Michael Bentley is an historian of British politics and thought. His latest book, a biography of Sir Herbert Butterfield, appeared in 2011.
Conservatives often join forces with libertarians. Some, indeed, would be happy to apply both labels to themselves. But conservatism and libertarianism represent different ways of thinking about the world and the border between them is also a boundary. Proponents of the free market want many of the things that Conservatives also want: a slimmed state, low taxation, maximum choice, individual responsibility. They also prefer, however, to reduce political discussion to a single economic formula, which is not a Conservative way of proceeding. The marketeers are perfectly aware that the prescriptions of the free market do not find a fit with the real world. They encourage us to see the market as a form of Ideal Type, to use Weber’s expression: an intellectual construction against which to measure the messy deviations of reality. The difficulty lies in what we are supposed to do once this exercise in subtraction has taken place. And that is where the marketeers’ equations no longer balance, because policy in the real world can begin neither from an abstraction cultivated in the present nor from assumptions that deny the reality of a Conservative past. More than any other formation of people, we Conservatives are what we have been.
Little thought about our current realities is needed in any case to see that the market can decide some things and not others. There exists an argument – a strong one – for extending market decisions; it could well be that an internal market within some present state monopolies (education and health come to mind, but there are others) would enhance Conservative objectives rather than conflict with them. Yet one objective trumps all others. It is the point of a Conservative politics to promote a Conservative culture and that cultural requirement runs far beyond the boundaries of libertarian thinking. Once we recognise this we must accept also that there are social goods and cultural benefits that only the state can nurture. Conservatives have understood this point for a hundred and fifty years. Their problem and opportunity is, or ought to be, to identify those goods and the most congruent mode of furthering them. To pretend that those goods do not exist courts not only moral repugnance, since certain fractions of our society require our collective protection and help, but also political illiteracy. Marketeers seem to believe that, once their Enlightenment vision has been presented clearly to the masses, the electors will hurtle towards the Tory party like migrating wildebeest. This is fantasy. The best way to lose every election for the next century is to proclaim ‘Let the Market Decide’. Instead, we, the thinking Conservatives, have ourselves to decide and to stop imagining that we can shuffle off the responsibility for our national culture and shared values onto an impersonal mechanism that operates without reference to any such things.
There are deep-structural difficulties in the way. Time was when one could say that, whatever party held power, the country remained conservative in the sense of accepting what Oakeshott used to call ‘intimations’: unspoken values, unquestioned customs and subliminal expectations that defined a shared culture. We are in a different place today: charitable giving at an all time low, the Church is falling into irrelevance; ‘society’ and ‘community’ merely sentimental labels for those fragments that have not yet been reduced to a state of nature. The way back will be hard, but we won’t get there merely by burning bridles. Freedom for everyone: certainly. Free for all: not on our watch.