Conserving a Limited Liberalism

It’s a topic that comes up from time to time, as we define our terms or as certain folks reject the notion that labels of left and right have any utility at all, so readers may profit from a recent symposium in National Review on the definition of conservatism as “classical liberalism.” Yuval Levin may put it best:

In this sense, modern conservatism has always been liberal, and there is nothing self-contradictory about the fact that American conservatives are the defenders of classical liberalism in America. There is also nothing terribly surprising about the way in which the modern Left, in its effort to go beyond liberalism, has often undermined and attacked liberalism. This is sometimes hidden from view by our political terminology: The effort to “progress” beyond liberalism has come to be called “liberalism” in our politics, while the effort to treasure and defend the liberal order has come to be called “conservatism.”

A critical emphasis of modern conservatism is reviving the political liberalism furthered by the founding of the United States, particularly in the extent to which it self-acknowledged that external cultural institutions must be preserved beyond the nation state. James Ceaser picks up the thread:

Yet it is mistaken to think of conservatism as merely a branch or subsidiary of liberalism. Conservatism may serve liberalism, but it often does so in ways that original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And this it does for liberalism’s good. Liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism, while endorsing so much of liberalism, recognizes and satisfies this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away. In fact it has already begun to do so.

Especially as contrasted with libertarianism, modern conservatism recognizes that there must be more to a coherent society than principles of limited government and individual freedom. For its own preservation, a classically liberal government structure must facilitate cultural institutions — such as marriage and religion — that carry the learned habits of generations of Westerners.

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Nate
Nate
11 years ago

Most Libertarians, like myself, consider themselves “Classic Liberals”. From my understanding, the term comes from the dissent of totalitarian forms of government (see Hayek, Von Mises).
In my opinion, Neocons have hijacked and ruined the conservative movement (limited government). Therefore they think the rebranding will reenergize their base. Let’s hope it’s not too late. Much damage has been done.
Good post

David P.
David P.
11 years ago

Much of the confusion about conservatism and liberalism arises from the hijacking of the term “liberal” by American progressives early in the 20th century. As Jonah Goldberg has shown in his book “Liberal Fascism,” what we think of as liberalism today is actually progressivism, a political philosophy that shares intellectual DNA with the fascist movements of the early 20th century. Progressives have largely abandoned classical liberal ideas about limited government, individual liberty and the rule of law in favor of an outcome-based pragmatism.
Conservatism and liberalism are not inherently self-contradictory because liberalism is an objective philosophy while conservatism is relative in that its tenents differ from society to society. An American conservative has little in common with a Chinese conservative, a Russian conservative or a Saudi conservative because each seeks to “conserve” different ideas and institutions. American conservatives seek to conserve classically liberal ideas and institutions, which is why and American can be conservative and liberal simultaneously.

Tammi Tiro
Tammi Tiro
9 years ago

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