Bertrand Russell wrote in his "History of Western Philosophy" describing John Locke, the following:

He makes a great deal of the imperishable character of the precious metals, which, he says, are the source of money and inequality of fortune. He seems, in an abstract and academic way, to regret economic inequality, but he certainly does not think that it would be wise to take such measures as might prevent it. No doubt he was impressed, as all the men of his time were, by the gains to civilization that were due to rich men, chiefly as patrons of art and letters. The same attitude exists in modern America, where science and art are largely dependent upon the benefactions of the very rich. To some extent, civilization is furthered by social injustice. This fact is the basis of what is most respectable in conservatism.

I didn't understand the connection he made between conservatism and what he mentions about social injustice and inequality.

What does he mean by "This fact is the basis of what is most respectable in conservatism" ?

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    Maybe we have to refer to Locke's Political Philosophy. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 15 '18 at 16:25
  • I think that Russell is alluding here at the origin of mercantilism and capitalism in Locke's time England. The growing capitalism was based on inequality, but it produce wealth (se Adam Smith) and in the middle/long run progress. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 15 '18 at 16:29
  • The comparison is with 20th Century U.S.: rich men are patrons of arts and colleges. Thus, money produces science and art. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 15 '18 at 16:30
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    Capitalism would certainly be better if we forced it to price in externalities: a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of goods or services involved. – Gordon Jan 15 '18 at 17:17
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    A proper conservative would not give capitalism a blank check. It would not be anything goes. Not all would be approved, it should not violate morals. But since the conservative generally supports the status quo, and capitalism is the status quo, then they would support it for the most part. As far as social inequality goes, they would probably reason that it's natural to some extent. The idea of the meritocracy would not offend them. – Gordon Jan 16 '18 at 4:03

A standard view of conservatism is that it is committed to preserving the status quo, the existing state of things. This view could have a variety of supports. One is that the status quo is more desirable, choiceworthy, than anything that could or is likely to replace it. Another is a preference for what is familiar, regardless of its merits. Or the existing state of things may be defended because we do not have a predictive policy science; if we change institutions or practices on a large scale we have largely unreliable insight into what the actual as opposed to intended consequences will be.

None of this connects readily with Russell's quote unless we add a gloss that conservatives support a market capitalist economy, which is both now and in Russell's time a part of the status quo in the West. Such an economy produces, not necessarily but de facto, significant or even extreme differences in wealth. While this is (for reasons Russell does not explain) socially unjust, it does provide the rich with the means of making benefactions of considerable benefit to civilisation.

This is his basic idea. It is weakened by its being a narrow view of conservatism. There is no inherent and necessary connection between conservatism and a market capitalist economy; such an economy may not be a part of the status quo and hence not valued by conservatives. Russell's view is too confined to a Western European 19th and 20th century context.

A conservative might even be opposed to a market capitalist economy. The market, as FA von Hayek, famously pointed out, produces a spontaneous social order - unpredictable winners and losers. He welcomed market capitalism but a conservative might see such an economy, and fear it, as a dissolvent of the existing state of things.

Russell's immense greatness as a philosopher did not on the whole lend subtlety or insight to his political views.

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  • Thanks for this satisfying answer, I think what you said explains well the connection i failed to understand ! – Udai F.mHd Jan 16 '18 at 21:55
  • @Udai F.mHd. Very glad to help. It's always appreciated when an answer gets a comment. Care to vote ? Best : GT – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 16 '18 at 22:14
  • I wanted to vote, but it seems since i am new to this forum , i am not allowed to vote yet ! , i need 4 more points :) – Udai F.mHd Jan 16 '18 at 22:53
  • @udai F.mHd: I up-voted for you! – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 5:48
  • @Udai F.mHd. Many thanks. Glad to have been of help : Geoff – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 17 '18 at 9:51

Well, this is not Russell's best book. But if you wanted to do a case study on this, you could look at Chile in the last century. The Guggenheims were able to make a lot of money off of nitrogen (guano), which I guess because of cheap labor and a sort of monopoly contract, they were able to make huge profits despite the Haber process.

No doubt the Guggenheims did some good things with their money, particularly involving art, the museum and so on, but one would have to look at the history of the little man in Chile too, and it was not so good for the working class. Not in the least.

What is conservatism? Well, it is not liberalism, but we don't explain to Americans what liberalism is. (At the end of the day it stands for nothing, there is a general inability to "take a stand" under liberalism, it approves everything, including, not surprisingly, laissez-faire economics!). And by the way, Marxism is not liberalism, though most trendy American "Marxists" don't know this.

Well now might be the time to read Popper (his supposed sober middle ground). I think the philosopher who was most subtle on some, not all, of these issues is Galvano Della Volpe (Rousseau and Marx). I think M. Unamuno is good, at the end of the day, his Basque stubbornness, and his wisdom, allowed him to stand up to the Franco regime.

I like B. Croce, but he had certain blindnesses. We all have certain blindnesses we have to take into consideration in the political realm. We have to be at least somewhat cautious of our own biases, especially me!

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  • While i understand that current Liberalism doesn't stand for the fundamental ideas it started with, Locke is considered the father of liberalism and his ideas inspired the liberal movement, or am i missing something ? this is why i was surprised that Russell made the connection between Locke supporting, but not wholeheartedly approving, social inequality as a driver of progress, and conservatism !? – Udai F.mHd Jan 16 '18 at 2:28
  • @UdaiF.mHd You might want to read about Locke at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. As far as social inequality in Russell's quote, also consider the supreme artistic achievement of Athens which was supported by the slaves. The slaves made it all possible, but I am not saying I agree with slavery. The overall image of this dynamic was captured by Diego Rivera's painting of a laborer bent double toting a beautiful huge basket of pink flowers. Our eyes tend to go immediately to the flowers, and we forget the laborer. – Gordon Jan 16 '18 at 13:44
  • Nice image by Diego Riviera! I was just reading Ortega y Gassets The origins of philosophy and he makes himself out as a liberal of the old-fashioned kind. I found it interesting to read as I hadn't come across a defence or even a description of liberalism before. He makes it sound generous minded. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 17 '18 at 5:52
  • @MoziburUllah "The Flower Carrier". I could not remember the title of the painting earlier. I think I could teach at least a years worth of philosophy off of that painting. When Ortega came along Spain certainly needed a dose of liberalism. I only studied Ortega one time. He generated many ideas to try to wake Spain up (I liked the one on "generations"). He was a showman, but so was Heidegger, really. – Gordon Jan 17 '18 at 20:55
  • @MoziburUllah The problem I find with liberalism is that the liberal cannot really take a stand. It is the perfect handmaiden of capitalism, anything goes. I probably was not clear in my answer. I did not mean to suggest that Marx was conservative, but that he was for real change, from the roots up. Liberation instead of liberalism. – Gordon Jan 17 '18 at 20:59

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