Skip to comments.Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism
Posted on 06/30/2014 4:19:49 PM PDT by Bratch
In the history of politics, there is only one fundamental, abiding issue: It is individualism vs. collectivism. Do individuals have the right to pursue their own happiness, as Thomas Jefferson thought and as the Declaration of Independence deemed self-evident? Or do we have an obligation to live our lives for the community or the state, as most societies have claimed throughout most of history?
Yet if this is the paramount political issue, why is it not forthrightly debated in presidential elections and in other contests for public office? The reason is that American political debates tend to be dominated by modern liberalism and modern conservatism approaches to politics that are properly called sociologies rather than ideologies.
Modern liberalism is not completely collectivist; nor is it completely individualistic. It has elements of both doctrines. The same is true of conservatism. Neither view provides a coherent approach to politics, built up from first principles. Instead, they both reflect a process that is akin to picking items from a dinner menu. What is chosen is a matter of taste rather than a matter of thought. Just as people with similar tastes in food tend to frequent the same restaurants, people with the same tastes in politics tend to vote for the same candidates.
What that leaves us with are candidates, platforms and political parties whose ideas are inconsistent and often incoherent. The thoughtful voter may sometimes vote for the conservative, sometimes for the liberal and sometimes just abstain.
The classical liberal perspective will not solve this problem, but it will help us better understand it.
Classical Liberalism as an Ideology
Classical liberalism was the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. It permeates the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and many other documents produced by the people who created the American system of government. Many emancipationists who opposed slavery were essentially classical liberals, as were the suffragettes, who fought for equal rights for women. 1
Basically, classical liberalism is based on a belief in liberty. Even today, one of the clearest statements of this philosophy is found in the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, most people believed that rights came from government. People thought they had only such rights as government elected to give them. But following British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson argued that its the other way around. People have rights apart from government, as part of their nature. Further, people can both form governments and dissolve them. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect these rights.
The 19th century was the century of classical liberalism. Partly for that reason it was also the century of ever-increasing economic and political liberty, relative international peace, relative price stability and unprecedented economic growth. By contrast, the 20th century was the century that rejected classical liberalism. Partly for that reason, it was the century of dictatorship, depression and war. Nearly 265 million people were killed by their own governments (in addition to all the deaths from wars!) in the 20th century more than in any previous century and possibly more than in all previous centuries combined. 2
All forms of collectivism in the 20th century rejected the classical liberal notion of rights and all asserted in their own way that need is a claim. For the communists, the needs of the class (proletariat) were a claim against every individual. For the Nazis, the needs of the race were a claim. For fascists (Italian-style) and for architects of the welfare state, the needs of society as a whole were a claim. Since in all these systems the state is the personification of the class, the race, society as a whole, etc., all these ideologies imply that, to one degree or another, individuals have an obligation to live for the state.
Yet, the ideas of liberty survived. Indeed, almost everything that is good about modern liberalism (mainly its defense of civil liberties) comes from classical liberalism. And almost everything that is good about modern conservatism (mainly its defense of economic liberties) also comes from classical liberalism.
Modern Liberalism and Conservatism as Sociologies
One of the difficulties in describing political ideas is that the people who hold them are invariably more varied and complex than the ideas themselves. Take Southern Democrats, for example. For most of the 20th century, right up through the 1960s and even into the 1970s, virtually every Democratic politician in the South was an advocate of segregation and Jim Crow laws. This group included Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright (a favorite of the liberal media because of his opposition to the Vietnam War); North Carolinas Sen. Sam Ervin (an ardent constitutionalist and another liberal favorite because his Senate hearings led to the downfall of Richard Nixon); Lyndon Johnson (who as president changed his public views on race and pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964); such economic populists as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Alabama Gov. George Wallace; West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, one-time Ku Klux Klan member and king of pork on Capitol Hill; and small government types, such as South Carolinas Sen. Strom Thurmond (who changed his views on race, began hiring black staffers and then switched parties and became a Republican).
This group held the balance of political power in Congress throughout most of the post-World War II period. To even try to use words like conservative and liberal when describing them is more likely to mislead than to shed any useful light. With that caution, let us attempt a brief summary.
As reflected on the editorial pages of The New York Times, in the New Republic, and in Slate and other forums, contemporary liberals tend to believe in an almost unrestricted right to abortion and actively encourage stem cell research and sometimes even euthanasia. Yet they think the state should never execute someone, not even a vicious serial killer. As reflected in National Review, the Weekly Standard and other forums, contemporary conservatives tend to hold the opposite views.
Liberals tend to believe that marijuana consumption should be legal, even for recreational use. Yet they are quite content to have the government deny terminal cancer patients access to experimental drugs. Conservatives tend to hold the opposite opinion.
In elections, most liberals support restricting the role of financial capital (money); but they want no restrictions on real capital (printing presses, radio and TV broadcast facilities) or organizational capital (labor union get-out-the-vote resources). Most conservatives are at least consistent in opposing almost any restriction other than mandatory disclosure.
By and large, conservatives believe in punishment, liberals in rehabilitation. Conservatives believe in tough love; liberals are more likely to coddle. Conservatives tend to favor school choice; liberals tend to oppose it. Many anti-war liberals support the military draft; many pro-war conservatives oppose conscription.
Is there some theory that connects these diverse views and gives them coherence? Perhaps. But it is doubtful that a garden-variety liberal or conservative could produce such a theory. Instead, how a person selects from the menu of policy options is more likely to be determined by where he went to school, where he lives and with whom he socializes. These choices reflect socialization, rather than abstract thought. 3
There is, however, one difference between conservatives and liberals that is neither random nor chaotic. It is a difference that is systematic and predictable.
Whereas conservatism and liberalism are both outgrowths of classical liberal thought, they differ in what they accept and reject of their intellectual roots. Conservatism tends to accept the classical liberal commitment to economic liberty but rejects many of its applications to the noneconomic realm. Liberalism accepts the classical liberal commitment to civil liberties but largely rejects the idea of economic rights. 4
As libertarians are wont to say, liberals want government in the boardroom but not in the bedroom. Conservatives want the reverse. Much more is involved, however, than bedrooms and boardrooms.
The Sociology of Modern Liberalism. Most liberals at least mainstream liberals believe you should be able to say anything you like (other than yelling fire in a crowded theater), no matter how much it offends and, for the most part, no matter how seditious. They also believe you should be able to publish almost anything as a matter of right. But they reject the idea of economic rights. They reject, for example, the notion of a right to freely sell ones services in the labor market. The New York Times in particular supports minimum wage legislation that keeps people from working if they cannot produce at least $7.25 an hour.
Similarly, in the liberal view of the world, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker have no fundamental right to enter their chosen professions and sell their goods to the public. The medieval guilds that Adam Smith criticized were in this view not violating any fundamental rights when they restricted entry, controlled prices and output and imposed other monopolistic constraints. The same principle applies to modern special interest legislation.
Liberals are not advocates of special interest legislation per se. But they are apologists for it in the sense they believe that economic regulations should be decided by democratic political institutions, not by court-enforced rights to freedom of contract. So if butchers, bakers and candlestick makers succeed in obtaining special interest favors from government at the expense of everyone else, that is a legitimate exercise of political power.
The New York Times believes that you have a right to engage in almost any sexual activity in the privacy of your own bedroom. But the Times does not believe you have a fundamental right to rent your bedroom (or any other room) to your sexual partner or to anyone else for that matter. Indeed, the Times is fully supportive of the principle of government regulation of who can rent to whom, for how long, under what circumstances, and at what price.
The liberals view of rights is closely connected to the issue of trust. The editorial page of The New York Times does not trust government to read our mail or listen to our phone calls even if the caller is talking to young Arab males behaving suspiciously. Yet the Times editorial writers are completely comfortable with having government control their retirement income, even though Social Security has been managed like a Ponzi scheme. They are also willing to cede control to government over their (and everyone elses) health care, including the power to make rationing decisions about who lives and who dies!
The Sociology of Modern Conservatism. Most conservatives at least mainstream conservatives believe in economic rights. Individuals should be able to freely sell their labor to any buyer or enter almost any profession and sell goods and services to the market as a matter of freedom of exchange. Any restrictions on these rights are justified only if there is some overriding general welfare concern.
Conservatives are far more willing than liberals to restrict freedom of thought and expression, however. For example, some believe that anyone should be able to make a flag (with wages and working conditions determined in a free labor market) and anyone should be able to sell a flag (fetching whatever price the market will bear), but they are quite willing to impose government controls on what can be done with the flag, including how it can be displayed, whether it can be worn, etc.
Is flag desecration obnoxious, reprehensible and unpatriotic? Of course. But the First Amendment was not written to protect the views of the majority. It was written to protect dissent.
Many conservatives, given a free hand, would impose additional government restrictions on our noneconomic liberties. In the past, conservatives were quite willing to control the books and magazines we read, the movies we watch, etc. These were the same people who believed that what went on in the workplace was none of the governments business.
At the time of its founding, America was one of the few countries in the world that did not have a state religion. This was no accident or oversight. The founders themselves were a religiously diverse group. Thomas Jefferson removed all mystical (spiritual) references from the Bible and bequeathed us the Jefferson Bible. Tom Paines Age of Reason was a wholesale attack on Christianity. And although the overwhelming majority at the time were Christian, Americas second and third presidents (Jefferson and Adams) were Deists and some argue that Washington was as well. 5
The founders clearly did not intend to remove religion from the public square. They did intend for the American system of government, at least at the federal level, to be pluralistic and tolerant with respect to religion. This is in contrast to some modern conservatives who would like to use the power of the state to impose their religious views on the culture.
Conservativism, Liberalism and the Courts. As noted in What Is Classical Liberalism?, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly sided with the liberal view of rights over the conservative view. Throughout the 20th century, Court rulings strengthened substantive First Amendment rights, as well as procedural rights related to most noneconomic liberties. At the same time, the Court weakened (indeed, eliminated) constitutional protections for substantive economic rights.
As a result, you have today an almost unrestrained constitutional right to say whatever you want to say. In any attempt by government to limit your speech, the Court will start with the presumption that you are exercising your First Amendment rights and the burden of proof will be on government to show why there is a compelling public interest in restraining you.
On the other hand, you have virtually no constitutionally protected rights to acquire and own property or engage in voluntary exchange. There is almost no constitutional constraint on governments power to prevent you from entering virtually any profession or to regulate what you produce, how you produce it, or the terms under which you sell your output to others. In any conflict over governments economic regulatory power and your freedom of action, the Court will presume the government is acting within its authority and you will face a very strong burden to prove otherwise.
Platonic Roots of Conservative and Liberal Sociologies. The distinction between economic and civil liberties actually has its roots in philosophy. It rests on an idea that goes all the way back to Plato. Whether the distinction is between consciousness and reality, mind and body, mental and physical, spiritual and material, etc., all philosophers in the Platonic tradition have focused on two fundamentally different dimensions of human life. And following Plato, they have all believed that the world of thought is somehow more important, more moral, and more pure than the world of everyday affairs, and certainly more so than the world of commerce.
What follows from that distinction? Actually not very much. One could argue (as liberals do) that unimpeded thought and the benefits that flow from it are too important to be left to politicians to regulate the way they regulate commodities. Or one could argue (as conservatives do) that culture and mores and the ideas that nurture and support them are too important to be left to the vagaries of a laissez faire market for ideas.
The Impossibility of Consistent Conservative and Liberal Thought. Regardless of ones view of the mind-body dichotomy, the case for freedom of thought is not stronger than, weaker than, or any different from the case for freedom of contract. Just as there are externalities in the world of commerce, so there are externalities in the world of ideas. Just as public goods exist in the economy, so there are public-good type ideas in the culture. For every argument against a laissez faire economy, there is