A friend sent me an email expressing confusion at the idea of Conservative Liberalism, which is apt because it combines two frequently misused words in a confusing way. Let me offer my views/definitions of important political terms to shed some light on this. This post will almost certainly raise more questions than it answers so disagree with me in the comments!
Hayek contrasted conservatism with liberalism and socialism, though a restatement would replace socialism with interventionism. My views are roughly in line with Hayek’s on what these terms mean, with an important caveat (below).
Conservatism is a support for the status quo, and is inherently anti-radical. But that status quo is a historical phenomenon and so conservatism isn’t per se pro- or anti-liberalism. So Conservative Liberalism is possible, just not in America today.
Liberalism is almost synonymous with goodness. It’s a big concept and trying to describe it adequately requires a whole library. All forms of liberalism are essentially concerned with freedom (from the latin Liber, i.e. liberty).
Interventionism is a belief that the government can usefully intervene in society and/or the market. Be that outlawing homosexuality or regulating hotels, this view has a distinctly illiberal flavor, though it’s essentially an orthogonal concept.
Hayek describes these categories as though distinct ideal types and with good reason. There are recurrent divisions along these lines that support thinking of politics in three dimensions, and lead to the formation of three groups (libertarians, conservative Republicans, and liberal [though not classically so] Democrats in the U.S., and similar factions elsewhere). However, I think it makes more sense to think of these as dimensions than ideal types. This adds some vagueness and makes it more difficult to put people in boxes. There can be Conservative Liberals (just not following the last few increasingly illiberal decades), and modern liberals can be understood as being descendant from classical liberal. Ideally everyone would be happy with this vagueness and instead of using labels as short-hand we’d discuss these sorts of things in depth.
But alas, it’s not so easy and even three dimensions is too many for most people, so we’ve got Left and Right wings. Us versus them! Good and evil! Which puts libertarians in the awkward position of not quite fitting in with Democrats on the left or Republicans on the right. I think the Nolan Chart is a step in the right direction. It makes Libertarians (top of the chart!) equidistant from left and right, but not really centrist either. It strips out political labels and gets to the principles at hand. And it’s ahistorical so it leaves room for radicalism and conservatism.
But then we’re left with a tricky situation because we’ve just eliminated an important dimension! And that leads to confusion when we discuss left and right because the ideas aren’t quite as simple as just particular bundles of policies, and that’s especially obvious in a two dimensional graph. If someone asks a libertarian if they’re left or right they should respond “freedom top!” and a neo-con should respond “power bottom!” I view Leftism as being an approach that is radical (i.e. anti-status quo) and Rightism as being pro-established interests. But it isn’t as simple as that either because the historical origins of the terms, and every day practice involves self-identification. The Tea Party is definitely in the Right but their views are typically radical (either radically small-government-liberal, or radically socially-conservative). There are right-wingers who are pro-market (a liberal position) and those who are pro-business (a pro-established interest position).
So what’s the solution? Libertarians would probably like to see an accurate taxonomy that accounts for a wide variety of political and moral dimensions, but left/right has adequate for many for so long. I think the Nolan Chart is a good first step to breaking this false dichotomy, but I also think that using terms like classical liberal is a good choice when it invites conversation with people who aren’t familiar with these ideas. And Conservative Liberalism? It’s a paradoxical term that would also invite discussion, but it’s irrelevant since in the current historical context, the status quo is illiberal.
(from the latin Liber)