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HomeNewsResponsibility, duty and the family – the bedrock of conservatism

Responsibility, duty and the family – the bedrock of conservatism


THE fundamentals of conservatism are once again subjects of discussion – not within the Conservative Party leadership contest, not within Conservative Campaign Headquarters, not in the media, certainly not in academia (perish the free thought), but here on the pages of The Conservative Woman – praise be.

TCW has given us Roger Scruton’s lectures, an analysis of how current Conservative Party contestants define conservatism, a review of conservatism before the party shifted Left of centre in the 1990s, a return to the human nature of conservatism, and a focus on patriotism.

Here I will focus on family. I am prompted by Will Jones, who noted that I did not mention family in my brief review of conservatism.  He is quite right: I did not. I ran out of space before I concluded: ‘This is not an exhaustive list of conservative principles and values.’ I welcome the opportunity to continue.

In that article, I explained that conservatism begins at the junction between classical liberalism and traditionalism. The classical liberal’s emphasis on individual liberty implies the freedom of individuals to make families without interference from the state. Traditionalism implies preference for normative ways of making families.

From there, conservatism gets much more profound. As I explained in my last article, traditionalism is largely about conservation and localism. I got as far as to deduce patriotism from localism, particularly today in opposition to super-national federalism and international institutionalism. I did not get as far as to explain that localism begins at the family level, but it doesn’t stop there – it has implications at every level to the international.

We are right and natural to rank family at top of our loyalties before we rise through higher levels of community to the national or even international. Families should anchor our sense of a wider community. Indeed, familial language has been applied to these higher levels: the term ‘patriotism’ shares a root with ‘paternalism’; Britain has been described as a family of nations; Britain was once reconstituted as a Commonwealth; the latter term was chosen to describe the family of independent states that had been colonies or dependencies of Britain, and progressives talk of an ‘international community’ with ‘duties to protect’, while arguing against the supposed conservatism that is at the root of all war and strife.

What progressives always forget about the conservatism of family is the principle of stewardship.

Classical liberals emphasise the parental responsibility to prepare children for the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Traditionalists would defend the classical liberal on this because the rights and responsibilities are traditional, while progressives are biased towards change and against the past. Progressives tend to level down and equalise until nobody has any responsibilities and everybody has all the rights.

Today, liberty is often misunderstood as a human right, but actually classical liberals were discriminating: no right comes without responsibility. Thence, a person cannot earn liberty without proving the responsibility to handle liberty. This position is self-interested; it gets us back to the so-called mutuality of conservatism. If one cannot use liberty responsibly, one’s liberty would end up infringing on another’s liberty. Liberty is impossible to sustain without specifying the circumstances in which members of society should lose society’s freedoms. Even today, the state removes freedoms from those who are dangers to society; we detain unreformed criminals; we disarm the violent; we ban animal abusers from owning pets.

This is true at the familial as well as the societal levels. Conservative parents treat children as unready for all the freedoms of adult society, while progressives want to grant the vote to ever younger children. (Some loonies are campaigning for parents to ask for ‘consent’ before changing a baby’s nappy.)

Conservative parents are responsible stewards – they are responsible for maturing children before releasing them from parental supervision. This same principle of stewardship can be applied at higher societal levels. The bright side of this principle is that conservatives tend to be more responsible, dutiful, and charitable people: they take responsibility for helping others; they are more communitarian, collectivist, and mannered. While progressives whine about supposed social injustices and inequalities, they are less charitable with their personal wealth and time than conservatives are. Thence we get the hypocrisies of the new elite who want you to pay for more international aid, to accept more migrants, to redistribute more of your wealth, while the elite itself doesn’t pay the same costs.

Unfortunately, the principle of stewardship has a dark side, which has been exploited by progressives to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It was used by classical liberals to justify unequal distribution of freedoms – to deny freedoms from immature or irresponsible persons, and even from adults who were judged inferior by property, gender, class, or race. Classical liberals were not universal suffragists: they were selective – even elitist – in their allowance of political freedoms. British and French classical liberals advanced individual rights, but within highly oligarchic, elitist, imperialistic societies. The founding fathers of America – grounded in British liberals (such as John Locke) and French liberals (such as Baron Montesquieu) – lost little sleep over the dissonance between asserting their individual rights against the British monarch, while denying suffrage to women and non-whites. Most founding fathers owned slaves and did not object to slavery; they did not grant suffrage to women of any race.

While modernism has corrected these discriminations, post-modernism has gone too far in pushing rights without responsibilities. Hence, post-modernist states (Britain especially) struggle to deport illegal immigrants without violating their human rights, to strip citizenship from those who have joined our enemies, to deny welfare and benefits to people who have obtained them fraudulently.

More infuriating is the hypocritically unequal implementation of human rights in the name of ‘equality’, such that fashionable minorities are privileged over the supposedly privileged of the past. (This reverse discrimination violates a separate liberal principle: that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents.)

I have space for only a couple of exemplars: fathers get fewer family rights than mothers just because they are male, irrespective of their merits as parents; and the police, judiciary, media, academia, and other institutions are openly recruiting in favour of females and non-whites, irrespective of merit, irrespective of laws against gendered and racial prejudice.

The principles of conservatism go a long way, from protecting the family to defining parental responsibilities, and thence to imbuing us with principles of responsibility, duty and charitableness, and to balancing rights with responsibilities. Remember that, next time a progressive dismisses conservatives as nasty and shallow.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas Permian Basin. He is also the author of the anti-woke satire "The Dark Side of Sunshine" (Perseublishing, 2020).

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