IS THE NEW RIGHT A LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT?
Bosco F. Alava, Queen Mary, University of London
The New right is a movement which arose in the sixties, that bases its thinking around the importance of the man as an individual, and thus favours the existence of a free, laisez-faire market and the respect for individual liberties. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have in common that they arose as a response to the damages the free market did in the economy, with individualism as base. In spite of their common points, the irreconciliation if their philosophical roots renders them incompatible. The New right resembles neo-liberalism in its conception of the human being and the economic theory of free market. By contrast, resembles neo- conservatism in the sense that it has a strong “looking back to a golden age” tendency. However, looking back to a primary conservatism in which the welfare state still has not been adopted, or to a neo-conservatism that rejects it, the two ideologies have many common points. However, different factors will lead to the conclusion that New Right belongs to a neo-liberal approach.
This essay will try to give a comparative approach to the “New Right”, and try to classify it as a conservative or liberal movement. Firstly, an introduction to the New Right will be given, followed by a summary of the views of both liberal and conservative groups. An analysis of the neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism, of their similarities and differences and compatibility will follow. Then a detailed analysis of the similarities and differences of the New Right with this schools of thought in both social end economic matters will lead to an answer to the question this essay has for title.
The New Right is a set of ideas that arose in the sixties, and have had influence in the last three decades of political thought. It is said to be “strongly economistic”, in the sense that its main lines of consideration are based on the idea of free economic choice rather than the welfare state (as it motivates individuals to depend on benefits), and it favours free market. As with respect to social policy, it is based on (or according to Barry, is a response to) the post-war consensus, and postulates the belief that “the individual human is primary” and thus, the individual should matter over the moral standards. It also believes in voluntary cooperation as more effective than forced and it is hostile to racial, religious and sexual prejudice as well as privilege. Finally, its thought is depicted with the ideas of rationalism and optimism. However, to classify the New right into one of the two most broadly spread political doctrines (liberalism and conservatism), a short analysis of both will be provided.
Liberalism can be shortly defined as “a political orientation that favours social progress by reform and by changing laws rather than by revolution”, and also as “an economic theory advocating free competition and self-regulating market”.  Barbara Goodwin defines the main “ingredients of liberalism” as: a conception of the individual being “essentially rational”, a government “based on the
Consent of people” with law and a constitution that limit its power, in a society marked by freedom, equality of opportunity and social justice based on merit.
However, this doctrine has evolved to what in this essay will be called “neo-liberalism”, even though this term refers to the classical economic liberalism developed from 1938 by economists and sociologists such as Rüstow. Barbara Goodwin identifies some contemporary principles that are born from liberalism, but “which also challenge it in certain ways”. The most extreme of these is libertarianism, which can be understood as a pure and radical liberalism. Libertarians believe in absolute freedom of thought and speech and the use of state to create greater equality, but at the same time eliminate all the state intervention in economy or other public affairs. Other elements of the new liberalism are nationalism (seen as a reaction against imperialist oppressive regimes) and a renewed “mainstream” liberalism that continues with the traditional approach but with little changes, for example the substitution of the “self-interested individual” for the “self-interested group”. One of the maximum exponents of this set of ideas, Thatcher, is clear about this trend: “There is no such thing as society (…) only individuals and families”
Conservatism, in the other hand is defined as the “political orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes”. This political theory is completely opposed to liberalism in the sense that its “view of human nature is an acceptance of the need for (…) authoritarian government”. Again as opposed to liberalism, in economics matter conservatives prefer government intervention on economics affairs.
As well as liberalism, the conservative doctrine has suffered an evolution, which has transformed the actual conservatism in something in many ways different than the ideas that the founders had in mind. The initial conservatism, which favoured the virtues of tradition, and was, over all, mostly an economic doctrine, had been slowly modified to adopt the Welfare state as one of its predominant ideas. Neo-conservatism was a response to this “welfare liberalism”, as Goodwin calls it, that had appeared after World War two. Neoconservative thinkers reject the idea of welfare state and try to return to this “pure” conservatism, by praising the initial liberal individualist approach. Even though conservatism has always been associated with the right in the political spectrum, the term “New Right” does not mean that the movement has to be compulsorily a neoconservative movement.
Even though traditionally, liberalism and conservatism have represented two absolutely different concepts and way of life (tradition vs. reform, free will vs. determinism, welfare state vs. economic liberalism, etc), in their new versions, the thinkers in both sides coincide in much more things than the original founders could have thought. Locke’s primitive individualism seems to be a base for the two, and also both abhor the state intervention. It seems that their origins are similar; both are born as a reaction to the political imbalances after World War two, but most importantly, their purpose is the same. They both arose as a criticism to their origins, driven by “the notion that liberalism and conservatism had failed”, and the two of them want to achieve the perfection that their original basis advocated for. At rough draft, it can also be said that both movements have a trend towards equalitarianism and away from authoritarianism.
Nevertheless, the fact that they have so many points in common does not mean that these two movements are the same. The broad differences between them are that the neoconservatives, if not totally preserving traditions, still look back and allow such traditions to influence their new decisions, while the neo-liberals are focused solely on radical change. Also, while the neoconservative movement has a strong preference for law and order, some authors classify some groups inside the neo-liberals as close to anarchism (for example the minarchists).
In spite of their similarities and differences, the fact that both movements exist at the same time means that they have to be either complimentary or contradictory. They both are, as said above, a response to the new generations of free market economic thinking applied since World War Two and the economic instability era that succeeded. In the sense that their aims and objectives are the same, the both movements are complimentary. Nevertheless, when analysed in depth come to light all the differences stated above, that happen because the two movements have very contrastive philosophical genesis. Concepts that seemed communal to both movements in the beginning, such as individualism, are unfolded to the rationalist neo-liberal perspective, contrary to the mistrust of human nature that underlies in the neoconservative theory. Their opposite philosophical roots make this two movements, if not contradictory, at least not complimentary, meaning that it is either one of both that it is going to be present in the new right, and therefore dominate the other, since the New Right is the most eminent doctrine regarding these two movements.
The New Right has many features that can make it belong to a neo-liberal movement. Coming back to the definition portrayed above, and as a movement based fundamentally in economics, it reflects exactly the economic liberal theory: in favour of the choice of individuals on how to spend and earn their money (and deciding on the services they want to pay for). New right thinkers believe in a laissez-faire economy, where excessive interventionism (like in the welfare state) should be avoided. Therefore, free market and competition are the key to an efficient economic system. This reminds to first economic liberalism theories, such as Adam Smith’s, that had been exchanged for more interventionist approaches after the 1929 market crash.
Precisely, the fundaments of libertarianism apply very well to the ideas on which the New Right is based. Both New Right thinkers and libertarians advocate the maximization of individual liberty, and fight the intervention of the state. In fact, their principles are so common that some authors dare to say that “the birth of the New Right occurred when libertarians finally accepted the fact that they had been abandoned by the liberals, used and misled by other radicals and sold out by the conservatives”, implying that the New Right owes its origins to, and is based in libertarianism.
The New Right has also many elements in common with conservatism. Its lines of thought have a “pronounced tendency to look back at a supposed Golden age”. This is almost the signature of a conservative, who is opposed to radical change in the belief that all the past was better. Also, New Right thinkers are opposed to the actual conservative economic policies, but as Levitas states,
“Exponents of both strands of the New Right claim, in fact, to be returning to their original nineteenth-century forms, prior to the contamination by the “socialist” ideas of the welfare state”
When taking into account the similarities of New Right with conservatism what comes to mind is the conservatism in vogue today, and then it is obvious that (at least in economic terms, which are the most important when speaking about the New Right) it defends exactly the contrary as nineteenth-century “original” conservatives. Nevertheless, if the term “conservative” has its meaning changed to “early conservative” (i.e., the doctrines that can be seen in Burke’s and Lord Salisbury’s writings), the clash about the conception of the economy (welfare state vs. free economic choice) between actual conservatives and New Right thinkers can be eliminated. However, the social and moral implications of the new right would be “too liberal” for an early conservatism.
Not, however, for neoconservatives who, as stated above, advocate to a “return” to the pure ideals of liberalism, but also having evolved accordingly with the actual times. This evolution makes possible that the neoconservative theory, and neoconservatives themselves are able to cope perfectly with the social and moral implications of the New Right.
Opinions vary between authors at the time of defining the position of the New Right in the political spectrum. While Goodwin directly defines it as a “new ideological variant of conservatism”, Davies states that it is “best defined as neo-liberal, or (…) libertarian”, and so does Barry but Lyons writes that “The New Right reminded many of us that there was life in conservatism after all”. Some, like Green even claim that “the use of the term (New Right) is misleading because the old left-right dichotomy is now defunct”.
In spite of that, it seems that the New Right has more elements of liberalism than of conservatism, and more of neo-liberalism than of neo-conservatism. Its strong economistic doctrine of free market and lack of state intervention, as well as the moral approach mattering the individual even over moral standards come from the idea of the natural goodness of human being, a human being that does not need or want an exhaustive or invasive control by the government, neither in markets nor in its personal life. This conception of the human being around which the rest of the thought is built tips the balance considerably in favour of liberalism, and therefore can be concluded that even though not in a complete sense (the tendency to look back to a “golden age” and the importance given to economic policies might remind to an early conservatism), the New Right can be classified as a neo-liberal, if not libertarian, movement.
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Ahí queda la cosa. Os contaré el miércoles cómo ha ido. Besos o abrazos según corresponda.