reacting to the French Revolution was providing his own view on the political chaos of his time, and where things were by the time Mill arrived to take up these issues was that, economically, the Industrial Revolution had been embedded within the economic structures of the nations facing the Atlantic, where politically popular democratic forms of government were almost universally embedded. The United States and France may have led the way through their respective revolutions, but government by popular consent was clearly the only form of political structure that was generally acceptable. The problem that Mill sought to deal with was the role of individual rights in the presence of a democratically elected government.

At the time Burke was writing, Christian beliefs were the basis for individual and social morality. By the time Mill entered the debate, the acceptance of the absolute truth of Christian belief was weaker, so that it was difficult for Mill to provide a moral grounding for any of the values he might seek to base his political philosophy upon. If there was no divine message that brought a unified and coherent foundation to a community, then what could and would? The answer that satisfied Mill, but has satisfied few others since, was his adaptations of the utilitarian philosophy that had been introduced by Jeremy Bentham.

Complicating all of this was that Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species was published in the very same year as On Liberty. The only point that needs to be made here is that between Darwin on evolution and Lyell in geology, the proportion of the population that would be swayed by biblical authority was diminishing. This would obviously have an effect on morality and more particularly, over where one might find some kind of justification for a community’s acceptance of the traditional moral code. This would be even more the case today.

It is here that Mill provides a basis for morality in the principle of utility, which he had taken from Jeremy Bentham but had transformed its philosophy into a more acceptable form, by no longer using religious teachings as the basis for moral beliefs. But behind all this was his concerns with the rise in democracy and the tyranny of the majority.

There were therefore two elements that Mill introduced that provided the foundation for the conservative tradition in his own time: the principle of self-protection and the absolute defence of open debate as the only means to determine whose views on any matter were to be accepted. Both are crucial, as they remain to this day. Ignore either, and political freedom disappears.



In quoting from Mill as I do below, I provide my usual cautionary note. Mill is the most difficult author I have ever read. His mind was filled with caveats and qualifications at every turn, so his writing is far more dense than just about any other writer of his time, and is for many today quite beyond anything they normally encounter. Even the excerpts chosen may be a challenge, but they are worth the effort. I have therefore also included a brief summary of what he has written, which may be redundant for some, but of assistance to others.

Mill makes clear why he has written On Liberty. In setting out his intent, he wrote:

In the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power … it appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. (Mill [1859] 1998: 7)

It had seemed to many, he wrote, that having one’s own elected representatives would limit the abuse of power over a population by those in government. This, Mill states, has been an insufficient restraint on those who had found power placed in their hands, as had been found in practice time and again. Some precautionary measures are therefore needed:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. (ibid.: 8)

Therefore, some means have to be devised to limit the power of those who are in government. In Mill’s words, “‘The tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” What then is to be done?

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. (ibid.: 13-14)

And what is that “one very simple principle” that is to limit absolutely the role of government in the lives of its citizens? It is this:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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. (ibid.: 14)

A society is only able to interfere with the actions and freedoms of its citizens for its own self-protection. The only justification is “to prevent harm to others”.

And in the era of pandemic, that, you might think, is the end of the matter. Covid supposedly creates such dangers for others that whatever restraints there might in normal circumstances be on governments, there is now a warrant for the government to legislate in such ways as to limit the freedom of the individual as a means to protect the rest of the community from the dangers the spread of this disease might create.

But that was not where Mill left things.


Freedom of Thought and Speech as the Only Protection Against Government Tyranny

Mill is very clear that a government cannot be trusted to act in the interests of a community, even if it has been elected by the community itself. And while the “self-protection” rule might have been a partial protection against an over-bearing government, it was still possible for a government to pretend it is acting to protect the community in some way. There was a realistic concern that a government could invent some problem that its actions were a protection against that infringed the freedoms of a population, especially the freedoms of some section of the population. This was why Mill raised his concern with the “tyranny of the majority”. He therefore immediately discusses the crucial importance of free institutions. This is part of a much longer paragraph, and only the first of the three components of liberty he discusses:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.

The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. (ibid.: 16-17 – emphases added)

Where a government may wish to mislead a free community, the community’s only protection is its right to free speech and freedom of opinion. Mill emphasises the point in the very next paragraph, which begins: “No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.” (ibid.: 17 – emphases added) And this is emphasised further in the continuation of that same paragraph: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

And in the Age of Covid, the very next passage seems of astonishing foresight in how a tyrannical government might behave.

Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

Mill points out that at the time he was writing, such sentiments were commonplace. “Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice.” He therefore continues to emphasise these crucial points:

Society has expended fully as much effort in the attempt (according to its lights) to compel people to conform to its notions of personal, as of social excellence. The ancient commonwealths thought themselves entitled to practise, and the ancient philosophers countenanced, the regulation of every part of private conduct by public authority, on the ground that the State had a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens.

Mill then makes a forecast that given the way the world has unfolded since the middle of the nineteenth century is astonishingly accurate:

There is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable.” (ibid.: 18)

And therefore, he states:

The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase. (ibid.: 18-19)

And with the following words, Chapter 1 comes to an end:

Although these liberties, to some considerable amount, form part of the political morality of all countries which profess religious toleration and free institutions, the grounds, both philosophical and practical, on which they rest, are perhaps not so familiar to the general mind, nor so thoroughly appreciated by many even of the leaders of opinion, as might have been expected … Those to whom nothing which I am about to say will be new, may therefore, I hope, excuse me, if on a subject which for now three centuries has been so often discussed, I venture on one discussion more. (ibid.: 19)

And so, noting that this is old news, he nevertheless plunges forward to lay out a more complete discussion of the issues. But however commonplace all this was in 1859, the message Mill brought forward needs to be emphasised even more in our own day than in his. Chapter 2, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”, begins:

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. This aspect of the question, besides, has been so often and so triumphantly enforced by preceding writers, that it needs not be specially insisted on in this place. (ibid.: 20)

There are some things, in spite of the tremendous technological advances we have made, in which modern society has gone backwards. We no longer value the freedoms which in Mill’s time were recognised as the crucial protections they are. Our complacency is amongst our greatest dangers.


Conservatism and Religious Conviction

Conservatism as it has developed in the West has been associated with Christian morality. We can go right back to Burke, where we find:

We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort … We prefer the Protestant, not because we think it has less of the Christian religion in it, but because, in our judgment, it has more. We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal. (Burke (1790) 2004: 186-187)

In 1790, Christianity was a unifying force, which had remained a unifying force in the nations of the Western world, even since the Enlightenment. Yet it was clear to Mill in 1859 that one could no longer use religion as the binding force it had once been. And as impossible as it was as a means for finding some foundation for conservative thought by the middle of the nineteenth century, now in the twenty-first century there is no possibility that any religious view will provide a means for political unity. Mill therefore argued on behalf of a utilitarian perspective as the necessary binding force. He does not say this directly, but there should be no question that he was trying to provide a different foundation for the ethical standards that had arisen in the West.

Mill is quite clear on the positive role Christianity had played in anchoring the moral perspective that had grown in the West. This is the focus of much of the second chapter of On Liberty, as here: “That mankind owe a great debt to this morality, and to its early teachers, I should be the last person to deny …” (Mill 1859: 55) But he immediately continues with this:

… but I do not scruple to say of it, that it is, in many important points, incomplete and one-sided, and that unless ideas and feelings, not sanctioned by it, had contributed to the formation of European life and character, human affairs would have been in a worse condition than they now are. (ibid.)

In Utilitarianism (1863) he again emphasises the need for an anchor for our judgments of right and wrong that is separate from religious beliefs. The form of words for the principle being pursued—“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”—will leave most people cold. Morality based on happiness seems shallow. However much the case may be argued for creating the greatest social benefit in total, there is a vacuum at the heart of the argument that will never draw the emotions. It does not seem to bridge the gap between a wish to do right in God’s eyes, and the need for a foundation for our sense of right and wrong. Mill argues:

A utilitarian who believes in the perfect goodness and wisdom of God, necessarily believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on the subject of morals, must fulfil the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. But others besides utilitarians have been of opinion that the Christian revelation was intended, and is fitted, to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them, except in a very general way, what it is; and that we need a doctrine of ethics, carefully followed out, to interpret to us the will of God. (Mill [1863] 1998: 153-154)

Mill is trying to save Christian ethics from the non-believers in his midst, a small issue in his own time which has since become of massive importance. Christian teachings—religious teachings of any sort—will have no support from a very large proportion of the population. But then, neither will a Utilitarian ethic. This is the central issue in the moral void in the midst of our Western culture today.


Conservatism and Socialist Belief

Mill touches on the core issue in On Liberty. The core ethic on the Left is socialism, and differences in income are seen as the major ethical issue requiring government involvement. The “moral police” are now everywhere attempting to ensure equality of outcomes irrespective of one’s contribution to the productivity of the community.

We have only further to suppose a considerable diffusion of Socialist opinions, and it may become infamous in the eyes of the majority to possess more property than some very small amount, or any income not earned by manual labour. Opinions similar in principle to these, already prevail widely among the artizan class, and weigh oppressively on those who are amenable to the opinion chiefly of that class, namely, its own members. It is known that the bad workmen who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry, are decidedly of opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good, and that no one ought to be allowed, through piecework or otherwise, to earn by superior skill or industry more than others can without it. And they employ a moral police, which occasionally becomes a physical one, to deter skilful workmen from receiving, and employers from giving, a larger remuneration for a more useful service. (Mill [1859] 1998: 97)

Whatever debates there may have been in Mill’s time on these issues have long been resolved. We are now well into trying to ensure that income earned is not the major arbiter of goods and services bought. The war on the market economy has been at the centre of political debate since the Industrial Revolution. In an important sense it is a religious war.

Yet this is a religious war that has almost nothing to do with the traditional views on creation and God’s law. This is a secular war about dividing up the dividend from the enormous bounty that our economic system has been able to produce, which has especially occurred among those communities in which the market system, based on individual ownership of the means of production, has been allowed to dominate economic outcomes. To most people, this bounty is just there, no more remarkable than the rising of the sun. And just being there, it is distributable in any way the political decision-makers of the time decide.

Yet the entire basis for our ability to produce as much as we do has been based on the existence of the rights of individuals to pursue their own ends in their own way, which in economic terms became the basis for the market economy. Some would create businesses of their own which they would operate to earn their incomes, while others would become employees in such enterprises. But each person became responsible for their own level of income by becoming as economically productive as they were able.

What makes this a religious war is that those who pursue this socialist agenda hold their views not through rational considerations of how this flow of goods and services has been made to appear, but through some kind of irrational belief that businesses and their productive apparatus once created are permanently there and will always be there no matter what the political arrangements that surround these businesses are. The Marxist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, has now been truncated into only the second half. In Wikipedia’s words, “the idea is that, with the full development of socialism and unfettered productive forces, there will be enough to satisfy everyone’s needs”.

Possibly the most depressing part is that this socialist agenda, an agenda that remains at the heart of this will to destroy the market system and to share the wealth through political decree and public expenditure, has been incorporated into many of the major religious institutions in the world. The development of the market economy showed how prosperity could be achieved, and the system has been adopted around the world. But the system has only been able to lay down its productive roots where individual rights were the core of the social ethos of the time. Often discussed under the heading of the rights to property, an absolutely essential element in the growth of prosperity has been the legal protections provided to the owners of businesses to manage their own businesses in the face of the difficulties, many of them political, they have always had to face.


Conservative Thought and the Market Economy

Conservative thought seldom sees itself aligned with market economy, although many who understand the role of the market in the creation of our prosperity are recognised as conservative. Roger Scruton, a great conservative scholar, saw this:

The idea of a state as a benign father-figure, who guides the collective assets of society to the place where they are needed, and who is always there to rescue us from poverty, ill health and unemployment, has remained in the foreground of academic political science in Britain. (Scruton 2014: 8)

This is a view that has flowed far wider than within the academic world. And even Scruton, within a page of discussing the socialist mantra, turns to re-stating what has become conservatism’s main message in the modern world. He is discussing Margaret Thatcher:

All her most important speeches as well as her enduring policies stemmed from a consciousness of national loyalty. She believed in our country and its institutions, and saw them as the embodiment of social affections nurtured and stored over the centuries. Family, civil associations, the Christian religion and the common law were all integrated into her ideal of freedom under the law. The pity was that she had no philosophy with which to articulate that ideal, so that “Thatcherism” came to denote a kind of caricature of conservative thinking, created by the left in order to cover the right with ridicule. (ibid.: 9 – emphasis added)

Margaret Thatcher was exactly right. Removing the economic dimension from “Thatcherism” removes the core element that binds all of the elements of conservative thought. Without a functioning market economy, based on the role of individual entrepreneurs, we fall into the poverty that free markets have delivered us from while also coming under the thumb of the governments upon whom we now become dependent.

Since the Industrial Revolution the aim of conservative policy has been to make the market economy more humane in making relations between entrepreneurs and their employees more civil while also remaining productive. John Stuart Mill’s great economic text, Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, which became the standard economics text throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, devotes almost 200 pages to discussing the role of government. And even at the end of this discussion, Mill states that it is not possible to conceive in advance of all of the roles that a government might be required to take on.

There was no thought that everything should be left to the market. It was perfectly well understood that beyond the mediating role of a Christian social ethic that had developed over the previous two millennia, there was a need to devise new forms of social interaction in the workplace. But as an absolute essential, both in relation to the creation of wealth and the preservation of individual rights and freedom, there was no possible replacement for the capitalist system that had evolved. The market economy remains at the heart of conservative policy. Without the free market, conservatism disappears.

Moreover, this system was an attempt to move beyond the socialist conceptions that had already predated the Industrial Revolution or were perhaps coincident with its emergence. These were the principles that had been specifically stated in 1755 by “the French utopian” Étienne-Gabriel Morelly:

    1. Nothing in society will belong to anyone, either as a personal possession or as capital goods, except the things for which the person has immediate use, for either his needs, his pleasures, or his daily work.
    2. Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.

III. Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws. (Wikipedia: From Each According to his Ability)

This is an agenda as modern as today.


The Core Elements of Conservative Thought

Conservative thought is often seen as having originated within the historic traditions of our Western religious beliefs. And while there is a great deal of truth to this, it is not the essence of modern conservative thought. Modern conservatism is based on defending individual rights and personal freedoms, politically and in our economic relations. Freedom of religion is one part of these freedoms, but no particular religious belief is at the core of conservative thought. Any religion, and no religion at all, is potentially consistent with conservatism.

These are the elements of conservatism as it needs to be understood if we are to defend ourselves against the rising socialist beliefs that are its major political alternative.

  1. An individual’s right to be left alone to live one’s own life as one pleases with no interference from government unless to prevent harm to others.
  2. Absolute right to free speech—anyone can say or write anything about anything they like at any time as part of a public discussion.
  3. Market economy—economic outcomes should be almost entirely based on individual personal decisions to produce. The government’s role in the creation of wealth is minimal.
  4. Adherence to a legal and moral tradition with historic roots based on individual rights and freely determined religious beliefs so long as those beliefs are not imposed on others.

This is the War of the Worlds at the present time, as it has been since the middle of the eighteenth century as the first glimmers of communal prosperity began to emerge. The earliest and possibly the greatest philosophical defenders of this tradition were Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, both of whom wrote great treatises on economic theory. Both understood that at the centre of our contentment with life, along with our ability to produce, were personal freedoms and individual rights.

The great error in much of the writings on conservative thought since these times has been to separate out the role of the market economy as, at best, a minor element in the structure of conservative thought. In fact, it is at the very core of what must be understood and defended.


Wikipedia: Gladstonian Liberalism

Accessed July 16, 2021


Wikipedia: Factory Act of 1802

Accessed July 23, 2021


Wikipedia: Factory Acts

Accessed July 23, 2021


Wikipedia: From Each According to his Ability, To Each According to his Needs”,_to_each_according_to_his_needs

Accessed October 3, 2021



Burke, Edmund. [1790] 2004. Reflections on the Revolution in France: and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies n London Relative to that Event. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Connor Cruise O’Brien. London: Penguin Books.



Kates, Steven. 2021. Review of Jordan Peterson. Twelve More Rules for Life. Quadrant, May 2021.



Kirk, Russell. 1982. The Portable Conservative Reader. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.


Kristol, Irving. 2011. The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009. New York: Basic Books.


Mill, John Stuart. [1848] 1936. Principles of Political Economy: With Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green and Co.


Mill, John Stuart. [1859] 1998. On Liberty. In John Stuart Mill On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.



Mill, John Stuart. [1863] 1998. Utilitarianism. In John Stuart Mill On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.



Scruton, Roger. 1980. The Meaning of Conservatism. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Pelican Books.


Scruton, Roger2014. How to be a Conservative. London: Bloomsbury.


Stephen, James Fitzjames. [1886] 1993. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stuart D. Warner (ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.


Willetts, David. 1992. Modern Conservatism. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

2 thoughts on “Conservative Thought in the Time of Covid (Part II)

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Thanks, Steven, for a salutary précis of how we have got to where we are, staring into the abyss, with not a lot now obscuring our view of it. Several of many potential comments:

    Your observation that ‘conservative thought seldom sees itself aligned with market economy’ does not accord with my experience as initially an employee of large corporations then a small business owner/operator for the past thirty years. In that latter life dealing with the constant attacks of those promoting the welfare state, including a multitude of poorly considered but externally mandated areas of change into every aspect of one’s efforts on behalf of one’s family, one’s employees and one’s small sphere of influence in a community is front-of-mind and an integral aspect of business and definitely inclines one towards conservatism.

    However your comment that ‘without the free market, conservatism [and our way of life] disappears’ has been my mantra for many years now as I have watched the growth of entitlement mentalities and demands across society, apparently fuelled by the juvenile state of Western politics, based on the assumption, as you say, that the largesse of the State is never-ending. Even Marx and Engels explicitly warned of the folly of the State controlling the minutiae of the market.

    Nothing, other than vacuous Public Health Orders, gets me more excited than the claimed virtuosity of the not-for-profit enterprise. It’s hard to think of many that aren’t entirely dependent on the largesse noted above.


    We/western society desperately needs to DEFINE what capitalism actually is. MY simplistic definition would be as follows:- A capitalist society is one in which [a] Individual people are allowed to legally OWN things [i.e. private property] and [b] All interactions between individuals should be conducted on a VOLUNTARY basis.

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