A Primer on Liberalism & Conservatism

Recent books have suggested that Liberalism is on the wane or is confused in its beliefs or was a movement of the moment that lasted from 1932 through 1968. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that Liberalism is one of the political philosophies that emerged in Early Modern Europe as a way to find a basis for authority and the way to organize the self that is different from the one that is provided by the Christian Church, which offers as its answers to these questions God-inspired monarchical leadership and a sense of people as being flawed by original sin but saved through the intervention of Christ. The alternative to Liberalism is a philosophy that emerged at the same time: Conservatism. These two philosophies continue to stand as the two alternatives, whatever are the short term successes and setbacks for each of them, and it does not seem to me that either of them will be soon supplanted by a very different understanding of what people really are.

As most intellectual historians now recognize, the founder of Liberalism was the Seventeenth Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He wanted to lay down the metaphysical case for the representative government as that flourished in his time in the Netherlands and as that was opposed to the principles of government that were at the heart of, first of all, the monarchy of Louis XIV and, on the other hand, the theocratic state to be found in Calvin’s Geneva. Spinoza was, of course, also interested in establishing a new, idealistic metaphysics for its own sake. People, according to Spinoza, are basically rational. That does not mean that they are not subject to emotions, only that reason can be applied to explain the human as well as the natural world and that we make sense of irrational people also through the use of reason. Reason explains Donald Trump and why his voters supported him whether or not he is rational or whether his supporters were in a frenzy for reasons as yet not altogether clear. Most people are reasonable most of the time in that they use categories to explain things, pass these categories through their minds when assessing situations, and can change which categories they use, one or another of them modifying itself into being another category. So various emotions, such as joy and fear or love and hate, are transformed into one another by the will of the person as he reflects on his situation. It is understandable, though not required, that love turns to hate, as it does for Othello, when he thinks Desdemona has been unfaithful to him; it makes sense that you feel more appreciative of the frailties of life just after your dog died. None of these mood swings is predetermined, any more than it is predetermined that an isosceles triangle cannot become a scalene triangle if one of its two equal sides is altered. In similar fashion, governments change because the conditions of the society in which they prevail have changed. It makes sense for an agricultural economy to be a monarchy because a monarch has to serve the interests of the various large landholders, and it makes sense for something of a representative government to replace monarchy when a nation, like the Netherlands, becomes dominated by its merchants, though it is also possible for a city state, like Geneva, to be taken over by religious enthusiasts who also disdain the institutions of monarchy.

Conservatism is the view, contrary to Liberalism’s belief that reason can be the basis of human action and most of the time is, that something outside of reason is required to explain how people adhere to one another and create a rule of law and order. The best exponent of the Conservative viewpoint remains David Hume, who argued early in the Eighteenth Century that people are bound together not by reason but by their natural affections for one another, and that was the “glue” that made political relations possible, not the self calculation of interests which is the spur for Liberal thinking, Liberalism applying even to what is often thought the authoritarianism of Hobbes, who may have supported the king in the Civil War, but more fundamentally also thought that the object of government was to serve the people by providing them with security. Hume’s Conservative credentials can also be challenged because he supported a mixed form of government wherein the executive branch, the King, was balanced by the more popular branch, the Commons, so as to carry out the common good, this idea finding its way into the Founding Fathers, who also championed checks and balances, though the authors of the Federalist Papers were Liberal rather than Conservative in that they thought the competition between the branches was created through constitutional arrangements, the Constitution a rational plan of government designed to deal with the careful calculations of all participants about what it was the government could do for them. What was required to make this magnificent machine of government was the rights of citizens not to be jailed without cause and to enjoy free speech and the right of assembly and all those other procedural safeguards of liberty which are essential if there are to be fair elections. Those procedural safeguards still remain the touchstones of Liberalism even if soi-disant Liberals, such as contemporary Feminists, are willing to set them aside so as to pursue their agenda.

Later Conservative theorists added modifications and additional irrational sentiments on which government and social life in general could draw. Most famously, Burke recognized that the past has its own hold on the present, that old heroes are still alive in our imaginations, and so the present is beholden to tradition. Other modifications were introduced in the course of the Nineteenth Century. Conservatism became associated with the free market in that people in power, people of property and wealth, were naturally enough inclined to think that their positions in the world were deserved and so the state should intervene on the side of the wealthy because, for some reason, they would have the interests of the entire community close to their hearts. This was the sentiment that William Harrington had presented in the Seventeenth Century: property owners cared about the nation as a whole. That idea hasn’t changed, Conservatives still identify with the rich, however newly minted is the money.

The most relevant Conservative theorist remains the Nineteenth Century sociologist Emile Durkheim. He treated the conventional, which is whatever is usual, as the real, and so upended the twenty five hundred year tradition, reaching back to Plato, that the real is the opposite of the conventional. According to Durkheim, if a social practice is current, then it is right, even if that perception lasts only for a moment or however long it takes for it to be replaced by a different perception of what is immutably true and universally applicable. We believe that black people are inferior, as that is recognized in customs having to do with social segregation, until we stop believing that because customs have changed. A Conservative, I would say, is someone who treats these “norms”, as Durkheim called them, as what binds us together as a society and also as an essential element of social life, and so is very different from a Liberal, who thinks that customs have to have some usefulness, or else to be abandoned or else will simply atrophy, that being part of the view of the Liberal that the world is a reasonable place, in that what happens always has a kind of logic to it. Durkheimian Conservatism was the sort supported by William Buckley, Jr., who was slow to recognize the call of civil rights and never much warmed to the idea of civil liberties, however urbane and sophisticated a person he made himself out to be, because, as he said, a Conservative does not lead the charge for social change but, rather, comes late to every cause, adopting change only when it has become inevitable.

That is why Conservatives are opposed to change. It is not so much the particular issue as it is that they are opposed to change in principle, and so want to preserve the family values and the racial relations of the Fifties just because those were the way things were, rather than out of any particular animus against women or colored people, however much the fading of that nostalgia is hampered by a lingering misapprehension of the nature of those groups. Conservatives don’t have to be racists; they will just take longer to get over it, just as they, nowadays, will take longer to get over anti-gay sentiments than will Liberals simply because giving rights to gays seems so new-fangled. (I will leave it to the reader to decide whether racial bigotry or intellectual rigidity is the worse moral trait.)  

Liberalism has also undergone an evolution since Spinoza founded it. In the Nineteenth Century it became temporarily wed to laissez-faire capitalism because, so John Stuart Mill thought, the robustness of free speech was a product of market forces, even if that meant finding the roots of our sense of a deeply internalized and variegated individuality in atomic individualism, which is the doctrine that everyone is the same, different units of humanity contending with one another and sometimes making alliances with one another. But the singularity of the individual soul was alive in the Romantic and the Victorian novel and was recovered in the whole by the Modernist quest for the secret that existed in every soul: whether to conquer the mother or to imagine oneself as a bug, and was recovered as well in the Progressive Movement which saw government not as a handmaiden for corporations but as the countervailing balance against the excesses of the corporation, government in its own right capable of guaranteeing to all citizens any number of rights, whether to vote, or to be secure in their jobs, that would allow them each to form individually satisfying lives, a freedom not limited to aristocrats but available to all citizens, Everyone could become a hero, whether by being a breadwinner, or in the healing arts, or by cultivating a hobby, so long as they were not prevented from becoming so because of poor health or lack of a means to get an education, access to both of which could be, along with other rights, guaranteed by government. For some reason, that grand vision is thwarted at the moment by those who are very angry with individualism and prefer their imagination of a better day gone by, but there is no reason to think the setback for Liberalism is not temporary.