Conservatism, economic equality of outcome and equality of opportunity

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

All of the documents [including this one]  in the Political Ideologies section of this website were written prior to the introduction in 2017 of the new Government and Politics Specifications Changes in the new Specifications and in particular the emphasis placed upon particular key thinkers within each ideology mean that the documents on this page do not currently adequately reflect the requirements of the new Specifications. Consequently my advice to students following the New Specification would be to rely upon advice from your teachers and recently published A Level texts on Political ideas rather than the documents posted here. I hope eventually to rewrite these documents to reflect the new Specifications but this is going to take a long time. 



Conservatism, economic equality of outcome and equality of opportunity.


This document was written some time ago and I have now written a new version with a longer discussion of Conservative Ideology and some further information on David Cameron, Theresa May and Conservatism.  The new document is rather long but I hope that the links in the document will help you to navigate to specific information which may help you even if you do not actually choose to read the entire document!  Click here for the new document.


Many conservatives adopt an essentially pessimistic view of human nature which is seen as in several respects flawed, imperfect and corruptible. This overall view may derive in some cases [as nowadays among the religious Right in the USA] from a religious belief in original sin and in others from more secular beliefs in human frailty. In the conservative view human beings may be seen as driven not by reason but by basic emotions, impulses and self interest and their activities can be explained more in terms of their individual human frailty than in terms of the social disadvantages of poverty and inequality which are given greater emphasis by socialists as is seen by the differences in conservative and socialist approaches to the explanation of crime, poverty and educational achievement


The conservative perspective on human nature leads them also to be supporters of economic inequality and to oppose equality of outcome as measured by statistics on the distribution of income and wealth. They argue in this respect that individual genetic differences in talent and ability must inevitably result in some economic inequality of outcome unless governments restrict the freedom of the more talented individuals to turn these talents to their own economic advantage. Economic equality of outcome, therefore, is inconsistent with individual freedom.


Conservatives argue further that economic inequality of outcome is essential to generate the financial incentives for individuals to remain in further and higher education, to work hard and to invest their savings in productive enterprises all of which will result in faster economic growth and rising average living standards and that even the poorest will benefit indirectly from economic inequality as some of the benefits of faster economic growth “trickle down” to them.


According to conservatives economic inequality works with the grain of self-interested human nature to produce rising living standards for all whereas the socialist argument that individuals need only limited financial incentives because they can be encouraged to work for the good of the community operates against the grain of human nature and is therefore unrealistic and counterproductive.


Although conservatives oppose economic equality of outcome modern conservatives at least support equality of opportunity or meritocracy.  Meritocracy implies that individuals can gain well paid, high status occupations only on the basis of their own merits and not on the basis of social class advantage and/or nepotism and meritocracy is clearly essential   to secure the economic efficiency necessary to generate rising living standards for all because it is essential that those in the most demanding occupations have the skills necessary for them.


Once again there are disputes between conservatives and socialists as to the relationships between economic inequality and equality of opportunity. Whereas conservatives argue that the imposition by governments of economic equality denies equality of opportunity to the talented and that equality of opportunity is possible in an economically unequal society, socialists argue that only government intervention to increase economic equality can secure equality of opportunity for the poorest members of society.


Economic inequality of outcome will result in the accumulation of private property in a capitalist society and conservatives argue that possession of private property is an important defence against excessive state power in that without private property individuals can work only for the state and live, be educated and treated only in state houses, schools and hospitals respectively. In societies with large private sectors one can seek private provision if one is dissatisfied with state provision and competition within the private sector is assumed to keep up private sector standards.] Socialists ,of course, argue that private provision may result only in wasteful competition and that only the relatively rich can afford it.]


Insofar as conservatives believe in economic inequality this implies also that individuals should have the right to accumulate private property which in turn means that conservatives are supporters of capitalist private enterprise although as we have seen they may also support a not insignificant economic role for the state. Conservatives support economic theories which suggest that the private market mechanism can allocate resources more flexibly and efficiently than can systems of state economic planning and they emphasise also that whereas the market allocates resources in accordance with consumer preferences, in state planning systems it is the planners who determine what shall be produced so that production does not necessarily meet the needs and wants of consumers. This, the conservatives argue, results in all the inefficiencies associated with growing state bureaucracies as indicated in the economic inefficiency of UK nationalised industries and, on a grander scale, in the inability of former “Communist” countries such as the former USSR to generate good living standards for their citizens.


Conservative attitudes to economic equality of outcome and to equality of opportunity influence their attitudes to the desirable extent and direction of state activity.

Some Conservatives from Disraeli onwards have argued that laissez faire capitalism left to its own devices would generate excessive economic inequalities which in Disraeli’s terms would divide the UK into “Two Nations” of rich and poor and that it was therefore desirable that the scope of government activity should be extended to encompass legislation to improve working conditions, housing and public health so as to create a more harmonious “One Nation” society.


By the mid C20th in the aftermath of the Labour general election victory of 1945 so-called Right Progressive Conservative party politicians such as Butler, Macleod, Macmillan and Hogg harked back to the Disraeli tradition of One Nation in their pragmatic acceptance of the expansion of state activity ushered in via by the 1945-51 Labour government programmes involving selective nationalisation, expansion of the welfare state, Keynesian economic policies and tripartite decision making.


These Right Progressives also argued that unrestricted laissez- faire would generate excessive inequality of outcome and undermine equality of opportunity. However, it could be noted that their acceptance of this greater role for the state was partly an electoral necessity and that it in no way challenged the existence of the capitalist system based on private property ownership and even though it did involve some reduction in economic inequality, social class differences in income, wealth, power and opportunity remained substantial. Nevertheless we may see here some overlap in attitudes to economic equality of outcome and equality of opportunity as between New Liberals, Right Progressives and moderate Social Democrats. [This was, after all the era of so-called consensus politics.]


So-called New Right conservatives [including President Ronald Reagan in the USA and Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher in the UK have accepted liberal-based beliefs in laissez faire and the market mechanism as well as a strong belief in the inevitability and desirability of economic inequality of outcome  and the sanctity of private property.  This set of beliefs combined with criticisms of excessively wasteful state bureaucracy and the evils of socialism have encouraged them to support economic measures designed to increase economic inequality of outcome as a means of increasing financial incentives to hard work in order to secure higher rates of economic growth.


Mrs Thatcher and her supporters believed correctly that between 1945 and 1979  the taxation and social security system , taken as a whole, had been an instrument of redistribution from the rich to the poor but the effects had been to weaken economic incentives for the rich and the comfortably off  which ultimately resulted in reduced living standards for the poor. Egalitarian taxation and social security policies resulted in increased equality via a leveling down of incomes whereas what was required were policies which might increase inequality but would also increase economic growth and enable some of the financial benefits of economic growth to "trickle down" to the poor.

Furthermore the Social Security system had also been abused by many welfare recipients who were claiming benefits to which they were not actually entitled and the system was helping to create a dependency culture in which welfare recipients  came to depend more on State "hand outs " than on their own initiative which according especially to Charles Murray, was leading to the development of an increasingly unemployable underclass of welfare dependants .Therefore according to the Thatcherites, rates of unemployment benefits should be reduced in order to force the work-shy back into work.

Within capitalist economies there are tendencies for the wages of skilled workers to increase faster than those of unskilled workers and these trends combined with Mrs Thatcher’s taxation and social security policies generated very significant increases in inequality of outcome and in relatively poverty. Mrs Thatcher claimed, however, that there was no reason why such increases should result in reduced equality of opportunity in which she remained a firm believer


Insofar as Mrs Thatcher and her supporters have accepted this set of beliefs they have been described as neo-liberals rather than conservatives. However it has been argued also that Mrs Thatcher’s version of New Right ideology has involved a combination of neo-liberal and neo-Conservative ideology in that as well as accepting the importance of the market mechanism she and her supporters have believed that a strong state would be necessary to re-establish law and order, to maintain law and order in the face of significant industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike of 1984 -85, to increase expenditure on defence in order to counter the perceived USSR threat and strengthen the role of central government in the provision of state education which was believed to be failing to meet the needs of the capitalist economy. Consequently Andrew Gamble has argued, very importantly that Mrs Thatcher’s beliefs may be summarised as involving a belief in the free economy and the strong state.


Equality and Inequality in the Post-Thatcherite Era.


It has is widely claimed that despite some appearances to the contrary under the successive Conservative  leaderships of Sir John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard the Conservative Party in government and opposition continued to accept the main principles of New Right ideology. Sir John Major was a more emollient personality who stated his wishes to create a “classless society”; William Hague did show some signs in the early stages of his leadership of attempting to shift the Conservative p[arty towards the centre ground; Iain Duncan Smith was much exercised by the problems of long term poverty and Michael Howard too claimed that he would lead the Conservative Party from the Centre  yet in none of these cases was the ideology of Thatcherism significantly challenged. Instead under the leadership of Sir John Major the railways were privatised and the principles of public choice economics were applied more extensively to the management of the Welfare State; once his initial attempts to challenge New Labour on Health Education and Welfare issues proved unpopular William Hague reverted to an emphasis on social authoritarianism and Euro- scepticism in an ultimately forlorn attempt to improve Conservative poll ratings: Iain Duncan Smith’s analyses of poverty were to a considerable extent derived from New Right theories of the Underclass which were supported especially by Charles Murray: and Michael Howard’s claims to new found moderation were rejected out of hand by those who remembered his previous strong support for Thatcherite ideology.


There are certainly significant disputes surrounding the ideological beliefs of the current Conservative Party leader David Cameron. As Leader of the Opposition David Cameron appeared keen to distance himself from the legacy of Thatcherism in a manner which he hoped would, nevertheless, not overly antagonise Thatcherites within the Party and in several respects to shift the Conservative Party towards the “centre ground”.

Thus though he continued to praise Thatcherite economic reforms he noted also that by 2010 there would be many new voters who knew little of Thatcherism; he stated that the Conservatives must challenge Labour in the key areas of health and education policy; he praised the work of public sector professionals and he signalled a significant shift in Conservative social policy by recognising the significance of both absolute and relative social policy. Also in a telling phrase that “There is such a thing as society but it is not the same thing as the state” he sought to distance himself both from Thatcherite individualism and from the excessively bureaucratised statism which he claimed was typical of New Labour policies. Instead he promised the development of “The Big Society” In which Third Sector charitable institution and greater societal participation would help to alleviate the social problems which in his view had not been amenable to solution by the over-centralised Blair- Brown State.


While David Cameron has claimed  that he is “not a particularly ideological politician” he has also identified himself as both an economic liberal and a social liberal supporting what he believes to be the economic benefits of Thatcherite neo-liberal economic policies while also distancing himself from Thatcherite neo-conservatism on issues such as family policy and law and order. He has also, however, identified himself with a MacMillanite version of One Nation Conservatism, emphasised the increased importance of environmental protection and the need to promote greater civic engagement via the implementation of the so-called Big Society Programme.


While some political analysts have tended to accept David Cameron’s self-definitions as a “ modern”, ”compassionate, “One Nation” Conservative  others have denied that he has repositioned the Conservatives on the ground. They claim that  in all essentials Cameron has accepted Thatcherite neo-liberal economic policies; that one should also not overstate his divergence from Thatcherism on law and order questions; that his commitments to environmentally friendly policies have not been sustained in government; and that his plans for increased civic engagement have been met with generalised cynicism and have achieved little. Meanwhile, however on the Right of the Conservative Party Cameron’s apparent One Nation Conservativism, his links with the Liberal Democrats and his [and, according to the Right] insufficient Euroscepticism have been seen as all too real and a cause for alarm rather than celebration. Finally because he is perceived by some as Thatcherite and by others as One nation Conservative this has led some to argue that in reality he is the ultimate ideologically rootless, pragmatic politician .


In the run up to the 2010 General Election both David Cameron and George Osborne were keen to criticise New Labour’s record on income inequality, poverty and social mobility. Thus they pointed out that by 2010 income inequality as measured by Gini Coefficient data was higher than when Labour took office in 2010; that there was evidence that although overall relative poverty had declined the extent of severe poverty had actually increased and that a widely reported study by S. Machin and J. Blanden indicated that rates of social mobility were actually declining. Of course critics argued that the Osborne/ Cameron interpretations were flawed and pointed out that the most significant increases in income inequality had occurred in the Thatcher-Major years and that although Labour had failed to reverse the trend to greater income inequality they had at least mitigated it; that data on the extent of severe poverty are considered by many experts to be unreliable ; and that since  the Machin –Blanden study actually compared the mobility rates of children born in 1958 and 1970  the 1970 data actually referred to individuals who would have been educated in the Thatcher era.