Defining Conservatism and Liberalism

Classical liberalism

OK everyone, I wrote some stuff about conservatism awhile back, and I felt as though it was a bit confusing.

So, in order to better define what conservatism actually is, I wanted to write a bit more in order to help clarify the difference between the following: Classical liberalism, liberalism, and conservatism.

These are really big philosophical traditions in politics, and the definition of both Liberalism and Conservatism are grossly distorted these days.

Keep READING if you want to see a cool graphic I made …

… actually, it’s not very good at all …


Classical Liberalism!

OK, this term emphasizes a few fundamental principles, and all of them are extremely important to the American culture and society. Essentially, Classical Liberalism is the base philosophy from which the Constitution was derived. If you’re thinking about the modern term ‘liberal,’ you’re wrong — that’s not what it is. That term is a modern construction by pop culture and the media (and pundits).

Imagine you had to choose the most-important aspects of all human life. What do people care about? If you think about it, when the Constitutional framers got together, they had to construct rules for a society. The challenge was defining what that society would care about. What does the United States care about, and what doesn’t it care about?

As it happens, the framers chose classically liberal (i.e. not religious or royal) principles as base assumptions for this new society. Also, classical liberalism is broadly “liberal” because it shifts decision-making power to the individual, which was not the dominant ideology at the time.

In the end, the Constitution assumes the following: 1) All people (well, at the time, white, landowning males) want to live, 2) people want to do what they want free of patriarchal or religious authority, and 3) people want to own property. Also, rules cannot be made by leaders alone; hence the rules will be agreed upon, and all laws will be made by consensus — because the greater wisdom of a lot of people beats the wisdom of any single philosopher.

The principles of life, liberty, property, and rule of law are CLASSICALLY LIBERAL principles.

Now, from this base set of principles, people began to emphasize different aspects of classical liberalism — and these variations are what are either liberal or conservative (extreme variants of such are Communism and Fascism).



Here we are. Liberals.

Liberalism, as a philosophical approach, isn’t interested in strong families, virtuous people, nor strong state defenses. Why? Because liberals take the principle of liberty, and emphasize it as the key to a successful society.

Liberty is the idea that you can do what you want, and liberals connect “doing what you want” to equality. If we can all do what we want, then we are all, in fact, equal. As such, liberals seek out not only equal treatment among genders, but also races, ethnicity, religions, etc …

Also, social justice has emerged as a prominent topic among liberals. As it stands, since we are all equal, if some act violates that person’s, or group’s, rights, then that person or group has the right to seek some form of justice. This is why slavery is still brought up (neither reparations nor full apologies were ever paid). This is why liberals seek economic redistribution, because money is, in fact, power; therefore power is in-equally distributed, and those with more power have leverage over those without.

So, liberals seek to challenge traditional power structures and authority (and, oddly, the American political right has hints of liberal ideology this election cycle).

Also, liberals are under the banner of classical liberalism because they believe in life, liberty, property, and also the rule of law. Hence liberalism is an extension of classical liberalism.



Here we are, finally. Conservatives — who, these days, get a bad reputation.

Conservatives also agree with classically liberal life, liberty … blah, blah, blah.

But, conservatives emphasize the need for order in society, and there are a few parts of society that need more attention than others, if the society is to be successful. Also, for the classically liberal principles to exist, security is a top concern for conservatives (especially when considering the international condition of anarchy).

If you want to read more in depth, I wrote about conservatism here.



Here’s the deepest rift between conservatives and liberals: Liberals care more about having a “just” community (one where justice prevails over hypocrisy), and conservatives simply don’t think that’s possible, because hypocrisy is part of human nature.

Here’s what the two agree on: Classical liberal principles.

Here’s what they don’t agree on: Human nature.

Liberals believe in the changeability of people, and conservatives find human nature fixed, self-interested, and competitive.

For liberals, the pursuit of happiness can only be achieved after equality has been established, and justice exists. For conservatives, happiness itself is the time-tested formula, with a strong family as an essential component. Also, because people, at their core, will never change, the best the government can do is maintain the literal definitions of ensuring life, liberty, and property.

Here’s a graphic I made, that hopefully clarifies:


Constructed political identity

Here’s the problem …. nobody, in the United States, thinks of politics from a societal level. Instead, the American public is compartmentalized into interests, then packaged into parties.

… Because of this, potential politicians have to pander to different group’s interests, rather than discussing the American society as a whole (i.e. what do we really care about?). Also, because of media constructions, people never think about politics on a societal level, because all the media plays is soundbites.

In general, contemporary American politics is in a tribal state. You’re either in camp A, or B. However, if you look at what each group cares about, we can see a lot of similarities.

So, this post was mainly to clarify what Conservatism is when compared to Liberalism, or Classical Liberalism. Hopefully that was clear?



4 thoughts on “Defining Conservatism and Liberalism

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