Conservatives want a society in which solidarity is freely inspired
“Economics is the method; the object is to change the soul” Margaret Thatcher once said, revealing her moral cause for pulling back the state. Following Hayek - who once said "The most important change which extensive government control produces is psychological, an alteration in people's character" - Thatcher recognised that laws and institutions affect the moral dispositions of the individuals under them.
Conservatism aims to shift the centre of power from the state toward the individual - and then, therefrom, to that individual’s community. It is this final movement – that empowering the individual is expected to benefit society – that is often misunderstood or wilfully overlooked, particularly by the left.
Eliza Filby bucked this trend in her book "God & Mrs. Thatcher" (partly summarised in this Guardian article), by recognising Margaret Thatcher’s moral vision behind her economics: individualism in expectation of charity and community – not greed. Eliza concludes, however, that Lady Thatcher’s moral vision was practically flawed - indeed, when asked for her greatest regret in office, Lady Thatcher herself replied, “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society, and we haven’t”.
However, with respect, there are at least two reasons for us to believe that Lady Thatcher conceded failure prematurely on this front.
First, that charitable financial giving is negatively correlated to tax relief remains contested; indeed there is evidence suggesting that increasing the marginal income tax rate can negatively impact giving.
Second, it also ignores the possibility of changes to other, non-financial means of charity - how people choose to spend their time, personal company, property and so on. This is difficult to measure, but the logic is clear and intuitive: less expectation from the state to deliver incentivises individual responsibility.
Both conservatives and socialists believe in solidarity; our disagreement lies in the extent to which we believe that this solidarity should be coersively enforced, rather than freely inspired. It is very conservative to desire solidarity, but crucially with a preference for free goodwill as its means of delivery, always before coercive enforcement, wherever possible.
Free goodwill must be valued in itself, rather than only for its consequence. The human experience testifies that it is our highest joy to give, and be given to, out of one another’s free goodwill. At what point do the execesses of the state stifle neighbourliness, individual responsibility and charity? Conservatives care for the answer.