Nineteenth Century Ideologies:

Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism


Conservatism: The Value of Tradition
Liberalism: The Value of the Individual
Alexis de Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy
Liberal Economic Thought  
Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Thomas Malthus Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)
Radicalism and Democracy: The Expansion of Liberalism
Early Socialism: New Possibilities for Society


Study Guide


Conservatism: The Value of Tradition


Why did conservatives criticize the Enlightenment ideals (the innate goodness of man, the natural rights of the individual, equality, faith in progress) that spread throughout Europe after the French Revolution?

To them, natural rights, equality, the goodness of man and perpetual progress were fair sounding but ultimately perverse doctrines that when implemented resulted in the Terror.



How could conservatives like Edmund Burke argue that the philosophe’s faith in reason was dangerous and destructive?

To Burke, the philosophes were fanatics armed with pernicious principles- abstract ideas divorced from historical experience- who had dragged France through the mire of revolution. Conservatives regarded them as presumptuous men who recklessly dispensed with venerable religious and moral beliefs.

"It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes."


What is the conservative’s conception of the natural state of man?

 Human wickedness was not due to faulty environment; evil is at the core of human nature.



Why did conservatives defend the authority of ancient institutions like the church, the monarchy, and the aristocracy?

Tested institutions, traditions and beliefs hold evil in check, not reason. The clergy teaches proper rules of conduct, the monarchy preserves order and property, and the aristocracy guards not only against despotic kings but also against the tyranny of the majority.



What did Burke think of John Locke’s social contract theory of government?

Conservatives thought of society as a living organism held together by sinews that have grown over centuries. Society is not a mechanical arrangement of disconnected units. Alone, a person is selfish, unreliable and frail; it is only as a member of a social group that one acquires the ways of cooperation and the manners of civilization.


The government does not derive authority from the consent of the governed. It derives its authority from God.

The state determines what rights and privileges its people might possess.

There were no 'rights of man', only rights of the English, the French and so forth, as determined by the particular state.



How could Burke defend the English Constitution yet criticize the abstract principles at the core of the American and the French Constitutions?
The English Constitution has grown imperceptibly but steadily out of the historical experiences and needs of the English people: it is durable and effective.

Liberalism: The Value of the Individual

What social class completed its rise to prominence during the nineteenth century?

The bourgeoisie, composed of  mbitious bankers, merchants, professionals, and officeholders finally stood poised to break the stranglehold on political power and social prestige of the landed nobility.

According to liberals, how would Enlightenment principles lead civilization to a new age of free institutions and responsible citizenship?

The individual understands how to handle his affairs better than any church or government can. Freed from the coercion of government and church, and properly educated, any citizen can develop into a good, productive and self-directed human being. 

Why is education central to the liberal’s belief in social progress?

Unfettered by ignorance and tyranny, the rational mind will eradicate traditions and prejudices that have burdened people for centuries and begin a far more productive age of free institutions and responsible citizenship.

What individual rights did liberals support?

Freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the protection of property rights.

What form of government did liberals support?

To prevent the abuse of political authority, liberals called for a freely elected legislature and the distribution of power among several branches of government. 

What was the proper role of government in setting economic policy?

The best government is the one which governs least.

Why did liberals argue that the pursuit of individual self-interest would lead to a better society?

Liberals believe that self-interest does not fragment the community into isolated, anti-social units; instead it works to the advantage of both the individual and the community.

Alexis de Toqueville and the Problem of Democracy

Did the bourgeoisie believe that all members of society should have political rights?

Liberals opposed any extension of political franchise beyond the middle class.

What inherent dangers to society did de Toqueville observe during his travels through America in the 1830’s?

Within a democratic society the passion felt by the have nots to be equal with the haves can outweigh the desire for liberty.

Why might citizens in a democracy be willing to sacrifice their personal liberty?

Since people are not equal in ability, many are frustrated by failure and turn to the state to secure for themselves those possessions and advantages which they cannot obtain on their own. They are willing to sacrifice political liberty to improve their material well being.

Why did de Toqueville fear a ‘tyranny of the majority’?

People, craving equality, will surrender their liberty to a central government that promises to provide them with property and other advantages. Liberty would thus be lost to the tyranny of the majority which seeks to impose its viewpoint on the minority through legislation.

How might the pursuit of individual self-interest degenerate into hedonism (the doctrine that pleasure is the ultimate good)?

Driven by an overriding concern for possessions and profits, people will lose their taste for political participation and their concern for the public good.

How could a democratic society protect itself from both a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and ‘individual hedonism’?

The task of a democratic society is to temper extreme individualism and unrestrained acquisitiveness by fostering public-spiritedness. (community service) Without direct participation by civic-minded citizens concerned with the common good, democracy faces a bleak future. Freedom depends less on laws than on cultivating the sentiments and habits of citizenship.

How have de Toqueville’s fears about democracy been born out by events in the twentieth century in both America and Europe?

The people have been willing to trade freedom for authority, order, economic security and national power.

Liberal Economic Thought

How did the industrial revolution spawn a host of social problems that reached crisis proportions in the late nineteenth century?

Employment was never secure. Sick workers received no pay and were often fired; aged workers suffered pay cuts or lost their jobs. Accidents were frequent. Municipal authorities were unable to cope with the rapid pace of urbanization so housing and sanitation were inadequate.

Why were governments slow to respond to social problems?

Liberal government, committed to laissez-faire economic principles that militated against state involvement, was slow to act.

Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations (1776)

How did Adam Smith redefine the source of a nation’s wealth?

Mercantilist economic policy  holds that a state's wealth is determined by the amount of gold and silver it can amass. Therefore, the state promotes a favorable trade balance: protecting domestic industries through tarrifs and encouraging exports, ultimately seeking self-sufficiency.

Smith, on the other hand, argued that the quantity and quality of a country's goods and services measured the real basis of a country’s wealth. The most productive country is the wealthiest.

Why did Smith criticize government intervention in the economy?

Government intervention retards economic progress by reducing the real value of the nation's land and labor.

According to Smith, how does reliance on ‘the invisible hand’ of market forces work to the benefit of all members of society?

'The invisible hand' is composed of the market forces of supply and demand which determine prices in any market. When people pursue their own self-interests, when they seek to better their own condition, they naturally foster economic expansion, which benefits the whole society. 

What did Smith believe were the proper functions of laissez-faire government?

Smith limited the state's authority to maintaining law and order, administering justice, and defending the nation. He believed that competition was self-regulating, as if an 'invisible hand' held greed in check and promoted the general good. Not only does competition drive prices down, but competition for labor enables working classes to earn wages that represent a fair share of the wealth generated by their labor.

Why did liberals oppose humanitarian legislation to alleviate the misery of the poor?

Poverty should drive poor people to seek work. Aid to the poor merely prolongs their poverty and encourages dependence.

Thomas Malthus Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

Why was poverty natural and ineradicable according to Malthus?

Population grows at a much faster rate than the food supply. This mathematical fact results in food shortages, irregular unemployment, lowered wages, and high mortality. The poor lack the self-discipline to refrain from sexual activity. If they receive higher wages, they have more children, thereby upsetting the population-resource balance and bringing misery upon themselves and others.

Why would state programs, private philanthropy, even higher wages fail to solve the problems of poverty, according to Malthus?

"the means of redress are in their own hands, and in the hands of no other persons whatever."

How did liberals like Malthus make the argument that state regulation of the economy actually contributed to the problem of poverty?

State intervention in the economy to redress social ills disrupts the free market, threatens personal liberty, and hinders social well-being. Government interference, liberals also argue, discourages the poor from finding work, thereby promoting idleness.

 Radicalism and Democracy: The Expansion of Liberalism

How did radical liberals believe that they could reform the government so that it would safeguard the interests of workers and common people?

French radicals championed popular sovereignty: rule by ALL the people. Radicals sought parliamentary reforms because many heavily populated districts were barely represented in Parliament, while lightly populated districts were over represented. They demanded payment for members of Parliament to permit the non-wealthy to hold office; they sought universal manhood suffrage to give the masses representation in Parliament; and they insisted on the secret ballot to prevent intimidation of voters.

Explain Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility in his approach to reform.

Jeremy Bentham argued that human beings seek to gratify their desires and to avoid pain; therefore, pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is bad. All political, economic, judicial or social institution and any legislation should be judged according to a simple standard: does it bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people? Note that the principle of utility does not argue that a society need concern itself with the best interests of ALL the people. Social justice is achieved when the greatest number of people achieve the greatest happiness.

How did his belief in active government clash with the ideas of classical liberals?

In contrast to laissez-faire liberals, Bentham-ites argued for legislation to protect women and children in the factories. They also sought to improve sanitation in the cities and to reform the prison system.

Early Socialism: New Possibilities for Society

Why did socialists believe that both the classical liberal’s belief in individual freedom and the radical liberal’s belief in reform would fail to have any impact on the problems of industrial society?

Socialists argued that the liberals' concern for individual freedom and the radicals' demand for extension of suffrage had little impact on the poverty, oppression and the gross inequality of wealth that plagued modern society.

What enlightenment principles are at the foundation of socialism?

They placed the highest value on the rational analysis of society and sought to reform society in accordance with scientifically valid premises, whose truth rational people could comprehend.

How did the Romantic idea of social progress influence socialist thought?

Socialists believed that they had discerned a pattern in human society, which, if properly understood and acted upon, would lead men and women to an earthly salvation.

Why did socialists criticize liberal faith in individual liberty and equality?

They regarded the liberals' preoccupation with liberty and equality to be hypocritical, arguing that to the lower classes devastated by poverty these ideals were merely formal principles: they protected the person and property of the wealthy while the majority were enmired in poverty and helplessness.

How did the socialists plan to reorganize society?

People achieved more happiness for themselves and for others as members of a cooperative community, which lived, worked and planned together for the common good.

Who would be the new elite in Saint-Simon’s socialist society?

 The scientists, engineers, industrialists, bankers, artists, and writers would replace the unproductive classes- clergy, aristocracy and idle rich- as the new social elite.

 Describe Fourier’s socialist utopia: the phalanstery.

Fourier dreamed of creating small communities to allow men and women to enjoy life's simple pleasures. He called these communities of about 1,600 people  phalansteries. They would be organized according to the unchanging needs of human nature. No force would coerce or thwart innocent human lives. All people would work at tasks that interested them and would produce things that brought them and others pleasure; consequently, work would be like play. In the phalansteries, money and goods would not be equally distributed; those with special skills and responsibilities would be compensated accordingly. This system of rewards accorded with nature, said Fourier, because people have a natural desire to be rewarded. Fourier supported female equality. He believed the institution of marriage itself distorted the natures of both men and women because monogamy restricts our sexual needs; human nature requires variety.

What reforms did Owen encourage factory owners to make voluntarily?

 He resolved to improve the lives of his employees and do so while not destroying profits. He raised wages, upgraded working conditions, refused to hire children under ten, and provided workers with neat homes, food, clothing, all at reasonable prices. He set up schools for children and for adults. In every way he demonstrated his belief that happier, healthier workers produced more than less fortunate ones.