How does a Conservative differ from a Liberal? Part 2 (What is “Liberty”?)
Updated: Apr 5
In Part 1, I tried to show how comparing and contrasting conservatism with liberalism is far more challenging than first meets the eye. This is partially due to the difficulty in nailing down what we mean by “liberal”. There are two variations of liberalism: progressives and Lockean or classical liberals.
In the parlance of our times, progressives are what we might call Leftists. Progressives are concerned with equality and social justice and often see the state as a practical and even moral tool in righting perceived wrongs. Progressives might insist that, in order for their perception of justice to prevail, the state will need to exercise control over individuals. Progressivism often locks horns with conservatism, but it is entirely outside the scope of this series.
Here we are comparing conservatism with Lockean or classical liberalism. And liberalism in this sense could hardly be further apart from progressivism. For classical liberals are advocates of the rights of the individual to pursue their own desires, goals, and destinies without interference from the state. Where progressives are likely to say the state should intervene to address some problem, classical liberals are likely to say the intervention of the state IS the problem. Classical liberals are fierce defenders of individual liberties. In fact, the very word liberal is derived from the word liberty.
Hopefully from this vantage point you can see the great difficulty in distinguishing between conservatives and liberals. For conservatives are often interested in conserving the institutions built by classical liberals to advance individual liberties. But before we can begin to untangle where these viewpoints might differ, we have to define yet another term that’s seemingly obvious but surprisingly nuanced: what do we mean by "liberty"?
It’s Not About Where, It’s About When
Defining liberty in a political sense isn’t a simple matter of Googling the word or looking it up in a dictionary. For the crux of the problem isn’t where you look for the definition so much as when you look for it. You see, classical liberalism did far more than advocate for the expansion of liberty; classical liberalism began by redefining liberty altogether.
It’s quite challenging for those of us living in the twenty-first century to get our heads around it, but the concept of “liberty” that’s been almost universally accepted for the past several centuries was very much nonexistent in the ancient and medieval worlds. Our ancestors had a very different idea in mind when they used the word “liberty”. All agree that liberty means to be free, but the question arises free from what?
What Liberals Mean by “Liberty”
Let’s begin with how “liberty” is commonly understood today. Search for the word on Google and you’re likely to encounter the following: “The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this definition would have us believe liberty is strongest when restrictions imposed by external authorities are weakest. And while the word “authority” is debatable, liberalism often depicts these external constraints as institutions, norms, customs, traditions, family expectations, religious doctrine, and the state.
But there’s a modern assumption baked into this understanding. And that is the idea that the only thing limiting humans from realizing their full potential are constraints imposed by external authorities. It is true external authorities often prevent us from doing what we want. But what if what you want isn’t, in fact, what would make you fully human? What if human nature works against human potential and liberty?
What the Ancients Meant by “Liberty”
“As commended by ancient and religious traditions alike, liberty is not liberation from constraint but rather our capacity to govern appetite and thus achieve a truer form of liberty,” argues Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen. The ancient world was less concerned with liberty from external authorities than they were “liberty from enslavement to our appetites and avoidance of depletion of the world.”
“Liberty had long been believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul,” Deneen continues, “Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government.” Our modern understanding of liberty is so focused on external constraints we’ve lost the notion of wrestling with our internal appetites.
This reimaging of liberty leaves us “free” to act without the imposition of outside authority, but free to what end? Are humans truly free if nothing keeps our nature in check? It isn’t so difficult to imagine those who rely upon constraints to prevent them from engaging in harmful behavior such as addicts to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and other potentially self-destructive activities. But, if we’re truly being honest with ourselves, do we always act in our own best interests? Do we have urges to sleep in when we should be getting ready for work, or indulge in sweets when we know we should be dieting, or watch TV instead of going to the gym?
Would we actually be better off if there were truly no external authorities in our lives? What if society never imposed upon us a sense of decency? What if family never imprinted upon us the duty to care for blood relations? What if work never sharpened our discipline? What if religious tradition never called us to self-sacrifice? What if social norms never taught us that it’s awkward to stand face-to-face with a stranger in a crowded elevator? Would our world be better off without these external forces? Would you be better off?
External Constraints and Internal Passions
The ancient world did have a notion of liberation from external forces. Liberalism didn’t invent that concept. “What was new is that the default basis for evaluating institutions, society, affiliations, memberships, and even personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God,” Deneen argues.
Our modern conception of liberty isn’t an improvement upon the older model so much as an ignorance of one side of the equation: perfect liberty requires us to reign in both external constraints and internal passions because an imbalance in this equation ultimately results in our enslavement. As Deneen notes, “At the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory, for two simple reasons: human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited.”
No human’s desires can be completely realized in a world of limits. So, if we’re going to be free—truly free—we must learn to be free of our own destructive impulses. And nothing keeps those impulses in check quite like external restraints. On the other hand, a world of tyrannical external authorities doesn’t make us “free” either. For if we’re forced to behave in a certain manner we’re not choosing virtue or the fulfillment of our true potential. The two work together: External restraints keeps our impulses in check but keeping our impulses in check reduces the need for external restraints. And because we are fallible humans, we will never be capable of completely ruling ourselves without some external restraints.
Liberalism shattered the ancient and medieval understanding of liberty. In so doing humanity became more freed from certain external constraints just as we became more enslaved to ourselves. Like most world-altering events, this was neither good nor bad but a combination of both. Liberalism has contributed much good to our world. Even critics of liberalism such as Deneen admit as much: “No other political philosophy had proven in practice that it could fuel prosperity, provide relative political stability, and foster individual liberty with such regularity and predictability.”
Yet liberalism also carries within it the potential seeds of its own destruction. In altering our view of liberty there is a risk of individuals disassociating themselves from the very authoritative institutions that make liberalism possible. And that is where we’ll pick things up in Part 3.