One of the great choices in life is between conservatism and liberalism. .
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.
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).