Conservatism as a Tension between Paternalism and Libertarianism

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Conservatism as a Tension between Paternalism and Libertarianism There are many different strands of conservatism within the ideology, the most significant of which in modern terms are paternalism and libertarianism. This conflict can be illustrated by the rival traditions of one-nation conservatism and New Right, or in particular neoliberal, conservatism.

The basic idea of paternalism is to have authority over people for their own good. Whereas continental conservatives in the nineteenth century opposed any change, an Anglo-American tradition began with Edmund Burke which was more cautious, modest and pragmatic - these type of conservatives were willing to ‘change in order to conserve’.
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Disraeli believed in an organic society held together by duty and responsibility, and was responsible for the Second Reform Act which gave the working class the vote and also improved housing conditions and hygiene. This is often seen as a form of Tory welfarism. One nationism reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s when conservative governments in the UK promoted social welfare, in stark contrast to later, New Right conservative governments such as the Thatcher Government (1979-90). In the 50s one-nation conservatism was seen as a ‘middle way’ between ‘laissez-faire’ liberalism and socialist state planning. Therefore, paternalistic conservatism could be seen as the way of moderation.

Libertarian conservatism is very different. Libertarianism sees liberty as a priority over all other values, and many conservative ideas are libertarian in that they support the greatest possible economic liberty and the least possible regulation of social life. Libertarian conservatism differs from liberalism as it advocates these values alongside a more conservative social philosophy based on authority and duty. This is linked to the ideas of Edmund Burke.

This tradition of conservatism is strongest in the UK and USA, where classic liberal ideas were strongest. Free trade in commercial affairs is seen as desirable, along with a competitive, self-regulating market economy.
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