Is there such thing as Conservative Liberalism?

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.

15 thoughts on “Is there such thing as Conservative Liberalism?

  1. Interesting quiz. Turns out I’m a Centrist, 1 square in the Libertarian direction from the exact center of the grid. I’m surprised.

    • Interesting, but don’t assume that being in the middle is a good thing! You’re basically a teenage girl shopping for shoes with your parents’ money.

      I’m always near the top and just slightly to the left.

    • “Interesting, but don’t assume that being in the middle is a good thing!”
      Too true. However since that seems to be where I am, I’m going to argue that it represents pragmatism rather than a wishy-washy lack of principles 🙂

    • Ah, but you’re still ducking and dodging. ‘Pragmatism’ is more of an adjective than a ideology wouldn’t you say?

      Think of it this way: Isn’t everybody pragmatic when it comes down to it?

      It’s impossible not to be. For example, I consider myself to be a pragmatic anarchist. Some people consider themselves to be hardline anarchists, and some, individualist anarchists.

      We’ve all got adjectives to describe our anarchism, but we’re all anarchists nonetheless. You can’t tell us you are a ‘pragmatic pragmatist’.That’s taking the easy way out. I think if you take another look at Rick’s post you can find an ideology to place the ‘pragmatic’ label in front of. I have my suspicions about which of the three it is, but I want to see you ‘fess up Dr Amburgey!

    • Hmm. Using the three that Rick gives, I’d put the pragmatic in front of Liberal. How do you have me pegged?

    • I had you pegged as a Liberal (most Americans are, in one form or another), but I just don’t see you so close to the center in the Nolan Chart.

      I thought you’d be more libertarian.

    • The term “pragmatic” is interesting because it’s similar to “correct.” If you didn’t think you were correct, you wouldn’t hold your views. If you didn’t think your views were pragmatic you might just say “oh, but I’m a gentle-souled utopian!” but more likely you would establish some views you do believe are pragmatic.

  2. Great post. My initial reaction is to question why you would replace ‘socialism’ with ‘interventionism’.

    At first glance it seems like there is no reason to do this, but at the same time socialism has (rightly) become a term that is largely useless (either as an epithet to be hurled or as an attempt to be contrarian and intellectual).

    ‘Interventionism’ also seems like a tougher category than ‘socialism’. People can wiggle out of answering important questions associated with a term like ‘socialism’ (“that’s not what socialism is…”) but with ‘interventionism’ this is impossible to do. You either support government force on an issue or you don’t.

    Is this really the best category we have to use as a contrast to ‘liberalism’? Maybe the stark honesty of the term is what off-puts me.

    • The reason I don’t use the word Socialism is because essentially nobody is a Socialist anymore. Note that I’m using the clearly defined economists’ definition of socialism: state ownership of the means of production.

      Interventionism is a weaker sort of socialism. Property rights are bundles: I have the right to decorate my yard for Christmas, to exclude trespassers, etc., but I don’t have the right to open a factory, set off fireworks, etc.. Interventionism is state assumption of some rights (e.g. the state “takes away” my right to establish contracts where I pay workers $5/hr), but leaves other rights alone. It’s state ownership of *some* property rights over the means of production. Socialism is just a special case.

      To what extent is interventionism compatible with liberalism? It depends on your view of liberalism. Let me use a bit of econ-jargon: a legislated minimum wage is *non-binding* if it’s less than the lowest wage that exists. It’s meaningless to set a minimum wage of -$1,000/hr (“You’re not allowed to pay more than $1,000 for an hour of work experience!”… I would have said $0, but there are still school internships). Legislation against murder is an intervention but I would argue (as would most other anarchists) that it’s a *non-binding* intervention because it would be prohibited under anarchy anyways. But if it was binding, I think it would be fair to say that’s a liberal intervention. But the set of illiberal interventions is definitely not a null set.

Please keep it civil

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