The Corner

Politics & Policy

Liberalism, Conservatism, and the End of History

F. A. Hayek (Wikimedia Commons)

As part of its 175th-anniversary celebration, The Economist has a very interesting, and mostly very good, essay in defense of liberalism (the kind The Economist was founded to promote and defend). In it they write:

Liberalism emerged in the late 18th century as a response to the turmoil stirred up by independence in America, revolution in France and the transformation of industry and commerce. Revolutionaries insist that, to build a better world, you first have to smash the one in front of you. By contrast, conservatives are suspicious of all revolutionary pretensions to universal truth. They seek to preserve what is best in society by managing change, usually under a ruling class or an authoritarian leader who “knows best”.

An engine of change

True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression.

The Economist is based in England, of course. And because we are separated by a common language, as Churchill put it, the connotations of many of their words are slightly different than our own. They are also speaking to a global audience, and, in many countries, “liberal” doesn’t need the modifier “classical” or even “neo.” So I have no strong objection to this phrasing. Indeed, when liberalism first emerged in Britain and Europe, it’s main adversary was conservatism. Those who wanted to conserve the rule of throne and altar opposed this new idea called “liberalism.” Here’s how Friedrich Hayek put it in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative”:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism.

After the rise of socialism and the retreat of monarchical and clerical rule, liberalism became, in effect, the new conservatism in that it took on the mantle of the status quo. And this is where I quibble with The Economist’s line-drawing, at least for an American audience. As I recently discussed on my podcast with Hayek scholar Peter Boettke, Hayek’s liberalism wasn’t inconsistent with American conservatism. The above quote continues:

There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called ‘liberalism’ was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.

So when The Economist says that liberals differ from conservatives because liberals “assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression,” I feel like saying, “You talkin’ to me?” because I agree with that entirely.

In his recent blunderbuss attack on me (I responded in the latest Goldberg File), R. R. Reno heaps scorn on my contention that we are at the “end of history” and is outraged by my contention that any backpedaling from liberalism is reactionary. But Reno pays no heed to the context of that claim. My point was that if you consider the bedrock principles of liberalism — that we are all equal in the eyes of God and government, that we have inalienable rights, that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, etc. — then any movement away from those principles is not progress forward but retreat backward. And, as I argue at length in my book, any argument or movement that asserts we can leapfrog past this dogma is a sign of civilizational corruption. Here’s how Calvin Coolidge put it in his Fourth of July speech:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers. [Emphasis mine]

In America, this fundamentally liberal view is also fundamentally conservative. The liberalism of Hayek and The Economist is not fundamentally at odds with the conservatism of Burke or Coolidge, both advocates of reform. It nonetheless leaves ample room for all sorts of arguments about what the government can or cannot do to improve peoples lives and what the proper role for religion should be. But it forecloses, permanently, any compromise with these propositions. Reno and others can scoff, and The Economist can short shrift American conservatism, but I believe that Coolidge’s vision was not only correct, but that it lays at the very heart of the conservative project. And, as far as I am concerned, if you disagree you are, indeed, a reactionary.


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