Liberal conservatism

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This article is about the political philosophy. For the Canadian political party, see Liberal-Conservative Party.

Liberal conservatism is a political ideology combining conservative policies with liberal stances, especially on economic and social issues.[1] or, better, a brand of conservatism strongly influenced by liberalism.

Overview, definitions and usage[edit]

As both "conservatism" and "liberalism" have had different meanings over time and across countries, the term "liberal conservatism" has been used with quite different meanings. It contrasts with classical liberalism and especially aristocratic conservatism, both rejecting the principle of equality as something in discordance with human nature, and emphasizes instead the idea of natural inequality. As conservatives in democratic countries have embraced typical liberal institutions such as the rule of law, private property, the market economy, and constitutional representative government, the liberal element of liberal conservatism became consensual outside of the socialist and social-democratic camp.

This consensus has been so complete in some countries (e.g. the United Kingdom and the United States) that the term "liberal conservatism" came to be understood simply as "conservatism" in popular culture,[2] prompting some conservatives who embraced more strongly classical liberal values to call themselves "libertarians".[3]

Nevertheless, the liberal-conservative tradition in the United States often combines the economic individualism of classical liberals with a Burkean form of conservatism that emphasizes the natural inequalities between men, the irrationality of human behavior as the basis for the embrace of traditional ethics, the human drive for order and stability, and the rejection of natural rights as the basis for government.[4] However, from a different perspective, American conservatism, a "hybrid of conservatism and classical liberalism", has exalted three tenets of Burkean conservatism, namely the diffidence toward the power of the state, the preference of liberty over equality and patriotism, while rejecting the three remaining tenets, namely loyalty to traditional institutions and hierarchies, scepticism regarding progress and elitism.[5] Consequently, in the United States the term "liberal conservatism" is not used and American modern liberalism is quite different from the European one.

For their part, European liberal conservatives, in their embracement of liberal and free-market principles, are clearly distinguishable from those conservatives who have embraced national-conservative views, more socially conservative stances and/or outright populism, let alone a right-wing populist posture.

In much of central and northwestern Europe, especially in Germanic and Protestantism-influenced countries, a divide between conservatives, including Christian democrats, and liberals persists. On the contrary, in those countries where liberal-conservative movements have more recently entered the political mainstream, such as Italy and Spain, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" may be understood as synonymous. Finally, in Latin America, economically liberal conservatism is often labelled under the rubric of neoliberalism both in popular culture and academic discourse.[6] Often this involves stressing free-market economics and the belief in individual responsibility together with the defense of civil rights, environmentalism, and support for a limited welfare state. Compared to traditional centre-right politics, such as those proposed by Christian democrats, liberal conservatism is less traditionalist and more right-libertarian economically, favouring low taxes and minimal state intervention in the economy.

In the modern European discourse, "liberal conservatism" usually encompasses centre-right political outlooks that reject, at least to some extent, social conservatism. This position is also associated with support for moderate forms of social safety net and environmentalism. In this sense, "liberal conservatism" has been expoused, for instance, by nordic conservative parties (the Moderate Party in Sweden, the Conservative Party in Norway and the National Coalition Party in Finland), which have seen right-wing populist parties emerge to their right and do not comprise Christian democrats who form separate parties, and the British Conservative Party under David Cameron, who, in an interview shortly after taking office as Prime Minister in 2010, said that he had always described himself as a "liberal conservative".[7] In his first speech to a Conservative Party's conference in 2006, Cameron had defined this as believing in individual freedom and human rights, but being skeptical of "grand schemes to remake the world."[8]

Classical conservatism and economic liberalism[edit]

Historically, in the 18th and 19th centuries, "conservatism" comprised a set of principles based on concern for established tradition, respect for authority, and religious values. This form of traditionalist or classical conservatism is often considered to be exemplified by the writings of Joseph de Maistre and Popes in the the post-Enlightenment age. Contemporaneous "liberalism" – now recalled as classical liberalism – advocated both political freedom for individuals and a free market in the economic sphere. Ideas of this sort were promulgated by John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who are respectively remembered as the fathers of classical liberalism, the separation of church and state, economic liberalism, utilitarianism and social liberalism.

The maxim of liberal conservatism, according to scholar Andrew Vincent, is "economics is prior to politics".[9] Others emphasize the openness of historical change and a suspicion of tyrannical majorities behind the hailing of individual liberties and traditional virtues, by authors such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville,[10] as the basis of current liberal conservatism, as seen both in the works of Raymond Aron and Michael Oakeshott, and the ideological outlook of centre-right parties. There is general agreement however, that the original liberal conservatives were those who combined conservative social attitudes with an economically liberal outlook, adapting a previous aristocratic understanding of natural inequalities between men to the rule of meritocracy – without, however, directly criticizing privileges of birth as long as individual liberties were guaranteed. Over time, the majority of conservatives in the western world came to adopt free-market economic ideas as the Industrial Revolution progressed and the aristocracy lost its power, to the extent that such ideas are now generally considered as part of conservatism. Nonetheless, in most countries the term "liberal" is used to describe those with free-market economic views. This is the case, for example, in continental Europe and Latin America.

A common principle for most liberal conservatives of Burkean extraction is a theory of collective human intellect. Over time, the argument goes, civilizations and groups develop a set of traditions, practices or customs that grow to solve certain problems of human existence. Conservatives argue that people should have a presumption in favour of such institutions, rather than changes to them. Institutions reflect the wisdom of the collective human intellect, whereas changes reflect reasoning or deduction by individuals or groups who are only exposed to contemporary problems. When individuals reason out new institutions from a set of first principles, a process conservatives called "social engineering", they will rarely best an institution that has grown from the collective intellect and has stood the test of time. Conservatives believe that institutions based on the collective human intellect, experience, and wisdom of many generations are more reliable. As a result, liberal conservatives often assume that collective traditions, practices, or customs are crucial to a moral life. Institutions are a set of rules guidelines, heuristics—a sort of script—for the leading a moral life.

Liberal conservative political parties[edit]

Current liberal conservative parties or parties with liberal conservative factions[edit]

Former liberal conservative parties or parties with liberal conservative factions[edit]

See also[edit]


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