14 Jan 2016

Conservatism: A Critique

Hello readers! As promised, here is my essay on Conservatism. Note that while Oli, unfortunately, has been unable to contribute this time—his work at university likely having proven all-encompassing—he may chime in at a later date. Now! Read on.

Firstly, we must clarify what we mean by Conservatism. As is often the case with political ideologies, the term is used to mean many things: it can mean the policies enacted by David Cameron’s government; it can mean the policies in the Tory manifesto (not one and the same thing!); and it can mean the ideals purported by Cameron and co., though these often are very vague and even in contradiction with his policies.

To help answer this question, consider the old adage: it is easier to define a political ideology by what it is not than by what it actually is. This holds true for Conservatism especially. I’ll tell you one thing Conservatism ain’t: conservative. Conservatives, just like Socialists and Liberals, do want change; they just want different types of change.

It is true that Conservatism doesn’t like drastic social changes; partly this is because they view our society as being generally a Good Thing (albeit flawed), and because—in the case of the Conservatism promoted by Cameron & co.—the status quo benefits them. That said, even Socialism and Liberalism aren’t too fond of grand ideological projects. This is because all three ideologies are pragmatic at a fairly fundamental level. Communism, for example, is an ideology many Socialists like in theory if not in practice (although there are exceptions—Socialists consider private property a human right).

Conservatism is distinct from other right ideologies—like Libertarianism or Anarchism—in a much more substantive way, however, than is Socialism distinct from Communism. Whereas Socialists generally find the Communist ideology palatable (if implausible) Conservatives are typically horrified by Libertarians. This is because Conservatives view the world in a way fundamentally different from other rightwing ideologies. Conservatives are moderate in their nature, yes, but there’s more to it than that.

Conservatives are actually proponents of government, in ways Libertarians and Anarchists certainly are not. They view the State as being crucial for a civil and successful society—life without government would, in the words of Hobbes, be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Where Conservatives differ from Socialists is in the functions and role of the State.

Certainly, Conservatives do want the State to uphold law and order (in fact they’re usually very keen on this—likely because law and order keeps their property safe from the proletariat), and to fight wars, and—in the case of pre-Thatcherite Conservatism at least—to build housing and nationalise industries if it is in the overall interests of the country.

Now: Cameron’s Conservatives have no such interests these days. This is because their Conservatism is a bastardised Conservatism—while this ideology has always been supported by the wealthy, the comfortable and the would-be bourgeoisie, it never went as far as to continue with obviously pernicious policies (like inflating house prices) because it benefits a tiny few. The modern Tory party is essentially a cult of the rich.

But what, you may ask, do Conservatives believe that is different from Socialism—if Cameron’s party is indeed bastardised?

In truth, Conservatism and Socialism are not really all that different. Even things traditionally attributed to Conservatism—i.e. bigotry: opposition to gay marriage, racist language (‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’) etc.—are unnecessary additions to Conservatism, and indeed not even exclusive to the right. (Many cabinet ministers in Atlee’s government were none too happy about Caribbean immigrants, for example).

But there are perhaps three things that distinguish the two ideologies more than anything, in practice. Firstly, Conservatives have an enduring belief in the virtues of Capitalism; and, especially these days, lightly-regulated market capitalism and financialism. Socialists understand the benefits of Capitalism, and employ it to some degree; but they’re much more skeptical, particularly when it comes to banking, climate change, and the goodwill of the bourgeois class.

Secondly, Conservatives place less of an emphasis on equality (of outcomes especially). While they actually tend to like equality, and especially equality of opportunity—the example of the poor man who worked hard, went to university, and became wealthy is one they’re especially fond of—they are not concerned with the struggles of the working classes like Socialists are.

And finally, Conservatives have very different ideas about the causes of wealth and poverty than do Socialists. For a Socialist, wealth and poverty have a number of causes; most pertinently they are: an economic system that, by its nature, empowers the already powerful and weakens the already weak; and social power, allowing the wealthy a bigger slice of the pie. But most of all, Socialists view poverty as the product of disenfranchisement, insecurity, and a lack of education; this then leads to comorbid problems like obesity and alcoholism.

For a Conservative, wealth and poverty have more to do with virtuousness. They sometimes view the poor as uneducated, bad with money, or (perhaps) a little bit unfortunate—but often they view them as feckless scroungers. The wealthy they view as paragons of society.

For the three reasons that Conservatism differs most greatly from Socialism, so too does Conservatism fail intellectually. Here’s why.

Capitalism and the Proclaimed Virtues Thereof

The first key flaw with Conservatism, I think, is its faith in Capitalism. This is not to say that we should all be Marxists—for pure-command economies are almost as bad as pure market economies. But I do believe Conservatives have a faith in the market and in business that is rarely warranted.

Allow me to employ some examples. The Tories in the early 90s thought it a good idea to privatise rail. After all: the market will be more efficient than the big, bureaucratic British state—right?

Wrong. To quote from my polemic on Jeremy Corbyn:

The case is overwhelming: since privatisation, railway ticket prices have increased 22% (adjusted for inflation); subsidies have increased, but most of the money has gone directly into shareholder’s pockets; and the UK has rail prices that are as much as double those of nationalised European nations. (We Own It)

Furthermore, it is estimated that simply by not having to pay shareholders, the government could chop off 18% from ticket prices. (ibid.)

Nor can it be argued that the railway companies provide better service: the average age of the trains has gone up; and to add insult to injury—they are more overcrowded, too, with only a 3% increase in carriage capacity to meet a 60% rise in demand. (ibid.)

So how did the Big Bureaucratic British state (and all those Eurocracies like France and Germany over the Channel) manage to run trains better than corporations?

The answers are not simple, but nor are they that complicated. The companies that took over from the state were oligopolistic and continue to be oligopolistic; they rarely compete directly, and employ predatory pricing to keep out competition (the latter has been reduced due to regulation). The Conservative vision of free choice and successful competition did not materialise. Railways do not have many alternative routes and they cannot easily be replaced by other modes of transport.

Then there’s economies of scale. One big state can do things more efficiently than a lot of little companies—it benefits from technical advantages, in managing railways and trains en masse; it can buy things en-masse; and the state benefits from very low interest rates.

But more than anything, the case of nationalisation—in rail, and even more obviously in the NHS—proves the Conservative spiel wrong. Markets do not tend to equilibrium; often they are not efficient, and not run in the interests of the many. This is because markets, rather than being like gyroscopes, are more like a complex interacting web of varying, often contradictory human interests. Furthermore, consumers are often irrational (buying goods on the basis of marketing and social pressure) and lack the information and available time to make rational decisions if they even wanted to.

Consider a supermarket. Suppose you want to buy detergent. You, in the belief of the free market economists, must—from the dozens of brands and products available on the shelf—know which detergent does the best job, consider the externalities of detergents (like their effect on aquatic life), and then select the exact product which maximises your utility.

Want a phone? Better not be swayed by those shiny iPhones that all the cool people seem to have. Want food? Best know exactly how each product on the shelf tastes. Want fashion? Best know how the workers in Bangladesh are treated. And so on.

And so not only are Conservative beliefs in the market suspect, but so too are their arguments against the state. As Germany shows us—heck, as our own NHS shows us—states can run companies than not only act in the interests of broader society, but that are also managed efficiently. Why? Because it is in everyone’s interest to have well-run public services.

Of course public services are not always well-run. Bad relationships with unions, racial and class-based antagonisms, and incompetent politicians (both lower down and higher up) can derail good public services. But there is one key difference between this and a badly-run corporation: we can do something about it. It’s under our control. The corporation, on the other hand, is run by the CEO, Board, and Shareholders. Our ability to influence it is far reduced.

However, an even more unwarranted Conservative belief is in the virtues of Financialism. To quote from the Tory’s ‘Freeing Britain to Compete’ report (published 2007!):

The (Labour) government claims that this regulation is all necessary. They seem to believe that without it banks could steal our money ……………

We need to make it more difficult for ministers to regulate, and we need to give the critics of regulation more opportunity to make their case against specific new proposals………

We recommend deregulating venture capital fund raising, and investment for professional investors………

A Conservative government should relax banking regulation, allowing a new breed of venture/micro-credit institutions…………….

(Quotes courtesy of Pride’s Purge)

As we all know, the big crash of 2007 proved all the above to be pure fantasy.

I won’t go too much into the why. Suffice to say that the usual happened: the market system had its way; banks gambled, making short-term profits that could only lead to a bust; consumers didn’t know any better; and the financial interests of the bankers led not only them, but the entire political establishment, to abandon reason.

Anyway: I think I’ve covered this flaw insofar as is feasible short of writing an economics book on the topic. Let’s address our next bug-bear—equality.

Conservatives and Equality

Unlike some, Conservatives by and large like equality. In fact, they make quite a fuss about the equality of opportunity. They even, in fact, like to have equality of outcomes (though not, of course, if it openly contradicts the diktats of the market—or the interests of their donors).

Conservatives also like to attack Socialists because Socialists ‘would limit the great so as to be equal to the mediocre’. This, however, is a misunderstanding of Socialism; the real mistakes are being made by Conservatives.

Firstly, Socialism does not want to shackle the good to remain with the bad; rather, they wish to free the good (and the mediocre) from the oppression of the lucky undeserving.

There are two examples that best illustrate my point: housing, and education.

With education, Socialists are quite keen on equality of outcomes. Why? Because equality of outcomes, in reality, is crucial to equality of opportunity. A good student—even if possessed of wit and determination—will struggle in an environment characterised by chronic insecurity in housing (i.e. constantly having to move); in one where their parents are alcoholics, and/or abusive; and in which the tools of their success (books, computers, free time) are unavailable due to poverty. It’s hard to read Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations—and become a brilliant economist—when you’re parents need you to work at Asda’s to pay the bills. And ditto becoming a photographer if your parents can’t afford cameras.

It is because equality of opportunity needs at least some equality of outcomes (even substantial equality of outcomes) that the Conservative ideology becomes self-contradicting.

Indeed, the current Conservative government is acting very much against either equality. In housing, they provide ‘Help to Buy’ (i.e. demand subsidies) to further inflate house prices and drive more people into the loving arms of Buy-to-let landlords. And God-forbid you suggest building houses, be it council housing or housing for private ownership; only the market can do such a thing!

As for education, I have some trouble understanding how removing maintenance grants (to help poor students pay for accommodation while at university) and introducing £9000 a year tuition fees can possibly aid equality.

(The latter issue is a bit more complex, of course, but the principle is simple: students who have to go into £27,000 of debt will struggle to pay back that loan when they’re confronted with unemployment or low wages for entry-level graduate jobs. The difference between the haves and have-nots will be exacerbated, however, since the haves can rely on the bank of mum and dad. Not so the have-nots.)

Wealth and Poverty

The final misconception underlying Conservatism is, with little doubt, the supposed causes of wealth and poverty.

Conservatives frequently portray themselves as being pragmatic and in touch with reality. But their notions of poverty are anything but in touch with reality—let’s see why.

Firstly, we must ascertain why poor people are poor. The topic is of course very complex, but here are the key causes I’ve both personally observed and which the data supports:

  1. The conditions of the labour market. It’s really quite simple: with the way things are set up, we need people to work in supermarkets; to waiter in restaurants; and to staff call centres, act as cleaners, and work manual jobs. These people will not be paid very well. Salaries ranging from the minimum wage (like averaging around £14K/year gross or so) to, at most, £20K will be the norm.
  2. So you see, whichever way you cut it, some people are going to be rather poor—unless you can improve their pay. This would, among other things, involve playing nice with the unions.

  3. Unemployment and working conditions. Even with Osborne’s miraculously low figures approaching 5%, people are still unemployed; JSA is not very much money; and quite a few people are living insecurely under zero-hour contracts and forced self-employment.

  4. Chronic mal-education, depression, and social problems. In my experience, those from poor families lack motivation in school, and are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents.

  5. Some people are poor because they’ve been rendered unfit to work (due to disease or disability) and receive little support from the state.

Conservatives seem blithely ignorant of pretty much all of the above. For the first point, they seem to believe all it takes is ‘education’. Sorry to break it to you folks—but unless you stop going to restaurants, clean up after yourselves, and have robots cash the till, these people will need to be hired. Giving them degrees or A-levels won’t make a damn bit of difference. In fact, quite a few graduates do end up working manual jobs—and never repaying their university debt.

As for point two, some easier solutions are available. We could abolish zero-hours contracts for larger firms. We could force employers to contribute to National Insurance, and have NI really be an insurance—paying out a guaranteed sum of money, every month, regardless of working hours for as long as the individual is employed by the firm.

Unemployment and self-employment are trickier. The NI scheme could perhaps the extended, again, to cover self-employed people. But unemployment is a problem fundamental to capitalism. To even go into it would be the topic of high-level economics; but suffice to say that a combination of the National Education Service (already proposed by figures in my party), more state control of the economy (yes), and possibly even printing money may be effective.

As for points three and four, you will see little sympathy from Conservatives these days. But one thing is for sure: ignoring them doesn’t mean they’ll go away.

Wealth and Tax

The final misconception I wish to address, going on from the above, is wealth and taxation. Conservatives don’t like raising income taxes, especially (it would seem) on the rich. Partly this is because of obvious reasons—the Tory party is funded by the rich. But a number of ideological and practical reasons are given.

  1. It (a 50% tax) won’t raise revenue. False—the 50% tax didn’t raise revenue because it was only introduced temporarily and because rich people forwarded their asset gains. This basically means that they reported lower-than-usual incomes when the tax was introduced, and higher-than-usual incomes after it returned to 45%. So effectively the 50% tax collected abnormally low revenue, and the 45% collected abnormally high revenue. One must also consider taxes in the context of Osborne’s significant cuts to HMRC staffing; if Osborne doesn’t staff HMRC properly, then of course they won’t be able to catch tax evaders (of which there will naturally be more of if the rate goes up to 50%).

  2. Tax is bad—it causes growth to stall because people have no incentive to work. False; as I’ve written already this argument fails to consider how revenue collected by the state can be used to increase economic growth—by training the engineers of tomorrow, keeping our roads and railways running quickly and efficiently, and by providing health services at a much lower cost than comparable private health insurance. Even benefits can lead to economic growth. Housing benefit—recently chopped by Osborne—puts a roof over the heads of some very young and very vulnerable people. By doing so, these people are much more likely to become successful, tax-paying members of our society as opposed to criminals costing police time, or sick people in NHS beds.

  3. The rich don’t deserve to be taxed—they worked hard for their money.

The final argument is symptomatic of the last Conservative mistake. Rich people do work hard for their money (unless they inherited, of course!) but normal people work hard too. They don’t become rich. This is because rich people are in a very economically privileged position: firstly they had the upbringing and resources to allow them to e.g. become software engineers; secondly, they had the trust of the wealthy to obtain capital (since rich people are overwhelmingly of the capitalist class); and thirdly, they were lucky. They hit the market with the right product at the right time. They’re not more virtuous than mere mortals!

What’s more, rich people should pay taxes—because, firstly, they can (unlike poor people) and, secondly: because they more than anyone benefit.

That’s right—even if rich people don’t claim benefits, they are the chief benefactors of state investment nominally. What allows Jaguar to be successful? Engineers and designers who went to schools funded by the state. What allows people to buy cars? Roads funded by the state. Who enforces contracts for Jaguar? The police, funded by the state.

And so why should Jaguar’s CEO, who earns £4.5M, not pay taxes? (One could even ask why he’s given such a handsome share of the pie, but that’s a topic for a different essay).

But this example challenges Conservatism in yet another fundamental way. Conservatives think of wealth as private—‘it’s my damn money,’ in Thatcher-speak. But in reality, wealth is just as much social in character as individual; because nobody makes wealth on their own. Jaguar’s CEO’s wealth stems from Jaguar cars; that’s the ‘wealth’ in this equation (which must not be conflated with money). The CEO doesn’t make the cars himself. The people who work the factories, who design the engines, who style the cars; they make the cars. Who gets the wealth is a social decision—because the wealth is created collectively!

(Note that this is not to say the CEO does nothing at all; that would be a gross failure to understand the demands placed on a modern car company, and the role of the CEO.)


This essay has proven lengthy. Despite this, I have not been entirely concise; for such is the nature of the blog. Doubtless, explaining some of the underlying economics and philosophy would take up a book’s worth of words.

But I do, however, hope that this essay has at least challenged you—if not convinced you outright. Beware the claims made by Conservatives. The truth is often complicated…

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