How does a Conservative differ from a Liberal? Part 1 (What is Liberalism?)
Updated: Apr 5
When I shared with a friend that I was thinking about doing a series on how conservatism differs from liberalism they responded that should be easy enough since conservatism and liberalism were exact opposites.
Actually, the only true “opposite” to conservatism would be radicalism since where one aims to conserve while the other aims to demolish and what they aim to conserver/demolish is based entirely on the context of time, place, and culture. Comparing and contrasting conservatism to liberalism is very challenging for many reasons. Such as? I’m glad you asked:
First, there’s the challenge of overcoming a category error. Conservatism is a worldview—a lens for looking at reality and shaping one’s perception that incorporates the cumulative wisdom and teachings of a culture from its birth through today. Liberalism, however, is an ideology—a political theory based on a system of ideas primarily developed by Enlightenment thinkers.
Second, they don’t share the same basis—conservatism is derived from a prudent study of history and is, at best, wary of abstract political theories whereas liberalism IS an abstract political theory derived from reasoning. Conservatives start with this is true because it has been shown to work whereas liberals begin with this truth is self-evident.
Third, in the American context, much of what conservatism is trying to conserve is—wait for it—liberalism.
Fourth, in modern times conservatism has become synonymous with the political Right whereas liberalism has come to mean the political Left. But these are views within the larger Right/Left divide and should not be assumed to represent the whole. There are plenty of beliefs on the Right that have nothing to do with conservatism just as there are a lot of things on the Left that don’t represent liberalism.
And finally, the very words “conservative” and “liberal” have evolved significantly over time.
I intend to address each of these conundrums in the posts to follow. But first, I’d like to address that final item in the list—the idea that the word “liberal” has changed. The word “liberal” today has come to mean Leftist. And by Leftist I mean the sort of socialistic agenda advocated by much of the progressive Democratic party.
Classical Liberals vs Progressive Liberals
In today’s context, the word “liberal” might be used to mean two different ideologies that are so far apart it’s unusual they share the same label. A “liberal” who is a Leftist—one who believes the government should take a more active role in providing for social justice that eliminates inequalities and perceived injustices—is what we might call a progressive. And a progressive is entirely different from what we might call a classical liberal. As the name implies, the classical liberal comes from an older understanding of the word “liberal” whereas the progressive liberal finds its roots in the twentieth century.
Long before the liberalism of the twentieth century that included the expansion of the state through presidents like FDR and LBJ, the sexual revolution, and a general distain for a culture of traditional Judeo-Christian values, liberalism was understood to be a political theory advancing the interests of the individual over the group. And “the group” included the family, the church, and—most importantly—the state.
John Locke and the Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property
The history of liberalism is long and complex but—for simplicity’s sake—let’s begin with liberalism’s founder, John Locke. Locke was an English philosopher and Enlightenment thinker whose works had a profound impact on much of the Western world. Locke taught that human beings had certain natural rights: namely, the right to life, liberty, and property. He further taught that the sole purpose of government was to secure these rights and that any government that failed to do so could be justifiably overthrown by an abused citizenry.
If you’ve not heard of John Locke but believe these sentiments sound oddly familiar, that’s probably because they were interwoven into the very fabric of the American founding. Thomas Jefferson, a disciple of Lockean liberalism, eloquently argued for liberal government in the most famous passage of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
What Do We Mean by “Rights”?
Notice that there is no explicit or even implicit idea here that the sort of rights Jefferson and Locke were advocating came from government. Classical liberals taught that our rights were “inalienable”—that is, unable to be taken away from or given away by the government. These rights are sometimes referred to as negative rights. I did an entire podcast episode on negative rights, but the very-much oversimplified version is that a negative right is something that you possess without anyone having to give it to you. Your right to life doesn’t mean I have to keep you alive, it simply means I can’t justifiably murder you.
While there is much more we can (and will) say about classical Lockean liberalism, I suspect the reader will begin to see now the stark contrast between liberalism in this classical sense and the progressive liberalism of today that insists on expanding our rights to things that very much DO require someone give us something (“free” healthcare, college tuition, housing, contraceptives, minimum wage, guaranteed employment, etc.). The classical liberal taught the purpose of the state was to secure the rights we possessed before the state even existed. The progressive liberal believes the state should be used to provide rights that only the state can distribute fairly en masse.
“The term ‘liberal’ is virtually the opposite of its use during the nineteenth century,” wrote British philosopher Roger Scruton, “When liberal parties set out to propagate the message that political order exists to guarantee individual freedom, and that authority and coercion can be justified only if liberty requires them.” Expressed this way, the conservative finds much to be admired in liberalism. In fact, liberalism is often the very thing a conservative is trying to conserve.
And if that’s all there was to say on the matter my work here would be done. But dip below the surface and some more fundamental and, perhaps, even irreconcilable differences between conservatism and classical liberalism will begin to emerge. What are those differences? That is what we’ll be exploring throughout this series, beginning next week with Part 2.