7 January 2017

Liberalism vs. Conservatism

I have always found the liberal/conservative distinction difficult to draw, largely due to the several meanings of each term (e.g. the concept of "liberal" in political science and its casual use in the United States, on the one hand, and in Europe on the other.) Motivated by my recent reading of David Gress' From Plato to Nato, I tried to define each side by a set of principles, as small and as general as possible. This is my first attempt (work very much in progress):


(L1) Individuals are equal.
(L2) The individual precedes the community (ontologically).


(C1) The community takes precedence over the individual.
(C2) The "essence" of the community defines a set of values (religious, national etc.) that limits individual freedom.

Below the fold I discuss some consequences of these definitions.

(L1) can be interpreted in various ways, but personal freedom and political rights are fairly clear consequences, see e.g. Locke. Property rights, to the extent that they lead to inequality, are not as easy to derive so a liberal (in the sense above) position is compatible with a large range of wealth redistribution.

(L2) may be why many liberal philosophers use the "state of nature" line of reasoning, while no conservatives do. However, it does not mean that individuals appear fully formed with no social input and only then participate in the social contract (although some liberal philosophers do adopt strong individualist positions [Bentham, Rawls?])

The community values are transmitted, upheld and enforced by a certain category of individuals; this often leads to a social hierarchy, but as a consequence of (C1) and (C2), rather than as a fundamental feature of conservatism. Still, this hierarchy is incompatible with the adoption of (L1) alongside the basic conservative principles.

In the terms above, Burke is clearly a conservative.

Conservatives point to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century as proof for the dangers of a liberal and "Godless" society. What I see, however, is that those regimes share postulates (C1) and (C2), although they may have been paying lip service to (L1). To me, they illustrate the dangers of Conservatism, not of Liberalism.

This does not mean that Liberalism is completely innocuous: pushing equality to its limit can also lead to disastrous consequences [give examples; Robespierre?].

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