On Conservatism

Conservatism invokes many negative stereotypes. And probably for good reason given the kinds of policy that modern conservatives have both implemented and supported. However, conservatism is not necessarily bad, rather its the way in which modern conservatives have either covertly or inadvertently retaliated against original conservatism.

Its an ideal time to revisit what conservatism is because as Patrick Gower points out, Colin Craig’s Conservative Party (CP) is on the rise.

Additionally, Christine Rankin  told Colin Espiner that its wrong to talk about the CP in terms of left or right, instead she prefers the conservatism vs liberalism spectrum.

I think she makes a valid point because according to the CP principles and various other CP resources they’re not strictly capitalist. For instance, the CP advocate for all New Zealander’s to have reasonable access to quality health care and education regardless of their ability to pay, unlike other party’s with conservative values that promote a user pays model only.

I came across a blog on Conservatism vs Liberalism (an obviously biased piece in favour of conservatism), that was somewhat useful for gauging how a conservative sees the differences between conservatism and liberalism. It led me to reflect on how we use the terms conservative and liberal and the obvious tensions that result.

For instance, consider how strict or controlling parents are characterised as conservative while parents who are more open to their children having new or non-traditional experiences are considered liberal. Its worth noting that both conservatives and liberals value  individual freedom and I feel like we’ve come to use conservatism pejoratively probably because of the conservatism we’ve been exposed to.

Noam Chomsky explains that:

Political terminology isn’t a model of clarity at best…almost every word is used in a sense which is almost its opposite. This is true of words like conservative. The political policies that are called conservative these days would appall any genuine conservative, if there were one around to be appalled.

In the interview, Chomsky refers to the Reagan Administration as an example of how conservatism was disingenuously used to implement largely authoritarian policy such as the building up of a powerful central state and a commitment to protecting it from the public which he argues created immunity from public inspection, despite conservatism requiring state transparency and accountability.

He also points to increased censorship and other forms of control that are touted as conservatism but are in fact the very opposite of conservatism (insofar as conservatism was originally intended).

Chomsky suggests that in defining conservatism:

Whatever the term means, it involves a concern for Enlightenment values of individual rights and freedoms against powerful external authorities such as the state, a dominant Church, and so on. That kind of conservatism no-one even remembers anymore

Regarding the CP, it will be fascinating to see how conservative they are in the original sense. I mean, critics are already alluding to a dubious relationship between the CP and the Church. Although, Rankin insists that there are various religious affiliates within the party membership, including herself. Besides conservatives aren’t Marxists, so individuals voluntarily affiliating to whatever religion they please is not ideologically problematic for conservatism in the same way that it is for Marxists. Interestingly, there is some common ground between Marx’s criticism of religion as ‘the opiate of the people’ and conservatism’s (original) scepticism of dominant religious institutions as inhibitors of individual freedom.

I’m not convinced that the CP is or will be a conservative party in the original sense. Mostly because we have two dominant parties and the CP will have to make compromises if it wants to form a government with one of them. In either instance, the penchant for authoritarianism exhibited by National and Labour will always conflict with conservatism.  I suppose  we’ll need to wait and see how the CP manage their conservatism (if elected) with an openly authoritarian coalition partner as it could make for some very interesting politics on the right, as I doubt a Labour led government would work that closely with the CP.



  1. In this instance Chomsky’s evaluation of how conservatism has been debased in modern times hits the nail on the head perfectly.

    The CP are dreadful. In his The Nation (or was it Q&A?) interview three weeks ago when Craig said he would have the state forcibly buy developer land that was not being built on fast enough, he destroyed what should have been the foundation of a conservative movement: sacrosanct property rights.


  2. Hi.

    I think the Conservative/Liberal split Rankin says defines them answers the question. Conservatism, as an idea, is opposed to radicalism. Rankin defines it as opposed to liberalism, which tells you what she means by Conservatism, I think.


  3. i think modern conservatives are more classical liberals as they want more economic freedoms and want society to govern norms rather than a government program

    whereas the democrats in the US and labour in the UK have become slightly more modern liberal as they want a government to prevent exploitation but view human nature as inherintly negative (ie we must ban certain actions as it is harmful such as smoking)


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