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Study notes

Laissez-faire (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

A laissez-faire system is an economic system in which the government tries to avoid interfering in the economy; it is closely associated with capitalism. Conservatives argue that a system based upon private ownership (namely capitalism) is superior to the statist alternative for a number of reasons. 

Key points on Laissez-faire

Firstly, it is argued that laissez-faire facilitates those who wish to ‘get on’ in life. The Conservative Party has consistently sought to present itself as offering help to hard-working individuals and families. In order to back up this argument, one might consider polices such as providing mortgage tax relief to the sale of council homes at a substantial discount.

Secondly, conservatives are sympathetic towards laissez-faire capitalism because they feel it benefits everyone. This particular line of argument relates to an economic term called the trickle-down effect. The economic activity generated by those on high incomes is advantageous for all members of society due to economic growth, greater levels of consumer choice and an increase in investment. Whilst the result of the trickle-down effect is an uneven distribution of wealth and income, conservatives take the view that such an outcome is both inevitable and desirable.

Thirdly, conservatives claim that the freer the market the freer the people. The ability to spend the wealth we earn is an important leitmotif / symbol of a free society. State intervention within the economy inevitably limits our economic freedom as it entails the government confiscating our wealth. For instance, home ownership means that we are relatively free to do as we wish with our property. Conservatives claim that this taps into a broader mindset reflected in the aphorism that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle.’

Unlike those voices on the left, conservatives take a positive view of an economic system based upon private ownership. All conservatives believe that laissez-faire capitalism is a better system than common ownership of the means of production. The individual is much more likely to respect their own and others property as opposed to the bureaucratic hand of the state. He/she has a very clear incentive to improve their home in terms of its sentimental and financial value. Yet whilst conservatives share a great deal of common ground with liberals on the issue of property, there is a subtle degree of disagreement to be aware of. Conservatives reject the liberal argument that we have a right to property. Instead, there should be an emphasis upon the obligations that derive from private property (such as respect for others). 

Laissez-faire in more depth

The issue of private property is a particularly significant dividing line between left and right within the political spectrum. 

According to figures from the left, the acquisition of private property is the result of the pursuit of self-interest and thereby represents social inequality. In a particularly famous quote, the collectivist anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued that “all property is theft.” 

In contrast, all conservatives believe strongly in the benefits of private property. There are several reasons for this. Ownership of private property provides us with a sense of security. It offers physical and psychological protection from the pressures of the world outside and something to fall back on during difficult financial times. Homeowners also have a clear stake within society, which thereby promotes conservative values such as the maintenance of law and order. Private property also enables us to reflect our sense of individuality and what values are important to our family. In addition, home ownership enables us to pass down our wealth to members of our own family, who then act as custodians of that wealth. This latter point reflects the Burkean view of society.

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