Social Welfare Regime Series: 1 – Conservatism vs Liberalism

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 3 | 12th October 2017

Ideological debates of Conservatism vs Liberalism in relation to Social Justice

~ Conservatism or Liberalism, it does not hold consequential value in vacuum. An ideology is only as valuable as its internal logic and consistency with the common reality. ~ Isaac Chng (2017)

This essay analyses the key ideas and debates around social policy in relation to social justice. Defining social justice as a fair relation between the individual and society, we will first analyse the importance of social justice in sustaining political legitimacy of the government. Secondly, we explore the different analysis of fairness by different ideological perspectives, and finally, how these analysis leads to different social policy responses.

Social Justice as key element of political legitimacy

Social justice is critical to political legitimacy of the government, and governments sustain it through implementation of proper social policies. Political Philosopher Rawls posits that to live in a society where cooperation is possible, reasonable citizens would agree to abide to rules that are acceptable to all citizens. The possession of political power by the government arises concerns on the what, why, when, where, who, and how of implementing any social policies. Drawing upon Rawls’s argument, ideological perspectives proposed by political players and their resulting social policies must address these concerns in ways that appeal to the prevailing social conception of justice; on what constitutes a fair system of cooperation. Furthermore, Rawls argues that social conception of justice would always ascribe and prioritise the pursuance of socially accepted rights and liberties, and the ability of citizens to benefit from them. As different interpretations of social justice exist, some ideas may deviate and conflict with the prevailing political ideology. These conflicts in turn affect social policies.

Utilising Rawls’ framework, we will discuss the prominent contemporary ideological conflicts between Laissez-Faire Conservatism and Pragmatic Liberalism with respect to social justice, both of which hold similar assumptions about human abilities.

Laissez-faire conservatism: Assumptions of self-interest rationality in humans, and minimal welfare ideology.

Laissez-faire conservatism assumes that humans are rational, self-interested, and capable of choosing the optimal option to fulfil their needs, represented by committing one’s purchasing power to individual preferences. Since individuals are assumed capable of flourishing on their own merit, citizens should be free from restraint; only minimal taxes and policies that make cooperation possible – such as property rights – should be put in place. Conservatives would attribute poverty to individuals’ rational choices leading to shortfall of traits such as motivation, behavior, and ability. There is thus little justification for government intervention. Taxes and subsidies create economic distortions, and generous assistance schemes create a welfare trap: a condition where it is rational to stay poor to benefit from handouts. Thus, social assistance, and the taxes that fund it, should be limited and void of dignified treatment such that individuals, rational in their choices, would only seek help when there are truly no other alternatives. It is considered unfair to tax successful individuals’ who are believed to achieve success by their own merits. A socially just society is therefore one that allows individuals to enjoy the fruits of their merits, and flourish unrestrained by society apart from property rights and security that makes cooperation possible.

Pragmatic Liberalism – Same assumptions about human nature, but different conception of socio-economic context.

Pragmatic liberalism holds similar assumptions of human nature  with Laissez-faire conservatives except that people are subject to fetters of society. Liberalists point to empirical evidence that ascribed social status, such as race and socio-economic background of families also affects life chances of individuals, despite the same assumption that rational individuals are motivated for success. Negative externalities because of market failures (such as pollution) and exogenous economic factors (such as global economic crises) affect third parties against their will. On definition of need, pragmatic liberalism defines need as a socially-defined minimum instead of need as market preference; pointing to the absurd notion of poor people preferring less food and inferior education. A just society, in the liberalist view, is similar to conservatives in that individuals have the right to enjoy success arising out of their merits. However, considering that factors exogenous to the individual also affect life chances, liberalists argue for government to establish a basic standard of living, and to protect or compensate people for dislocations of no fault of their own – through eliminating systemic disadvantages for discriminated groups, people enjoy equal opportunities to succeed.

Conclusion – Ideologies are only as valid as the validity of assumptions.

In conclusion, different conceptions of social problems result in different social policy responses. Ideologies can only serve as a logical framework to identify problems and policy solutions in pursuance of social justice. Also, since political legitimacy hinges upon citizen perceptions, it may not translate into social utility. Ill-informed perceptions yield broad and harmful choices. Populist but unworkable policies collapse under their own contradictions, and are sometimes replaced by equally ineffective policies. Ultimately, assumptions about particular ideologies must be grounded in empirical evidence – in particular, the degree of exogenous factors affecting life chances, before suggested social policy objectives are adopted.


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