Know your enemy: The strange omission of conservatism in contemporary political philosophy

Pierre-Yves Néron is Associate professor in political philosophy at the European School of Political and Social Sciences (ESPOL) of the Catholic University of Lille. He previously conducted post-doctoral research with Joseph Heath at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, where he also taught in the philosophy department. His current research focuses on recent changes in egalitarian thought, the study of inequality and the political theory of the firm. His research has been published in Res Publica, Journal of Social Philosophy, and Raison publique, among others.

Raphaëlle Théry is Assistant professor of philosophy and private law at the Université Panthéon-Assas. A member of the Centre de Recherche sur la Justice, her work focuses on the philosophy of law, in particular on penal philosophy, the history of political ideas and family law. Her book, Libéralisme pénal : principes, contradictions et enjeux d’une institution non-idéale has been published in 2021 by the University of Paris II - Panthéon Assas.

Pierre-Yves Néron and Raphaëlle Théry wrote six entries in the Dictionnaire des inégalités et de la justice sociale (ed. P. Savidan, Paris, PUF, 2018). They are working on a book on conservatism, neoliberalism and the contemporary crisis of equality.

They were invited to EHESS to discuss their ongoing work on conservatism in the framework of the Seminar of Normative Political Philosophy, which is attached to CESPRA (CNRS - EHESS). In this interview, Pierre-Yves Néron, Raphaëlle Théry and Luc Foisneau discuss different aspects of conservatism, its omission within contemporary theories of justice, its complex relationship with neoliberalism, its relationship to equality and the emergence of a form of “market conservatism”.

This interview was conducted by Luc Foisneau, director of research at the CNRS (CESPRA), at the Audiovisual Center of the EHESS, 96 boulevard Raspail, Paris, on November 12, 2019, and revised by the authors in May 2021.

Edited by Serge Blerald

Luc Foisneau – How did you come to be interested in conservatism from a philosophical point of view?


Pierre-Yves Néron – Our initial objective was to bounce on a remark made by the American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, in her review of John Tomasi's book, Free Market Fairness, published in 20121. Anderson concluded her critique of so-called “bleeding heart libertarianism” by asking the question, “Where is conservatism?”. She argued that the mapping of debates in political philosophy was highly unsatisfactory and that we needed to recast it to include the conservative “continent”.

Our main argument is that Anderson is right – even if we do not seek to support conservatism, quite the contrary. However, working on social justice and equality, we have come to realize that conservatism is indeed a forgotten “territory” of contemporary political philosophy. Of course, when we speak of contemporary political philosophy, we are talking about a certain tradition, i.e. contemporary theories of social justice and equality. However, it is as if the field of “social justice studies” had been constructed in such a way that it constantly omits conservatism, deliberately refraining from taking conservative ideas seriously. To caricature things somewhat, the field has been constructed in such a way that it leads us to think of the right could be reduced to libertarianism, particularly the figure of Robert Nozick2. We think this is a mistake: first, because there are significant differences between libertarianism and conservatism; second, because it undermines the political relevance of theories of equality and social justice.

From penal liberalism to conservatism

Luc Foisneau – Raphaëlle Théry, your doctoral dissertation dealt with penal liberalism and the foundations of punishment. How does one go from working on penal liberalism to studying conservatism? Is there any sense in talking about conservatism in this field of study?


Raphaëlle Théry – My interest in conservatism precedes my work on penal liberalism. My master thesis was indeed about the opening of marriage to homosexual couples, and I had proposed a typology of the main types of opponents to the marriage of homosexual couples. I was able to work on a well-constituted corpus of very conservative authors and arguments on this issue. But for me, it is crucial from a methodological point of view to take conservative arguments seriously rather than dismissing them or considering that they are just old-fashioned opponents who should not have a voice.

When it comes to issues related to criminal law, there is also a very conservative approach to punishment, which is both moralistic and repressive. However, I think this is the case in all fields of political philosophy. Although they are not theoretically articulated as such, one encounters conservative positions all the time.

What is conservatism?

Luc Foisneau – What is it that allows us to characterize conservatism, beyond certain family resemblances? And, first of all, is such a characterization possible?


Raphaëlle Théry – Of course, but it is not an easy task. The term “conservative” is probably used in a more neutral way in France than in the United States, because the main dividing line in the political field is not in France, as it is in the United States, the one that separates liberals and conservatives. In France, when one wants to brand an opponent politically, one accuses him or her of being “reactionary3” not “conservative”.

To return to conservatism, it is often said that conservatism is mainly about a desire to preserve what is, and we often start from the famous definition of Oakeshott in his important “On Being Conservative4” : “to be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried”. If one adheres to this purely formal conception of conservatism, there seems to be no reason to deny the existence of a left-wing conservatism: this is a criticism that one sometimes hears about strikes for instance- wanting to preserve social gains would only be a form of conservatism.

This formal definition might be acceptable, but it is so formal that it becomes empty because, in the end, anything can be included. From this point of view, everyone can be accused of conservatism, and the term is emptied of its meaning. We think it is fruitful to distinguish between a formal aspect of conservatism – an attitude of resistance to change characterized by a certain skepticism towards “radical” policies, by the idea that things must prove their value over time, etc. – and a more substantive aspect, which presupposes the idea that there is a natural order of things. In this perspective, the work of Corey Robin, an American political scientist, is very useful.

Pierre-Yves Néron – Indeed, in order to speak of conservatism, to treat it as a relevant political philosophy, we must be able to give a definition that gives us an idea of its nature, a substantial definition if you will. This is why we rely a lot on Robin’s work and his historical analysis of conservatism. According to him, conservatism can be defined on the basis of the following three main characteristics.

First, the defense of a natural social order: conservatism consists in wanting to defend and maintain a “social order” interpreted as natural or spontaneous. Of course, as Robin has clearly shown, there is nothing natural about the order defended by conservatives. And it is not always the existing social order, but one that is often fantasized. It would in fact be more appropriate to speak here of naturalization strategies: conservatives seek to present a social order as natural, to make us believe that the social is natural.

Secondly, and related to the previous characteristic, conservatism is defined by the valorization of hierarchies and inequalities. The conservative is an unconditional supporter of hierarchy and inequality, which are the main features of the social order he prefers.

Third, conservatism advocates the preservation of private power regimes, what Robin describes as “the private life of power5”, typically the family, the workplace, the military. This is illustrated by the persistent attachment to the authority figure of the pater familias, the business leader or the war hero. For Robin, it is these figures that conservatives seek to preserve and exalt. Thus, to understand the history of conservatism, we need to understand the various ways in which conservatives have defended, reinvented and transformed these private regimes of power.

We think it is fruitful to have these kinds of ideas in mind, when one is on the left, in order to make sense of certain public debates and the way certain struggles and demands are articulated by different egalitarian movements, very often in response to conservative forces.

Raphaëlle Théry – To come back to libertarianism, which is generally presented as the right-wing opponent of egalitarian theories of justice, it is not a question of denying its existence. Libertarianism does exist in the theoretical field, where it is very well represented. But in the political arena, it is not the most important opponent of egalitarians.

Understanding American neo-conservatism: from Bush to Trump

Luc Foisneau – Can the interpretation of conservatism that you propose, inspired by Robin, help us to understand American-style neo-conservatism, that of the Bush era, which led to the war in Iraq in the name of a certain idea of promoting democracy?


Pierre-Yves Néron – It should be noted here that in the first edition of his book, subtitled “Conservatism, from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin”, Robin gave violence a crucial importance in his analysis, in order to make sense of the Bush-style “war-mongering” neo-conservatism that has so marked the beginning of this century. In the second edition, now subtitled “Conservatism, from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump,” Robin acknowledges that he has neglected issues related to political economy, the place of the market in particular in conservatism, which is crucial if one wants to make sense of “Trumpism”. In short, we need to think about market conservatism.

Luc Foisneau – What about moral conservatism? When we talk about conservatism, we often have in mind the conservatism of “values”.


Raphaëlle Théry – Indeed, we tend to radically separate these two questions, that of morals and that of the economy. From this point of view, the privileged field of conservatism seems to be that of “social values” rather than that of the economy. Moreover, it is easy to identify conservative conceptions of the evolution of the family: hostility to the opening of marriage to homosexuals, to unnatural reproductive techniques, to demands for gender equality, etc. A division is then made between the political families along two independent axes, placing on one side positions on society and on the other side positions on political economy or social justice. Thus, in the area of morality, there are conservatives on the left and “progressive” currents on the right. There are, for example, libertarian defenses of surrogate motherhood.

Conservatism is then confined to the sphere of morals or values, as if a certain conception of the market, largely deregulated and conceived as a natural force, had absolutely nothing conservative about it. We argue that this is false, and that we must take into account, as we do, the emergence of a market conservatism and its internal coherence.

Market conservatism

Luc Foisneau – Let’s go back to the notion of “market conservatism”. What are its main characteristics? How is this form of conservatism expressed? Is it in a certain relationship to money? Is it in a form of support for a certain idea of the firm?


Pierre-Yves Néron – What led me to take an interest in conservatism was my interest in economic institutions, particularly the market and the firm. In my research, I tried to take a political philosopher’s look at the market and the firm, mobilizing in particular theories of justice and equality, but also by reading the great thinkers who were interested in them. I came to ask myself: what is the normative logic at work within these institutions? It turns out that it is less focused on voluntary exchange or absolute self-ownership, i.e. libertarian, rather than centered on hierarchy and inequality, i.e. conservative. Indeed, the libertarian narrative does not allow us to understand the contemporary exaltation of the corporation. This exaltation of the corporation is achieved through discourses that celebrate leadership, authority, a certain love of hierarchies, great men seen as business leaders, etc. In many respects, the company is the private regime of power par excellence. We are in a properly conservative register, which goes perfectly with a conservative vision of the world.

Raphaëlle Théry – We should also note the idea of the market as a natural force, which supposedly achieves a “just” allocation of resources, without resorting to deliberate and voluntary policies. The opposition between trust in natural or spontaneous orders and socialist voluntarism is, in fact, a recurrent theme in conservative thought.

Pierre-Yves Néron – To understand this market conservatism, I would like to insist on two differences between libertarianism and conservatism.

First, libertarianism differs from conservatism by its focus on principles, that is, by the fact that it is based on a very strong commitment to a few principles, considered fundamental, even absolute. The paradigmatic example of such a commitment is Robert Nozick’s attachment to the principle of self-ownership. From this principle, the Harvard philosopher deduced the unsurpassable character of the market, and of course hostility to any form of redistribution policy through taxation, which was considered immoral because it was contrary to the principle of self-ownership. In these matters, the conservative position is much less principled. The hostility to progressive taxation and redistribution policies is much less radical, if no less present. When a conservative opposes taxation, he will not rely on a single principle whose moral importance is judged to be absolute, but on a set of considerations that includes a certain work ethos.

Second, there is an important difference in ways of thinking about inequality. While libertarians seek to place constraints on the justification of inequality (leading them to tolerate very high levels of inequality), conservatives seek to provide us with reasons to value inequality, to appreciate it. If the former justify inequalities and hierarchies based on self-ownership and the voluntariness of interactions, conservatives may offer what might almost be called aesthetic considerations in defense of a world of inequalities. In both families, we find a defense of inequalities: whereas, for libertarians, they are linked to individual responsibility, for conservatives, they have a normative force of their own insofar as they are the evidence of the good order of the world. For libertarians, inequalities can be justified and therefore tolerated. For conservatives, inequalities are good, even beautiful, and should therefore be valued.

Conservatism in Europe

Luc Foisneau – Can your reflection on conservatism help us to think about certain recent political transformations such as the rise of populism? How do you analyze, from this point of view, the European political situation?


Raphaëlle Théry – If we deplore the absence of conservatism in the philosophical map, it is partly because it deprives us of resources to think about our current political situation. In this regard, it is interesting to note that critical theory and philosophie sociale in France have taken neoliberalism as their adversary, and that this makes their approaches more fruitful for thinking about our current situation than those that rely solely on theories of justice. However, neoliberalism, as we can see from Serge Audier’s book6, is in fact a catch-all concept, which refers to quite different doctrines and worldviews. The concept of conservatism, for its part, is part of a longer history than that of neoliberalism, even if their fields may overlap.

We propose to go beyond the prejudice of seeing conservatism as a simple attitude or sensibility, or as a simple ideology that would not withstand serious theorization. The aim is to show that it refers to a relatively coherent political doctrine, which gives meaning to various movements, discourses and political claims, and allows us to think about their ramifications.

Pierre-Yves Néron – I will answer this question by returning to the question of the political relevance of liberal egalitarianism today. Recently published and very interesting works attempt to make a history of social justice since Rawls: by relying on a now possible access to archives, they aim at historicizing Rawls, Nozick or Dworkin. In this regard, I would like to mention Katrina Forrester’s book, In the Shadow of Justice7, in which she draws up a rather severe assessment of the legacy of contemporary Rawlsian theories of justice, particularly with regard to their political impact. Forrester essentially tells us that the task ahead for political philosophers is to think about things like populism and neoliberalism: we would happily add conservatism to her list. But if we ask ourselves, as we do, what tools we have to think about these objects from the point of view of theories of justice, the answer is rather disappointing. We need to give a new impulse to the theory of equality, and, for that, to give them a slightly more serious theoretical opponent.

Unfold notes and references
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John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2012. See Elizabeth Anderson’s analysis « Recharting the Map of Social and Political Theory: Where is Government? Where is Conservatism? », In Bleeding hearts libertarian blog. Symposium on John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness, 2012.

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Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, New York, Basic books, 2013.

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On this, see Daniel Lindenberg, Le rappel à l’ordre. Enquête sur les nouveaux réactionnaires, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. « La République des idées », 2002.

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Michael Oakeshott, « On Being a Conservative », in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, London, Liberty Fund, 1991.

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Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind. Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 3.

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See Serge Audier, Néo-libéralisme(s) : une archéologie intellectuelle, Paris, Grasset, « Mondes vécus », 2012.

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Katrina Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice. Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of political philosophy, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019.