What's the Difference Between Liberalism and Conservatism?
Liberalism and conservatism have been the most important ideologies to influence American politics. Historically, each has had a different perspective on three important areas in American culture:
- Political freedom
- Human nature
- The role of government
This essay is dedicated to helping you grasp the differences between these two ideologies in these three areas as they came about in history.
First, What is an "Ism"?
The "isms" that we talk about in politics--liberalism, conservatism, socialism--are "ideologies." The word "ideology" literally means the "science of ideas." The term "ideology" was coined by Destutt de Tracey during the French Revolution (idéologie). He helped institute a program of national education that would transform France into a rational and scientific society. This approach for society was a combination of individual liberty and extensive state planning. This approach became the basis for the French government, the Directory, during the French Revolution (1795-99). At first, Napoleon supported Tracey and his believers. Later, he derided them, called them idéologues (ideologues).
As for what ideology means in modern times, political scientists Terrence Ball and Richard Dagger have defined an "ideology" as a fairly consistent set of beliefs about man's nature, the economy, and the government. According to them, an ideology must also perform the following:
- Explain social conditions
- Evaluate social conditions
- Orient people in society
- Provide a plan of social and political action 
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that an ideology "is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it.” In short, an ideology is an action-oriented theory. So, an ideology is not just a set of beliefs: it is a set of beliefs that posits a program of action that will have a "salutary effect" on society.
Liberalism started out as an ideology dedicated to promoting reason, individualism and the rights to life, liberty, and property which are derived from nature. Modern liberalism is different in that in tends to look more toward central--especially government--action to solve social problems rather than individual initiative. This essay will just focus on original (sometimes called "classical" liberalism) in the areas of freedom, human nature, and the role of government.
Freedom--The focus of classical liberalism is the individual who is in pursuit of his self-interest which has been arrived at by rational means. That individual has a right to life, liberty, and property, a right that was a bestowed by God via nature. These rights are not merely the rights of mankind; they are the rights which each person has individually. So, freedom for the individual is the right to pursue your self interest and our freedom to do so is the gift of God or nature.
Human Nature--Adherents of classical liberalism tend to characterize man as a "rational individual." Because man is "rational man," we can trust him to pursue his self-interest in a rational way. The implications of this are that men should be generally free to pursue their economic interests free of government interference and they do not need a large and intrusive government to direct them. Of course, in their pursuit of their self-interest, they cannot impede upon the rights of others.
This view of human nature is in conflict with the traditional view that was and still is taught by the Christian religion that says men are sinners and that this sinfulness extends to their reasoning. Therefore, those that espouse classical liberalism are more likely to claim that we can generally trust man to make decisions in an environment with only a minimal amount of government. We do not need the dictates of the past (tradition or religion) to provide a general direction for society. Each individual in pursuit of his own interest, the "pursuit of happiness," is most likely to lead to a better life for all.
In The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine put it this way:
I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away…by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. [Edmund] Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights of the living.
Paine reflects the classical liberal view: men's rights should not be overshadowed by the dictates of the past in the form of tradition. Each generation should be free to pursue their own self-interest free of those historical constraints.
Government--The purpose of government for the classical liberal is to protect my life, liberty, and property which were the gifts of God to man prior to the organization of government. Governments are the creation of men for the purpose of defending those rights. We can think of the nature of government as being that of a contract in which parties enter into for mutual benefit. The modern libertarian Robert Nozick likens the government to a protection service. As individuals, we hire an agent to protect our natural rights. In return, we surrender some of our liberty, but very little, to the protection agency. Therefore, a government is a means to an end. Governments--and the laws they produce--serve a minimalist function to protect our natural liberties. In the end, laws are the servants of our self interest.
The ideology of classical liberalism had an important influence on how American political thought developed. First, when it comes to rights and politics, John Locke's rights of "life, liberty, and property" were translated by Jefferson as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration reflects the minimalist view that government exists merely to protect those rights, and that the people should be able to discard one government and erect another. In the words of the Declaration:
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...
Much of Thomas Paine's rejection of monarchical rule in Common Sense reflected the classical liberal view to trust reason, individual self-interest, and look askance on tradition. There is no form of rule that is more traditional than monarchy. Paine called the idea of monarchy "exceedingly ridiculous."
In the area of the economy, the ideas of classical liberalism had a profound effect on American economic thinking. Americans easily slid from a mercantilism view which emphasized the accumulation of state wealth to a freer market system that emphasized the productivity and the accumulation of capital. In the same year that Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith published his work The Wealth of Nations which is considered a pivotal work in the area of classical liberal free market economics.
In the area of human nature, classical liberalism's emphasis on individual man in pursuit of his self interest had the least hold on American thinking. America was not just a Christian nation, it was Christian and Calvinist, which led to a view of human nature as utterly depraved. Furthermore, while individualism did fare better here than in Europe, still institutions were considered important and not merely instruments to advance one's rights.
The second ideology to have a major influence on American development was the ideology of conservatism. Some question whether or not conservatism is actually an ideology. The conservative does not oppose reason, but neither does he see it as central as does the liberal. The classical liberal is comfortable relying on human reason for a future good life, but the conservative is not. He is more likely to rely on tradition and experience as better predictors of a good life.
Edmund Burke is often hailed as the originator of European conservatism. In 1790, his work Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in which he offers a critique of the French Revolution.
Freedom--Conservatism is less likely to give reason a prominent place as does the classical liberal. In some ways, Burke sounds like a liberal when he says, "Men have no right to what is not reasonable," yet he also says, "...the whole body of them (the community) has no right inconsistent with virtue...." So, while the classical liberal is more likely than the conservative to trust human reason and the pursuit of self-interest as a defining quality of freedom, the conservative is likely to reject this for the community. A pursuit of self-interest cannot be one contrary to virtue. Burke also says that men do not have a right "to what is not for their benefit." This would imply that there is some standard beyond self-interest, and even reason, that would deny to the classical liberal what he thinks is his due. So, for Burke, freedom cannot be the freedom to be immoral.
Human nature--Man is connected to his society. He is not an individuated mass. If you ask the conservative if man is an individual, he might ask you "An individual what"? For the conservative, the word "individual" is an adjective, not a noun. The conservative sees men not as primarily individuated, but primarily as connected. He is more likely to view society as an organism rather than like a machine. And because men are organically arranged, changes among them must be slow and incremental if they are to be helpful. Sudden and revolutionary changes, even if they are of good-intention, are likely to do harm because of their haste.
Yes, man is distinct from his fellow man, but he is also connected to them. And those connections (which are embodied in traditions, and institutions) are not merely instrumental to our happiness to be discarded when we tire of them. Rather they are repositories of social knowledge that are likely to be more important than reason in providing man a better life.
Just as the conservative reduces the role of the individual in society, so he also reduces the role of reason. Rather, man is limited and must rely on his experiences. As American founding father John Dickinson said
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the British Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or even could have discovered the odd and in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given sanction to them. This then was our guide.
Government--The conservative view of government is different from the liberal view in that the conservative view is the traditional view: government is to enforce laws and punish those that violate them. The conservative is more likely than the liberal to treat governmental authority as a given. For the liberal, men created government and social human authority in a rational act to better secure their rights than what nature could provide. So they agreed by a social contract to mutually safeguard their liberties. Conservatism has no such secular "In-the-Beginning" story. Governmental "authority" is not the creation of a rational act, but rather authority is what we are born under. We really did not choose what authority we would live under. When we were born, we were born under authority. As we grew and became adults, we were under the authority of a state. While we might live under "public governments" where we have some rights to participate, and we might even have some collective power to change the regime under which we live, we have no such individual right. We no more legitimize our state's authority now than we legitimized our parental authority when we were born.
As for government's primary function, it is to enforce the laws (whether they be created by institutions or evolve naturally) and to punish those that break them. While recognizing the importance of punishing criminals, liberalism is more likely to emphasize citizen's rights and the possibility of revolution against an infringement on those rights. Burkean conservatives are more likely to uphold the importance of punishing those that violate the laws of the land. Upholding law and order, rather than securing rights, is the primary task of the government.
 Terence Ball and Richard Dagger, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal, 6th Edition (New York: Pearson Education, 2006), 4-9.
Burkean Conservative Principles Stated by Russell Kirk
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2018 William R Bowen Jr