Monday, April 16, 2007

Conservatism vs Liberalism

One of the great choices in life is between conservatism and liberalism. This choice is not just about politics, but about the way we see the world and the values we hold.

Unfortunately, we are rarely given the information we need to make this choice intelligently. It is especially rare to get the information from a conservative point of view.

This essay aims to fill the gap. Hopefully it will make clear for the reader the most basic features of both conservatism and liberalism, and the significance of the differences between them.

Chapter 1. What is Liberalism?

Liberalism is made of up several elements, including individualism, rationalism and linear progress.


Sometimes the word individualism is used in the same sense as individuality: the rejection of conformism to create an individual style or personality. Individualism in this sense would be supported by both liberals and conservatives.

The term liberal individualism, though, means something quite distinct. It refers to the belief of liberals in a certain kind of individual autonomy. In short liberals believe that human freedom depends on individuals being subject only to their own reason and will, so that individuals are left free to create themselves in any direction.

This belief has been asserted strongly in Western societies ever since the Renaissance. For instance, the fifteenth century writer Pico della Mirandola once imagined God saying to man that,

You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

In order for individuals to be "self-created" in this fashion, liberals have to clear a path for the exclusive operation of individual reason and will. Usually this involves:-

(i) An assumption that the individual starts out as a blank slate, without anything inborn to limit or give a natural direction to individual behaviour.


(ii) A rejection of forms of identity and authority which can't be shaped by individual reason or will.

Conservatives are opposed to liberals on both of these points. Firstly, for conservatives it is simply untrue that individuals start out as a blank slate. Instead, conservatives believe that individuals are heavily influenced by an inborn human nature. This human nature is flawed, intricate and difficult to shift. Much of the effort of society is to draw out the finer qualities of this nature, whilst discouraging the worst.

Secondly, conservatives don't reject forms of identity and authority simply because they aren't chosen by individual reason or will. Conservatives have often found themselves attempting to "conserve" such forms of identity and authority because of their value to individuals or to society. Specific examples of this are given in the next chapter on conservative belief; in general, though, conservatives would argue that rather than creating human freedom, the liberal approach tends to undermine the social framework and erode important forms of human "connectedness".


As already mentioned, liberals only wish to accept what has been validated by individual reason. This forms the basis of liberal rationalism: the idea that we come to our beliefs and knowledge of the world through abstract reason, i.e. through the "analytical intellect" alone.

Conservatives are critical of certain aspects of liberal rationalism, especially when it is crudely applied.

This is because abstract reason is really only able to deal with a small part of human experience. It is unable to adequately recognise many of the finer, more subtle and more intangible qualities of life.

How can you, for instance, validate through abstract reason such qualities as love and beauty, or nobility and honour, or whimsy and fancy?

At its worst, liberal rationalism has applied rigid "machine principles" to human life. For instance, the French utopian reformer Charles Fourier once calculated that humans should live in phalanxes of exactly 1620 people. The British utilitarians believed that they could scientifically calculate morality according to a balance of outcomes. And the German Bauhaus architects went so far as to define a house as a "machine for living in".

Another conservative complaint against rationalism is that it sometimes leaves liberals curiously dependent on abstract ideology. There are times when liberals cannot simply accept the most natural and healthy of human behaviours (e.g. romance between men and women, boys playing with trucks etc. ). Instead, such behaviours have to be agonisingly justified in reference to an abstract ideology: they have to be declared "politically correct".

What alternative do conservatives offer to liberal rationalism? Firstly, conservatives don't have such an abstract starting point as liberals. Conservatives are unlikely to want to "wipe the slate clean" in order to build up knowledge on wholly abstract (and inevitably arbitrary) principles.

Instead, conservatives are likely to start out with what we are able to perceive about ourselves, society and the larger nature of things, and apply to this our critical intelligence, in order to arrive at a consistency and reasonableness of belief, as well as to draw the lessons of experience, i.e. the testing of our beliefs in practice over time.

Also, in contrast to liberal rationalists, who have often wanted to start from "year zero", conservatives are likely to consider (but not blindly accept) the guidance of tradition. This is because successful traditions are often built on the collective insight and experience of generations; it seems more sensible to conservatives to try to learn from such traditions, rather than to force each and every individual to learn from scratch.

Linear Progress

Liberals used to have a strong belief in linear progress: in the idea that the world was steadily advancing towards a higher level of civilisation. This idea was clearly expressed, for instance, by the English writer Matthew Arnold in the mid-nineteenth century, when he proclaimed his "faith in the progress of humanity toward perfection."

Liberals today are usually not so optimistic. Nonetheless, the idea of linear progress still exists more subtly in liberal beliefs about the "progressive" nature of social reforms and change, and fears of "stagnation" or "going back".

Conservatives have a different reading of history. For conservatives, history is more about the rise and fall of societies according to their inner strengths and weaknesses, rather than a constant progress. Nor would conservatives ever talk of human perfection, given the flaws embedded into human nature.

Given these different starting points, it isn't hard to see why liberals and conservatives have a different attitude to social change.

It's not that conservatives are against change; in fact, there is a great deal in modern societies that conservatives would like to reform.

However, conservatives believe that social change has to take account of human nature - in particular, that the social framework that is put in place must intelligently complement the real motivations and desires that are part of human nature. Liberal reforms, based as they often are on abstract ideas, often fail to do this and so misfire.

Furthermore, conservatives believe that real reform, i.e. the shifting from worse forms of human behaviour to better, is a difficult cultural achievement that takes place over generations. Such achievements, therefore, are not to be lightly discarded.

For this reason, conservatives are critical when liberals make reforms merely in a spirit of social experimentation, or when liberals want change just for the sake of change.

Conservatives and liberals have usually also wanted a different direction to change. Liberals, over several centuries, have sought to deconstruct the traditional social framework, in order to achieve a greater level of individualism; conservatives have attempted, in contrast, to conserve the more valued elements of this framework (hence of course the name conservative).

Over time liberals have succeeded in their aim; since the 1970s very little in Western societies has escaped the influence of liberal individualism.

This means that conservatives today are not the defenders of an established order, but instead are challengers of what has become a liberal orthodoxy.

Chapter 2. Conservative Belief

The differences between conservatism and liberalism should become clearer if we look at several key areas of conservative belief.


Throughout history there have existed groups of people united in a special way by kinship. Such peoples have shared a common ancestry, language, history, culture, religion and so on, which combine together to form a distinct ethnic identity.

Often such ethnic groups have existed at a tribal or regional level. However, it sometimes also happens that an ethnic group lives together in a large territory with its own political state. When this occurs, the people involved become something more than an ethnic group - they become a nation, with a distinct national identity.

For conservatives, membership of an ethnic group, and especially of a nation, is a positive feature of life. It is part of a real, historical collective identity existing between a group of people, which often becomes an inseparable part of our individual identity - of our sense of who we are.

Furthermore, a national or ethnic identity gives us a sense of connection to both past and future generations; it also encourages the idea that each individual has a respected place in society, in terms of having a role and responsibility within the collective effort; and finally, a national or ethnic tradition also strengthens the connection felt by individuals to their environment - it strengthens the attachment felt by individuals to the urban heritage or to the countryside of their native land.

Unlike conservatives, liberals have not given a very stable level of support to national or ethnic traditions. It's not hard to understand why this should be the case. As we saw in the first chapter, liberals support a philosophy of individualism, in which individuals start out as "blank slates", and are self-created through their own reason and will.

A national or ethnic identity, however, is not something we choose for ourselves through our reason or will, but is something we are born into. Liberals, therefore, have either tended to reject inherited national traditions altogether in favour of internationalism, or else have sought to redefine the idea of nationalism, so that it is based solely on citizenship.

When membership of a nation is based only on citizenship, then a national identity is something that can be chosen by the individual: the individual can seek to alter the definition of citizenship, or to choose to hold citizenship rights in whatever country they prefer.

Conservatives would argue, though, that in making membership of a nation malleable in this way, the inherited, and deeper, forms of national identity are lost, leaving the individual to a far greater degree "free-floating" or "rootless" - without the same strength of attachment to a particular national culture and tradition.

Finally, conservatives are also critical of those liberals who, curiously enough, are happy to support and enjoy foreign national or ethnic cultures, whilst denigrating their own.

In Australia, this denigration of the "home" culture has led to a distorted view of Australian history. There is a tendency to underplay the sacrifices and achievements of the early settlers, and to emphasise their faults. The historian John Hirst has criticised this trend towards "a history of Australia that characterises British Australia - Australia before the great postwar migration - as a long dark age." For conservatives, this "black armband" view of Australian history is of special concern, since conservatives wish to build on the best of a tradition, rather than to selectively emphasise the worst.


Conservatives support gender difference. They believe that men and women are different by nature, and that this is a positive aspect of life.

Conservatives support gender difference for several reasons. Firstly, for conservatives the feminine qualities of women and the masculine qualities of men have a value in themselves - they are something to be admired. Secondly, gender difference is the basis of heterosexuality; by definition, heterosexuality means the attraction of men to the feminine qualities of women and vice versa. Finally, gender difference is important in making men and women complementary to each other, so that together men and women provide the different qualities needed by individuals, families and communities.

The conservative attitude to gender is well-summarised, if a little overstated, by the nineteenth century writer John Ruskin, who wrote,

We are foolish, and without excuse foolish, in speaking of the "superiority" of one sex to another, as if they could be compared in similar things. Each has what the other has not; each completes the other, and is completed by the other; they are in nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give.

Unlike conservatives, liberals have not proven to be reliable supporters of gender difference. Again, this can be traced back to liberal individualism. Liberal individualists want to be "self-created" - they don't want to be born into a particular gender with well-defined gender qualities.

When confronted with the reality that men and women do tend to act in certain typically masculine or feminine ways, liberals claim that this is merely a product of "socialisation": of the oppressive influence of traditional culture. Accordingly, liberals have attempted to "re-engineer" gender, with the purpose of creating more similar patterns of behaviour between men and women.

The results have been predictable. There has been some blurring of gender, as the normal process of encouraging the stronger masculine qualities of men, and the stronger feminine qualities of women, has been put into reverse.

However, the basic gender differences have inevitably remained, since these are "hard-wired" into us, as scientists have demonstrated ever more conclusively.

Again, for conservatives, this is not a cause of regret, since gender difference, while occasionally frustrating, is generally an appealing aspect of life.


Many people in their teenage years react against the idea of family. It is often a time when people wish to be independent and free of of the personal frictions which go along with family life.

Nonetheless most people eventually choose to establish their own families. Why? Partly because the family, for all its imperfections, is usually the most stable source of support for individuals. It is also due to the strong instinct most people eventually feel to find a life partner and to have children.

Conservatives are supportive of family life. In particular, conservatives believe in the ideal of a stable family life, in which the different qualities of men and women are made complementary to each other.

Liberals take a different view of the family. Firstly, liberals find it more difficult to accept stable family commitments, since for liberals the idea of individual autonomy, of being independent and "free to choose" is paramount. Liberals, therefore, have acted to "loosen up" family commitments, by redefining the family so that it describes any arrangement of people living together, and by supporting easier divorce laws, culminating in the "no fault" divorce laws of the 1970s.

Secondly, liberals, being hostile to the idea of gender difference, have attempted to create a genderless family, in which men and women are expected to behave exactly the same.

This is one of those liberal "reforms" which was never thought through very clearly. It was heavily promoted in the 1970s when motherhood was unpopular amongst political women; this allowed the assumption to take hold that women could easily follow the same career pattern as men.

However, most women did eventually choose to have children, and were then left with the role of "supermums" - of trying to juggle motherhood responsibilities and traditionally masculine career demands at the same time. This was unrealistic, especially as most men proved less committed to taking over motherhood tasks, not least because their working hours were already steadily rising.

As a result, men and women have been left to muddle their way through the expectations of the genderless family as best they can. Conservatives believe that it would be better to scrap the emphasis on gender sameness within the family altogether, and try instead to achieve a balance between men and women in family life.

The Economy & Society

Historically there have been two basic kinds of liberalism.

The first kind, classical liberalism, had its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century. Classical liberals believed that the free market was self-regulating, so that governments should remain small and interfere as little as possible in the economy.

This kind of liberalism has made a comeback in recent years, under the name of "economic rationalism" or "neo-liberalism." Such liberals want to privatise and deregulate the economy.

The second kind of liberalism, "new liberalism", emerged in the late nineteenth century. New liberals wanted to make social reforms through intervention by a strong central government. Eventually, new liberalism was to lead to high levels of state ownership of the economy, and the building of the welfare state.

Conservatives are similar to classical liberals, and opposed to new liberals, in wanting a small central state. Why? When a large bureaucratic state takes over it tends to erode the institutions of civil society. People deal with a central state passively as separate individuals, rather than as mutually supporting members of a community.

Furthermore, too much power in the hands of the central state allows it, temporarily at least, to engage in social engineering - to overthrow the more natural forms of social organisation in favour of a ruling ideology.

There are some free market liberals who have a similar attitude to conservatives in this respect. Such liberals recognise that to have a small government you need to look after society by encouraging an ethos of personal responsibility and by having a well-functioning civil society.

However, unlike such classical liberals conservatives do believe in the need to regulate the market. Conservatives don't believe that the profit motive, if left to itself, necessarily creates the best outcomes for society. An example of this is that without sensible regulation a capitalist economy would quickly exploit and degrade the environment.

The Environment

Conservatives are strongly environmentalist. In part, this is because of the importance of heritage to conservatives, which means that conservatives wish to preserve the better historic areas of towns, as well as attractive areas of the countryside. Conservatives also believe that a natural environment has a positive influence on people, so that it is better for people to grow up and live in leafy surrounds, rather than in a concrete jungle.

Conservatives, however, would differ from some radical greens in recognising the need to use and develop natural resources. The point for conservatives is to attempt to do this intelligently and sustainably, with the least long-term damage to the environment.

Chapter 3. Politics in Australia

It is time now to look at the way in which conservatism and liberalism are actually represented in Australia. The starting point is to distinguish between two different kinds of liberalism: left liberalism (the modern version of "new liberalism") and right liberalism (the modern version of classical liberalism).

Left Liberalism

Left liberals believe in a relatively high level of government intervention in the economy and society.

They tend to support state ownership of sections of the economy, as well as high levels of government spending. Not surprisingly, many left liberals are white collar state employees, such as teachers and public servants.

Left liberals are (like all liberals) individualists, who believe in breaking down restrictions on the self-created, autonomous individual. They are more willing than right liberals to achieve change in this direction through government social engineering and collective social movements.

Left liberals have considerable influence in society. First of all, they are represented politically by the Labor Party, the Democrats and the Greens. They also dominate the education system, the arts and much of the media, particularly where social issues are concerned. (The Age in Melbourne for instance is almost exclusively left liberal on social issues.)

There is also a more radical version of left liberalism, found in sections of the socialist, feminist and gay movements. Such radical left liberals are often more ideological than other left liberals, more inclined to work outside the system through campaigns and demonstrations, and more likely to believe in using violent or authoritarian means to achieve their aims.

Right Liberalism

Right liberals have a much stronger focus on economic issues than left liberals. Their major concern is for economic activity to be unfettered by the state; they want, in other words, to remove impediments to the operation of the free market.

As might be expected, right liberals are often drawn from the business or commercial classes. Politically, right liberals are represented by the Liberal Party, the National Party (and by the Republican Party in America and the "Conservative" Party in Britain).

Right liberals have much less cultural influence than left liberals, though they do have considerable clout through their economic power and their ownership of the media.

On social issues, there are some differences between right liberals. Some right liberals are not so much social individualists as "economic individualists": they tend to see people in terms of being individual economic units, and they want an "open" society, not for the triumph of individual reason and will, but to have the least restriction on business choices and economic activity.

There are however more "conservative" right liberals, who still want to defend some parts of the social framework. As mentioned earlier, some right liberals recognise that if you want to reduce the role of central government, you need individuals to be supported by civil society and by an ethos of personal responsibility.

The existence of these "conservative" right liberals has often drawn conservatives toward parties like the Liberal Party. However, conservatives have usually ended up disappointed; such parties have never defended conservative values or institutions effectively as their underlying philosophy remains individualist, and as their belief in an unregulated free market often clashes with a defence of conservative values.


It should be clear from the above that the major political parties in Australia, as well as the media and education system, are dominated by different forms of liberalism. Conservatism, therefore, is not well represented in Australian politics.

Conservatism, though, is not entirely without influence. This is because the beliefs of the average person still remain closer to conservatism than to liberalism. Liberalism really only has a stronghold amongst the inner-city, middle class "chattering classes" (and some of the middle-suburban commercial classes). The rest of the population has been surprisingly resistant to liberal ideas, despite the heavy dose of liberalism they receive from the education system and the media.

It is possible to speak, therefore, of a division between a liberal "elite" and a "popular" conservatism. This popular conservatism, though, has not been well-enough organised, or clearly enough defined, to take a leading role in politics. Instead, its major influence has been more indirect: the commercial media, and the main political parties, do have to take some notice of it if they wish to succeed.

One example of this was the defeat of the Keating government in 1996. This is usually explained by the excessive attention Keating gave to "trendy" liberal policies, which alienated the more conservative blue collar vote.


Liberals may only be a minority of the population, but they have dominated Australian politics for many years now. They have been able to do so because they have been much better organised than conservatives.

The challenge for conservatives, therefore, is to begin to bridge the gap by becoming better organised. As part of this, conservatives need to argue their beliefs more clearly and to a wider audience.

This pamphlet has been a small step in that direction. Hopefully it has opened up for the reader the significance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. It is this debate, after all, which is the crucial dividing line of politics, and which will determine the future direction of Australian society.

(First published as a pamphlet 1997)


  1. Hi Mark,
    Its true what you say 'One of the great choices in life is between conservatism and liberalism' but that was true before the new Liberal-Democrat & Conservative coalition in the UK which has ushered in something new and fresh combining the visions of David Cameron and Nick Clegg ie 'Liberal Conservatism' as David Cameron called in in his interview with Andrew Marr on the AM Show on BBC1 yesterday morning. For a left-of-centre conservative like me 'Liberal Conservatism' is the ideal combination with the Liberal-Democrats de-toxifying the old Thatcherite right-wing section of the Conservative Party and Conservativesmodifying someof the more left-wing radical agendas of the Liberal-Democrats.

    In the long run the result of the election is perhaps exactly what both Cameron and Clegg needed. The need for the coalition has helped Cameron to set about modernising the Conservative Party and make it more liberal, acceptable andmost importantly electable to the centre and centre-left voters without losing the core conservative ideals of the party and he would have been unable to do this if he had won a clear majority being then held hostage by the right-wing Thatcherite element of his own party. You only have to look at his appointment of Danny Alexander a Liberal-Democrat as Secretary of State for Scotland to see how much he needs the Lib-Dems in Scotland where they have won six seats as compared to the Conservatives who have won just one but by appointing a Lib-Dem he has averted the criticism he would have had if he had been forced to appoint the only Scots Conservative MP who was elected to Westminister as the Secretary of State for Scotland but by instead appointing Alexander to that position he has underlined the fact that he represents the UK government which is a LibDem-Cons Coalition which together has seven MPs (1 Cons and 6 Lib-Dems) elected from Scotland to Westminister. Another example of the absolute need for a coalition is regarding the economy andimposing tough measures to cut the deficit which if its LibDem-Cons Coalition's joint decisions then these measures will have more chance of success and at the same time cut the criticism that the Conservatives would have otherwise faced regarding the much needed public sector and other cuts that must come to balance the deficit and stabilise the economy.

    The coalition has also helped Clegg in order to get key Liberal-Democrat policies into government and get himself and his party into the government rather than being doomed forever to be in the opposition if the two main parties Conservative and Labour either won a majority to form a government on their own or form a minority government with support of others outside the government.

    So you see there is not necessarily alwaysa clear choice between conservatism and liberalism because as Cameron and Clegg have demonstrated there is a third choice as well which is in Cameron's own words best described as 'liberal conservatism'.

    Best wishes,

  2. A great deal depends on how you define your terms, and I suppose, like Humpty Dumpty, anyone can define them to mean anything they like.

    But liberalism and conservatism are not opposites.

    The opposite of liberalism is not conservatism, but authoritarianism.

    The opposite of conservatism is not liberalism, bur radicalism.

  3. Of course, I know what you were describing was a crude picture (which I enjoyed reading), but what about socialism? I doubt there is much pure socialism on the scene in Australia, but socialist ideas still must have some influence in the left wing of Labor or the Greens.

    Of course, socialism is not left-liberalism any more than conservatism is right-liberalism. I would consider myself a conservative socialist (and therefore very anti-liberal). It is also possible to be a liberal socialist or liberal conservative.

    Rebecca - Cameron's "liberal conservatism" has just raised VAT while continuing to bail out the bankers (most lately in IRELAND). It has trebled the cost of university tuition. Perhaps it is still 'liberal conservative' in some way but how is it anti-Thatcherite (except insofar as Thatcher never tried such anti-social austerity or high VAT rates)? How is it progressive? Maybe it is left-of-centre in its barbarically modern approach to homosexuality?

    Steve Hayes - liberalism is not the opposite of conservatism overall, but on many matters (culturally), it is. Let us say this - you cannot be very liberal and very conservative. Certain "authoritarian" values are conservative. Conservatism does not only refer to the rate of change, but also to a mindset respectful of tradition, authority, having cultural and moral standards, social order and stability, etc. This is not compatible with liberal or socialist maxims.

    Lastly Mark - The idea that conservatism supports a small State is specifically modern Anglo-Saxon. I could understand conservative arguments towards a socialist bureaucracy, but not towards a strong central State apparatus with real power. The latter is VERY conservative. This may be most evident in the political traditions of continental Europe, but it is also logical. Weak States lead to foreign domination and the destruction of your culture. Remember also the appeal of old Tory conservatism to the people - the incorruptible aristocracy and gentry are a safeguard against business interests dominating govt.

  4. Very interesting reading. Reading through i'll write down a few thoughts as I have them:

    - It seems that being a conservative means picking a point in time where the traditional order means something to you. If I were a conservative I would choice pre-civilized peoples as my ideal traditional order. Barring that, it just seems arbitrary, is it pre-industrial agrarian society, is it the 1950's as many American conservative seem to choose, pre-enlightenment? (I am an American BTW.)

    "This is because abstract reason is really only able to deal with a small part of human experience. It is unable to adequately recognise many of the finer, more subtle and more intangible qualities of life." I think its an oversimplification to state that only conservatives value intangible aspects of human experience. If that were the case, there would be no art in liberal societies - there would be no liberal artists.

    I think my biggest disagreement with you is when we start to deal with issues of national identity. I think it makes sense, what you say, in certain places where peoples have been for long periods of time. But even going back a few hundred years we start to see the movements of people. The idea that people belong to a place is difficult to pin down. It gets even harder when you start talking about colonized areas such as Australia and the United States where an influx of people from various areas all converged and started to intermix. Can we really say that there is any identity to preserve? Or do you say, as many people do, that there are larger organizing principle (and yes, many of these are liberal principles since we were founded on enlightenment ideas...) that define our culture beyond the groups incorporated within that culture? Knowing that, does it even make any sense to be a conservative in places like America?