Modern Liberalism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Human Nature and Political Values

III. Modern Liberalism and Libertarianism

A. Origins of the Liberal Tradition

B. Libertarian Theories of Politics

C. Modern Liberal Theories of Politics

IV. Conservatism

A. Edmund Burke

B. Conservative Theories of Politics

V. Perennial Questions and Future Prospects

I. Introduction

Liberalism and conservatism were the original rivals in modern Western political theory beginning in the latter half of the 18th century. Since then, there have been many important theoretical developments. For example, other important political theories have emerged, most notably socialism, and the liberal tradition has branched into two competing wings, modern liberalism and libertarianism. Even with these changes, however, the debate between liberalism and conservatism remains a fundamental feature of political theory and practice. This research paper provides an introduction to modern liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism. It discusses the basic features of these political theories, focusing on their views of human nature and understandings of fundamental political values. It also provides a survey of important classic and contemporary works of modern liberal, libertarian, and conservative political thought. Last, this research paper discusses the perennial questions that characterize these theories and examines their future prospects.

II. Human Nature and Political Values

Political theory is the study of how society ought to be organized and regulated. Thus, it is essentially about the way people ought to live together. Political theory examines the nature of political institutions, the responsibilities of the state, and the social norms and expectations that shape the way people think and behave. It is concerned with both the normative implications and practical consequences of social and political institutions. Therefore, it takes into account what is desirable and necessary. Political theory creates a model of politics that serves as “a basis for judging the wisdom of our political deeds and arrangements” and provides a “perspective on what we are doing and thereby some grounds for seeing how well we are doing it” (Spragens, 1975, p. 5).

Leading contemporary political theories include modern liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism. A common way to distinguish between these three competing theories is by their understandings of the state’s practical responsibilities. Modern liberals, for example, advocate an activist state that looks after the welfare of its citizens. It should provide the basic resources people need to pursue their interests effectively. Libertarians argue for a state with very limited powers and responsibilities. It favors minimal government intervention in economic, social, and personal affairs. Conservatives believe the state should help maintain social order and reflect each society’s unique traditions and customs. They typically favor the status quo and are suspicious of radical change.

The basic political institutions and policies that these theories espouse are functions of their views of human nature and the political values they prioritize. All political theories are based on views of human nature. “To do otherwise would be to take the complex and perhaps unpredictable human element out of politics” (Heywood, 1999, p. 16). Human nature refers to human qualities and potentials such as rationality, cooperativeness, benevolence, dependability, fidelity, and so forth. Political theories make assumptions about what people are capable of doing. A political theory’s view of human nature is essential for the success of its institutions and policies. If a theory is too optimistic about human nature, then the state will not provide enough control and structure for its citizens. If a theory’s expectations are too negative, then the state will be overly paternalistic and not allow people to develop fully as human beings.

Political values are the basic concepts and principles that people believe are important. They include a range of ideals such as autonomy, liberty, equality, justice, virtue, and social stability. Political theories make claims about what values are politically significant and the way they should be prioritized. These political values are fundamental for political theory because they represent the ultimate purpose of the state. The aim of political theory is to advance these values by constructing appropriate political institutions and policies.

Human nature can be understood as the practical limits of politics. It determines what is possible. Political values, in contrast, are the theoretical goals. They represent the aspirations for how people want to live and arrange their collective existence. Political theory involves creating and justifying political institutions and policies that advance political values in a way that is consistent with human nature. Therefore, to better understand modern liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism, it is useful to examine their views of human nature, fundamental political values, and rationalizations for particular political institutions and policies.

III. Modern Liberalism and Libertarianism

Although modern liberalism and libertarianism represent distinct political theories, they are both part of the liberal tradition and, thus, share similar liberal assumptions and commitments. The liberal tradition’s primary political concern is the interest of the individual. Its fundamental political values include liberty, equality, autonomy, consent, and toleration (see Kelly, 2005; Raz, 1986). Liberty is particularly important for the liberal tradition, as the term liberal suggests. It considers the promotion of individual freedom a fundamental responsibility of the state. This emphasis on freedom makes toleration a necessary value for the state and society (see Gray, 2000). The liberal tradition is committed to the value of equality as well, recognizing the equal moral worth of all citizens (see Gutmann, 1980). It also respects the autonomy of each individual. The state, therefore, should allow people to act as independent moral agents. It follows that consent is a basic component of legitimacy. Because individuals are independent moral agents, their consent creates a binding moral obligation (Plamenatz, 1938).

The liberal tradition’s emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy means that people must take responsibility for their own choices. The ability to make personal decisions, however, is useful only if individuals are able to handle the responsibility. The liberal tradition, therefore, is marked by an optimistic view of human nature. It assumes, for example, that individuals are capable of rational thought, as well as judging what is in their own best interests, cooperating with others, and being trustworthy. These qualities allow humans to act on their freedoms and autonomy without undermining the well-being of society.

Modern liberalism and libertarianism share the values of the liberal tradition and its view of human nature. They differ significantly, however, in their understandings of two key concepts, liberty and equality. There are two distinct ways to interpret the meaning of liberty (Berlin, 2002). Negative liberty refers to the absence of restraint or impediments. People are free, in this negative sense, as long as they can act without interference by other human beings. Positive liberty involves being able to act and fulfill one’s desires. Simply having negative liberty does not mean people will be able to take advantage of it in practice. Positive liberty is having the resources and power to take action, live a certain way, or achieve some sort of self-realization (Green, 1986). Thus, intervention by the state may be required in order to give people what they need to satisfy their aspirations.

Equality also has different interpretations (Pojman & Westmoreland, 1996). It has a formal meaning, which simply involves people being considered morally equal and treated equally under the law. Formal equality essentially removes barriers to action. Equality can also be understood in terms of opportunity (Roemer, 1998). Equal opportunity focuses on giving people a fair chance to compete and succeed. It attempts to remove any normatively unacceptable disadvantages. This type of equality is concerned only with the quality of competition or the process. Equality of outcome, in contrast, is interested in the end result (Rawls, 1971). It is committed to the notion of redistribution, so that people end up with the same goods, resources, or services.

Modern liberalism adopts a positive understanding of liberty and prioritizes equal opportunity and, in some cases, equality of outcome. The state is expected to provide resources and opportunities that allow people to act more effectively and make competition more fair and equitable. It should distribute goods and provide services for the purpose of expanding individual choices and improving opportunities to compete successfully. Thus, modern liberals advocate an activist state. Libertarianism differs in that it is committed to negative liberty and formal equality. The primary function of the state should be to prevent illegitimate uses of force, thereby protecting people, their property, and their ability to act without interference. Otherwise, individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions and look out for their own well-being without the state’s intervention. Formal equality simply requires that the government treat all citizens equally. Libertarians, therefore, favor a state with limited powers and duties.

A. Origins of the Liberal Tradition

Modern liberalism and libertarianism differ greatly in their understandings of the responsibilities of the state, yet they both trace their roots to the liberal ideals that emerged during the 17th century in Europe. Liberalism was the key political innovation of the early modern period. During the Middle Ages, social and political life was characterized by inequality and submission. The feudal system, for example, was an important economic and social institution that maintained a rigid hierarchy through ascribed social status. The Catholic Church was the dominant religious institution. Its enforcement of religious conformity secured the authority of Scholastic understandings of morality and political order. A series of events, however, led to the end of feudalism and weakened the Catholic Church’s influence. Development of new productive technologies and discoveries of new lands and trade routes contributed to the demise of feudalism. So did the plagues, which undermined the social hierarchy by leaving gaps in the noble class. The Protestant Reformation challenged the doctrines of the Catholic Church, placing special emphasis on the spiritual equality of all individuals. The Renaissance reestablished a humanistic perspective, focusing attention back on human concerns as opposed to God and spiritual matters. The modern scientific revolution, which called into question Scholastic science, undermined the authority of Scholasticism in general.

These changes inspired a new theory of politics, which came to be known as liberalism. Liberalism’s emphasis on liberty and equality reflected the challenges to the medieval norms of ascribed status and religious conformity. The focus of liberalism was the individual. It viewed the function of the state as serving the interests of each citizen, not God, a king, or the aristocracy. Liberalism also made consent the basis for political legitimacy. The authority of the state was justified through the consent of the people, not divine right, tradition, or force.

The main forerunner of liberalism was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Although he falls short of articulating a liberal political theory, the ideas he presents in Leviathan (1651/1994) reflect many of the basic assumptions and priorities of the liberal tradition. Hobbes’s political theory attempts to understand the origins of the state in terms of individual self-interest. He begins by imagining a condition in which there is no state and people have complete freedom to act as they wish. Hobbes contends this condition would be so miserable that individuals would choose to give up their complete freedom and voluntarily submit themselves to the absolute authority of a political sovereign for protection. The state gains its legitimacy through the consent of the individual.

Hobbes (1651/1994) assumes that, in the state of nature, all men are naturally free and equal with an impulse to pursue one desire after another. He also contends that human beings are naturally competitive, diffident, and vain. Conflict, therefore, is a by-product of human nature. It follows that the state of nature is actually a “state of war” (p. 76) with “every man against every man” (p. 76). He famously concludes that life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 76). People, however, are rational enough to figure out a way to leave the state of nature. Hobbes claims that individuals will create and consent to a social contract that establishes an all-powerful sovereign who is strong enough to protect them from each other and external threats. This authoritarian government is contrary to the liberal commitment to personal freedom and autonomy. So, in this fundamental sense, Hobbes is not a liberal. However, his assumptions about the importance of the individual, the consensual basis of political legitimacy, and the naturalness of human freedom and equality anticipate key liberal ideals. It is Hobbes’s low view of human nature that compels him to sacrifice the individual’s natural liberty for personal safety and, thus, prevents him from being a liberal political theorist.

The person most responsible for bringing liberalism to the intellectual forefront is the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). His Two Treatises of Government (1689/1988) was and continues to be an extraordinarily influential work. Locke adopts several of Hobbes’s basic ideas, including the concept of a state of nature and the social contract. His assumptions about human nature, however, lead him in a different political direction. Locke starts with people in a state of nature. He claims there are laws of nature, including the prohibition of individuals from harming others in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (p. 271). Humans are generally rational enough to comprehend these laws of nature through their reason and moral enough to obey them. If a person violates the laws of nature, then others have the right to enforce the laws and punish offenders in proportion to the crime. Locke, however, assumes that humans cannot remain objective when their own interests are at stake. Consequently, when someone violates the law of nature, the victims or their family and friends are likely to overpunish the offender. In doing so, however, these people are themselves violating the laws of nature and, thus, subject to punishment. The result is a vicious circle of overpunishment and the violation of the laws of nature. Locke claims that this condition makes the state of nature “inconvenient.” To avoid this situation, rational people will contract to set up a state to act as a mediator to settle disputes between people. The state effectively serves as an impartial judge, jury, and executioner. Thus the primary function of the state is to objectively enforce the law of nature, allowing citizens to enjoy their life, liberty, health, and possessions without interference by others. If the state is unable or unwilling to fulfill its obligations, then the contract is broken and citizens have the right to withdraw their consent and revolt if necessary.

Negative liberty is a primary concern for Locke’s social contract theory. Thus, he is often cited as an inspiration by many libertarian thinkers. Locke has also had an influence on liberal thought more generally through his advocacy of tolerance in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689/1983). In this essay, he distinguishes between a public and a private realm, arguing that religion is properly a private matter that does not have a bearing on the well-being of the state. Hence, there is no reason to impose religious conformity. As long as a religion does not affect the order of the state, it should be tolerated. This defense of religious toleration reinforces liberalism’s commitment to freedom and personal autonomy. Locke’s distinction between public and private matters has also been applied more broadly by liberals to argue for expanded civil liberties and less government regulation of lifestyle choices.

B. Libertarian Theories of Politics

Libertarianism advocates negative liberty and formal equality in all aspects of society, including the economic and private spheres. Libertarians support laissez-faire economic policies, including a free market and the protection of personal property rights. They also favor a laissez-faire approach to personal behavior. All people should be able to do and think as they please provided that they do not harm others.

Libertarian economic ideals are reflected in the work of Adam Smith (1723–1790), the Scottish economist who wrote the seminal defense of capitalism in Wealth of Nations (1776/1976). Smith applies liberal concepts such as freedom, equality, consent, individuals, and rationality to argue for the establishment of a free market. A free market produces economic outcomes that benefit society and gives people opportunities to advance themselves through their own merit. Allowing people to act freely in the marketplace tends to keep prices relatively low and leads to the development of new and better products. What makes this outcome possible is the natural self-interest of human beings. Allowing people to pursue their own self-interests in the marketplace creates the competition that produces economic benefits for the consumer and conditions for producers to advance on merit. If the state interferes in the market and undermines this competition, then it also undermines the benefits. Thus, Smith was generally opposed to the regulation of the market by the state.

The libertarian concern for personal freedom in private affairs is perhaps best articulated by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in On Liberty (1859/1978).Mill, who is best described as a civil libertarian, argues that human beings should be allowed wide latitude in behavior and thought, with limits justified only when others are injured. He called this criterion the harm principle. Mill’s justification for freedom from government interference in the individual’s private life is based on the utility it produces for society. He claims that freedom of speech and thought facilitates the pursuit of truth and elimination of error. This freedom gives people a chance to challenge accepted ideas and norms. It, therefore, provides opportunities for the truth or falsity of the status quo to be determined. Freedom of action also benefits society. Mill claims that the ability to pursue different lifestyles creates “experiments in living” that people can observe and from which they can learn. Thus, it allows people to make better informed decisions about which lifestyle they want to adopt. Mill’s association of freedom with progress reflects his faith in the ability of human beings to make decisions for themselves.

Ayn Rand (1905–1982), a Russian who immigrated to the United States in 1926, is most responsible for bringing libertarianism to the attention of the general public. She was a successful novelist turned philosopher who developed the philosophy of objectivism, which espoused many libertarian ideals. Rand is perhaps best known for her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957/2005), which warns of the dangers of excessive economic regulation by the government and celebrates productivity, rational selfishness, and a free market economy. These themes are also reflected in the ethical and political dimensions of Rand’s objectivist philosophy. She contends that the greatest human virtue is the exercise of reason and the highest moral purpose in life is the rational pursuit of self-interest. People should live only for themselves and not sacrifice for others. Thus, the only function of government should be to protect individuals from coercion so they can use their reason and pursue their own interests without interference. For similar reasons, Rand also advocated laissez-faire capitalism.

The Austrian School of economics has had a particularly significant influence on contemporary libertarian thought through the works of economists such as Ludwig von Mises (1949/2007) and Friedrich Hayek (1960/1978). The Austrian School advocates a laissez-faire economy, with the state’s main purpose being the strict enforcement of property rights and contracts. Murray Rothbard (1926– 1995), an American economist, applies the ideals of the Austrian School to directly advance libertarianism. Rothbard uses the concept of self-ownership and natural rights to defend the value of liberty in Ethics of Liberty (1982/2003). He contends it is self-evident that people have ownership in themselves and the goods they appropriate or create. This ownership implies that people should be able to dispose of their property as they wish without interference from the state. Rothbard goes on to examine and critique various types of government coercion in Power and Market (1907/2007), concluding that the state is neither desirable nor useful.

Perhaps the most notable contemporary argument for libertarianism was written by the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938–2002). In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), he defends the idea of a “night watchman” state. He begins with the idea of self-ownership; people own themselves, including their body, talents, labor, and whatever they produce. Hence, they have rights to self-determination in themselves and their property that act as “side-constraints,” protecting them from interference by other individuals and institutions such as the state. Nozick does, however, believe that coercive institutions and relationships are legitimate if people give their consent. He believes, for example, that a minimal state—which protects against force, theft, and fraud, enforces contracts, and administers justice—is a practical necessity. People, therefore, would willingly pay to have this protection. Any additional powers of the state to regulate the economy, society, or morality are legitimate only if the people give their consent.

Libertarians use a number of different rationales and justifications to defend their theories, including natural rights, efficiency, utility, progress, the rational nature of humans, and self-ownership. Thus, there are many different versions of libertarianism. Regardless, they all aim for a state that has minimal responsibilities, promotes negative liberty, and treats citizens equally. Libertarianism often focuses on economic freedom. However, it is important to keep in mind that this philosophy favors negative liberty in all aspects of life as long as one’s actions do not harm the freedoms of other people.

C. Modern Liberal Theories of Politics

Modern liberalism focuses on individual welfare. It developed as part of the reform movement to improve the conditions of the less fortunate through state services and the redistribution of resources. Modern liberals differ in the policies they propose. However, they all have a common interest in using the state to help people pursue their interests and take advantage of their freedoms.

Modern liberalism’s ideals are reflected in the thought of Thomas Paine (1737–1809), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was not only a revolutionary but a social reformer as well. The influence of the liberal tradition is reflected in the slogan attributed to him, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” It is reflected as well in Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (1776/1982). In it, he assumes a state of nature in which people are naturally free and equal, arguing that the purpose of the state is to provide security for the individual and that the best form of government is a representative democracy. Paine was also an advocate for social reform and policies that advanced positive liberty. In his Rights of Man, Part the Second, Combining Principle and Practice (1791, 1792/1992), he details extensive social reforms that states should enact. Paine recommends a number of governmental policies intended to improve the condition of the poor. They include free public education; guaranteed employment; public assistance for the poor, with supplemental support for children, widows, and the elderly; tax relief for the lower class; and a heavily progressive tax on the aristocracy. Thus, Paine believed the state should play an active role in providing positive liberty for its citizens.

Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882), an English philosopher, advocated similar policies to advance positive liberty. He contends that simply having negative liberty is of no value if people cannot take advantage of it. Freedom is not valuable simply for the sake of freedom but because it allows people to pursue their interests and develop as human beings. If people do not have the resources that allow them to put their freedom to use, then the freedom they have is simply an abstraction. The state, Green (1986) argues, should ensure that people have access to resources such as education, health care, housing, and food. Educated, healthy people, who do not have to worry about their subsistence needs, are better able to act on the freedoms they have. Green, moreover, claims that the guarantee of these resources benefits everyone, including the well-off, because they no longer have to worry about these concerns. Hence, the intervention of the state promotes the welfare of citizens by allowing them the opportunity to better pursue their interests and self-development.

Another important voice for modern liberalism was Herbert Croly (1869–1930), a leader of the American progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. He was particularly troubled by laissez-faire individualism and the industrial revolution, which produced extreme inequalities in wealth and power. These morally and socially undesirable inequalities produced economic and social abuses that were corrupting the country. The competitive pursuit of money was also undermining genuine individuality. Croly (1909/1989) believed a stronger, centralized federal government was needed to effectively address these problems. He favored a state that distributed a share of the wealth and benefits to the whole community and looked out for the welfare of its citizens. The state, at the very least, should ensure that people have some degree of economic power and responsibility and make poverty a negligible social factor. Moreover, it should intervene to raise the laborers’ standard of living and increase their economic independence.

John Dewey (1859–1952) was an American philosopher and educational reformer critical of the individualism associated with negative liberty. He believed that a commitment to liberty required the recognition of the intimate relationship between the individual and society. The individual should not be considered apart from society. Dewey (1930/1999) claims that each person is a product of social, economic, and political institutions. An abstract understanding of the individual misses the real nature of humans. It is also misleading because it seems to suggest that negative liberty is more consistent with what it means to be an individual, that is, distinct from society. Dewey argues, however, that the social nature of humans means liberty should be understood in a positive sense. Freedom involves being able to shape the social conditions that shape the individual. It allows humans to be “individualized” selves. Thus, freedom is valuable as an activity in which there is a collective exercise of social and self-development.

Perhaps the most influential modern liberal is the American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002). His Theory of Justice (Rawls, 1971) provides a seminal argument for the promotion of positive liberty by the state. He develops a modified version of the social contract that requires people to choose principles of justice in an “original position.” People in this original position are behind a veil of ignorance, which prevents them from knowing anything about themselves. The veil of ignorance is intended to ensure that people choose principles of justice objectively. They are unable to choose principles that advance their own interests because they do not know what their interests are. Rawls (1971) claims that people in the original position would choose two lexically ordered principles of justice. The first principle of justice is “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all” (p. 302). The second principle of justice is “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged, and (b) attached to offices and positions under conditions of fair equality and opportunity” (p. 302). Thus, Rawls contends that the state should protect personal liberties while redistributing primary goods so that the disadvantaged can have the resources and opportunities to live good lives.

Modern liberals believe the state needs to intervene to provide citizens with certain resources so they can act on the freedom they have. The nature and purpose of this intervention, however, can differ greatly. Modern liberals propose a wide variety of government-provided services, programs, goods, and opportunities for the general public and the needy in particular. Modern liberals also have a range of aims such as the elimination of poverty, ensuring the welfare of the least advantaged, promoting equal status, and facilitating self-development.

Modern liberalism’s commitment to positive liberty and equal opportunity leads to the institution of a welfare state, that is, a state actively involved in securing the welfare of its citizens. Modern liberals may also adopt socialist means to realize its goals. Welfarism, however, should not be confused with socialism, which advocates state control over the means of production and distribution of goods. Welfarism and socialism are certainly compatible political theories, and modern liberals often advocate both welfare and socialist policies. Still, they have different implications for the responsibilities of the state.

IV. Conservatism

Conservatism, as the term implies, emphasizes the value of conservation. Its primary concern is to preserve the customs and traditions of society. This orientation is based on the conservative view of human nature, which assumes that humans are inevitably flawed both intellectually and morally. Conservatives, therefore, are suspicious of any social, economic, or political changes in the name of innovation or perfectibility. They are wary of innovation because they do not trust what is new and unproven in practice. Conservatives disapprove of efforts to achieve perfectibility because they do not think it is possible. Instead of leading toward progress, innovation and perfectibility can actually be dangerous because humans have limited ability to understand or appreciate the consequences of abstract ideas.

Custom and tradition have the advantage of being proven over time. For conservatives, “standing the test of time” is the most meaningful criterion for determining worth because individual judgment is suspect. The value of customs and traditions is proven in practice across the generations. If customs and traditions continue to exist successfully, then there must be something valuable or useful about them. Still, it is important to recognize that conservatives are not against change per se. Sometimes it is necessary. However, these changes should typically be slow and deliberate. They should involve reform, not innovation. Because of the limits on human foresight, change should be gradual to minimize the possible danger to society. Through a practice of slow and deliberate change, problems can be recognized before they do too much harm. Conservatism is a cautious ideology that is sympathetic to the maxim that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Conservatism is also skeptical of political abstraction and universalism. Each society has its own set of historical circumstances that makes it unique. Thus, the appropriate political institutions and policies for a society are a function of its traditions and customs. What is appropriate for one society is not necessarily appropriate for another. Human beings are shaped by their traditions and customs and have limited ability to adapt to new situations.

The precursors of conservatism can be found in premodern ideals and principles that emphasized human limits and frailties. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, has the concept of pride, which involves excessive self-love and conceit. Adam and Eve’s exalted perception of themselves and what they were due led them to defy God’s command and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their sins in the Garden of Eden reflect the human susceptibility to temptation, especially appeals to people’s vanity and the manipulation of their pride. The Christian concept of original sin refers to the inherent moral flaws of human beings. People are sinners by nature. It is part of the human condition. People are all vulnerable, for instance, to the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

The conservative intellectual tradition took shape in Europe during the 18th century as a response to the spread of liberalism. It argued for the maintenance or return to more aristocratic social and political institutions, which were challenged and undermined by liberal reformers. Thus, conservatism began as a defense of the aristocratic political order, but it has come to involve much more than that. Conservatism is a rich and varied tradition.

A. Edmund Burke

The Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism. His understanding of conservatism is articulated most clearly in response the dangers he saw in the French Revolution. Writing at the outset of the Revolution in 1789, Burke (1790/1987) warned that the challenge to the French monarchy was a reckless and hazardous undertaking. He was particularly critical of the Enlightenment ideals, such as the faith in human reason and reliance on abstract rationality, that influenced the French Revolution. Burke believed the revolution’s abstract principles such as liberty, equality, and the “Rights of Man” were a precarious foundation because they ignored the practical political realities of France. It had a tradition and history of monarchical government and no experience with democratic institutions. The French Revolution tried to impose popular government on a people who were not prepared for the responsibility. Burke’s skepticism about the ability of the French to adjust successfully to a new political system reflects the conservative view of human nature. When people are placed in unfamiliar situations without preparation, it is unrealistic to expect them to adapt quickly or behave appropriately. Giving people political freedom without any experience in managing it is to invite abuse and excess. Freedom can be valuable. However, it must be properly constrained and managed.

Burke also found the French Revolution dangerous because it brought sweeping social and political changes to France. In so doing, it ripped apart the “social fabric,” which is the foundation for social interactions. The social fabric is sewn from a society’s traditions, customs, and mores. Its threads consist of practices, beliefs, values, habits, and rituals that have been handed down from generation to generation. Over time, these practices and beliefs are woven together, complementing and reinforcing each other. If they are widely shared and respected, then the result is a strong social fabric that holds a people together and orients their activity. A common set of practices and beliefs allows people to anticipate the actions and reactions of others, thereby allowing them to coordinate more effectively and avoid conflict. If the social fabric is torn or frayed, it reflects the unraveling of important relationships and commonalities that ground social stability. If the social fabric becomes completely undone, then people are left without any way to orient themselves in society.

Thus, Burke believed customs and traditions should be respected and should be changed only when absolutely necessary. Because of the complexities of society and the limits of human reason, it is difficult for people to predict the consequences of social changes. Hence, Burke favors having a prejudice for the status quo. Unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, people should give the benefit of the doubt to long-standing traditions and customs.

Even though Burke was opposed to the French Revolution, he was not opposed to revolutions in general. For example, he approved of the Glorious Revolution in England and was sympathetic to the American Revolution. In both cases, the revolutions were fought to regain lost rights and privileges. They were revolutions in the sense of a revolving back to a previous condition. The French Revolution, in contrast, involved the establishment of a new political and social order and was therefore an attempt at innovation, as opposed to reform.

B. Conservative Theories of Politics

Another important conservative thinker, who was Burke’s contemporary, is the Sardinian statesman and philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821). His political outlook was greatly informed by Christian pessimism and born out of a reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Maistre (1809/1959) was greatly influenced by the concept of original sin and the fallen nature of man. He believes human pride, in particular, was the fundamental feature and flaw of the Enlightenment, which was, he claims, a rebellion against traditional authority and had misguided and dangerous aspirations of perfectibility. He has a similar critique of the French Revolution, which he thought was a vain attempt to institute political perfection through human reason and social construction. Maistre believes in the absolute sovereignty of God and his ordained order. Hence, he expresses contempt for concepts like the social contract and individual consent. Political legitimacy is not a function of human choice but of God’s will.

The American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913–1996) is also critical of the consequences of liberalism. In Quest for Community (1953/1990), he claims liberalism has produced a sense of anxiety and alienation that is driving people to search for community. This condition is created by the liberal emphasis on freedom, equality, individualism, and free markets. The liberal state and liberal values have weakened and undermined traditional social organizations such as the family, church, and neighborhood associations. These organizations constrain their members with demands and requirements. Liberalism compels people to free themselves from these restrictions. They even turn to the state for help in challenging and diminishing the power of these institutions. Although these institutions are restrictive, they provide members with moral bearing, personal security, and a sense of meaning and purpose.With the disruption of these local bases of community, people look to the state for the moral, psychological, and economic support they need. Moreover, the destruction of local institutions leaves people susceptible to totalitarian control. These institutions, which are conduits for collective power, serve as buffers between the individual and the state. Without them, people are left as individuals to stand alone against the state’s power.

The conservatism of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) is based on skepticism about rationalist thought and the abstract political principles and ideals that it produces. The rationalist attempt to create social and political institutions out of abstract ideals undermines the traditions that have proven themselves through practice and experience. Traditions, which are time tested, are preferable to ideals that may promise more and better but have not been tested in practice or context. Oakeshott (1991) eloquently states this perspective as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. (p. 408)

Oakeshott’s skepticism is also reflected in his preferred political institutions. States, according to Oakeshott, can be understood as either enterprise or civil associations. Enterprise associations are characterized by an agreement among members to pursue some particular purpose. Civil associations simply involve a body of laws that are used to regulate society so people can pursue their own unique goals. Oakeshott opposed any grand political enterprises, favoring instead the civil association model for state and a rule of law that was consistent with the society’s traditions and customs.

The conservatism of the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973), a German-born immigrant to the United States, is rooted in the premodern political tradition that focused on virtue and the pursuit of human excellence. Strauss (1953/1999) is particularly critical of liberalism because of what he thinks is its socially nihilistic tendencies. Liberalism, with its emphasis on the individual and freedom, has a propensity for the removal of standards that place limits on human thought and action. The result is moral relativism, which may remove constraints but leaves people without direction. The modern focus on prosperity and comfort and the social stability necessary for their enjoyment is also troubling to Strauss. These goals are relatively modest when contrasted with the more demanding expectations of premodern theorists. Modernity sets a low bar for human achievement. People are not asked to excel as human beings.

The American philosopher Allan Bloom (1930–1992) adopts Strauss’s basic perspective in his influential critique of American higher education in the Closing of the American Mind (1987). Bloom claims that the modern political values of liberty and equality have, in part, produced a culture dominated by a complacent and indulgent relativism. Liberty is interpreted simply as freedom from restraint and equality refers to the removal of all hierarchies. The result of no restraints or hierarchy is a lack of standards. The closing of the American mind is a closing to the possibility of truth. Thus, our personal and collective lives do not have real meaning, nor is real meaning possible.

Conservatism is concerned with conserving tradition and custom. There are, however, a variety of conservative political theories. Traditions and customs differ from society to society. Thus, conservative theories often focus on different social contexts and practices as opposed to abstract models of politics. Conservatives may also disagree about the aspects of tradition and custom that should be preserved. Even though conservatism favors conservation, its purpose is not to ossify convention per se but to preserve what is worthwhile. Conservative minds may differ on what is worthwhile and what should be reformed.

The conservative emphasis on tradition reflects both its view of human nature and the threat it perceives from the liberal tradition. Conservatives believe people require the guidance of tradition and support of community due to the inherent shortcomings of humans. Otherwise, the individual will be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar and susceptible to exploitation. Conservatism is also a reactionary theory of politics. Conservative theories often involve critiques of the liberal tradition as dangerous due to its sanguine view of human nature and reliance on abstract reason. They claim the liberal prioritization of freedom undermines the tradition and community needed to structure people’s lives. Moreover, conservatism’s emphasis on abstract concepts such as the atomized individual, natural rights, and social contract create abstract models of politics that privilege reason over reality. Political institutions and policies must be shaped to fit each society’s unique history and traditions.

V. Perennial Questions and Future Prospects

Political theory, as a normative enterprise, inevitably raises perennial questions. The issue of human nature and what can be realistically expected from people is an ongoing debate. What values are important and how they should be prioritized can never be settled in any objective manner. Thus, modern liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism will always have to revisit these matters. Proponents will come up with new justifications and rationales. Opponents will continue to raise challenges and critiques.

The modern liberal tradition includes many different theories about how the state should intervene to promote positive liberty and equal opportunity. These differences tend to revolve around three basic questions: (1) What resources does the individual need to enjoy positive freedom? (2) What opportunities ought to be equal? (3) What institutions and policies should be used to satisfy the demands of positive liberty and equal opportunity? These are the perennial questions of modern liberalism. Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971) has been particularly influential in shaping contemporary debates about modern liberalism, serving as a foundation or foil for the works of many other important modern liberal theorists. It has also been subject to challenge by any number of liberal critics. Modern liberal perspectives and ideas currently dominate the study of political theory. Thus, modern liberalism will likely remain the central theoretical orientation in the foreseeable future.

Libertarianism has a straightforward goal: minimal government intervention to facilitate negative liberty. Still, the nature of this intervention, even if minimal, is not self-evident. There are going to be perennial questions about the power and responsibilities of the state. Libertarians require that the state protect people from being harmed by others. The criterion of harm, however, is open to interpretation. What constitutes harming another person? Libertarians concerned with a laissez-faire marketplace also have to deal with issues such as the enforcement of contracts, monopoly and competition, and the nature of property rights.

Libertarians play an important role in political theory as effective and consistent advocates of negative liberty in all aspects of social and economic life. However, the number of libertarian political theorists is relatively small. Still, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of libertarianism because of the appeal of negative liberty. There are already nonlibertarians that advocate either laissez-faire capitalism or expansive civil liberties. The task is to convince them that negative liberty and minimal government should be a priority in all areas of human life, not just one particular part.

Conservatism’s aversion to abstraction means there is no conservative model of politics that can be used to shape institutions and policies. It consists of basic principles— such as the flawed nature of humans and the respect for tradition—that guide political judgments and practice. These basic principles will always be subject to debate. What is the capacity of humans to be rational and moral? What aspects of tradition should be preserved or reformed? New situations and conditions require new judgments about how to respond and which practices are appropriate.

The future of conservative political theory is tied directly to the liberal tradition for better and worse. Conservatism originally developed as a reaction to liberalism. This reactionary stance remains an important part of its motivation and substantive focus. The vitality of conservatism continues to come, in part, from its critique of liberalism. Still, there is a question of conservatism’s being marginalized by the domination of liberal political ideas. Freedom and equality are powerful values that are now well established in the Western world. Although concepts such as tradition and culture still resonate for more orthodox religious faiths and ethnic groups, liberal ideals are working to erode the conservative aspects of these institutions. How conservatism responds to this liberal challenge will determine whether it remains an important theory of politics or becomes an anachronism.


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