Classical conservatives place a premium on preserving social order and stability, and respecting tradition is a means to that end. Hierarchy and authority are important for the same reason. Each of these terms must be precisely defined in order to avoid confusion. Hierarchy does not mean that all social differences are natural or just, but only that a social order requires at least some stratification. At the most basic level, there must be some members of society with more social or political power than others. This does not necessarily mean that those with more power are intrinsically more important or intelligent than the rest, though some conservatives have, unfortunately, believed this. There is, however, and must be, a measure of inequality between certain groups: politicians and citizens, employers and employees, and parents and children.
Authority requires the recognition of legitimacy and is therefore different than mere power. It goes hand in hand with hierarchy because the social bond between members of a political society must be held together by a sense of legitimacy if the political community is to survive. This creates two sets of obligations. Citizens, employees, and children should respect the legitimate authority of their superiors; their superiors, however, also have an obligation to behave in such a way that they honour and preserve the legitimacy of their authority. For example, legitimate authority can easily degenerate into illegitimate power when, for example, employers exploit their employees; classical conservatism is strongly opposed to such exploitation and abuse of authority.
Social bonds, and hence political order and stability, flourish in an environment of legitimate authority rather than mere power. This is one reason for the importance to conservatives of the family unit; for many of us, families are the first experience of legitimate hierarchical authority. Families are the basis of communities, so family allegiance helps create the broader bonds of allegiance and legitimacy that a healthy social order requires.
At this point, we can see that conservatism – at least as defined by some of its major theorists – is not necessarily a justification of an unjust status quo for the benefit of the rich and powerful, as some liberal or radical critics might argue. This disagreement between conservatism and its critics is not about whether human rights should be protected or not, but about the best way to protect those rights. Without denying the importance of human rights, Edmund Burke argued that abstract natural rights alone cannot be the basis of political order. Counter-intuitively, the best guarantee of political freedom is to preserve the natural aristocracy, by which he meant the system of hierarchy and authority that is held together by feelings of legitimacy and allegiance.
- Business hierarchy, strategy concept with chess pieces © Marco Verch Professional Photographer is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
according to classical conservatives, the stratification between certain groups that is required for social order
the recognition of legitimacy