Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

Conserving Liberalism?

James Madison and Barney Frank—liberals old and new (Roman Genn)
Conservatism, modern liberalism, and classical liberalism: a symposium

That conservatism rejects much of contemporary liberalism is clear enough. Yet many conservatives speak favorably of “liberal democracy” and its defense. Indeed, they sometimes seem to speak this way more than contemporary liberals do. They use the word “illiberal,” meanwhile, to describe many of the ideas and policies they oppose. Some of those typically labeled “conservatives” go so far as to call themselves “classical liberals.” The implication of these usages seems to be that conservatism may stand in friendlier relation to older forms of liberalism.

We posed to four eminent political thinkers the question: Should American conservatism be understood as a branch of liberalism, in that liberal institutions and a liberal society are what it chiefly aims to conserve? Their answers appear below.


Orthodox contemporary liberalism, the liberalism of Teddy Kennedy and Barney Frank, combines statist social and economic policies with a fierce commitment to lifestyle libertarianism. An earlier strain of liberalism, embodied by Franklin D. Roosevelt, embraced the statism without the lifestyle libertarianism. In its full flower (think of Hubert Humphrey), this form was strongly committed to civil rights — true civil rights, not “civil rights” as a euphemism for lifestyle libertarianism — and to their advancement through national governmental power. More venerable yet is the “old-fashioned liberalism” of Madison and Tocqueville. No mere relic of the past, it counts many contemporary conservatives among its adherents.

Old-fashioned liberalism embraces neither statism nor libertarianism, whether in social and economic policy or on lifestyle issues. Though it insists on constitutional checks on government to protect honorable liberties and the integrity of the family and other institutions of civil society, it does not regard government as an evil. Rather, it understands well-functioning and limited government as indispensable to the common good. While principle dictates government involvement in some matters and forbids it in others, old-fashioned liberalism emphasizes the prudential nature of most policy judgments concerning the regulation of markets or morals. Though they reject unprincipled pragmatism, old-fashioned liberals prize moderation and caution in the vast range of political decision-making that is not determined by principles alone.

What do old-fashioned liberals support? Religious freedom and other basic human rights; political equality and equality of opportunity; constitutional democracy, wherever possible; the rule of law; limited but effective government; a flourishing civil society (including a healthy marriage-and-family culture, vibrant religious communities, and civic associations); personal responsibility; and the market economy, regulated to function for the common good. 

Central to old-fashioned liberalism is a belief in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. Thus old-fashioned liberals are called conservatives in an age in which not only statism but also abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, and even eugenics are promoted as progressive causes. Many old-fashioned liberals are Christians or Jews; though prepared to defend their views without appeal to religious authority, they find the scriptural articulation of their core ethical-political commitment in the teaching of Genesis that man is made in God’s image and likeness. 

How is old-fashioned liberalism liberal? It emerged in opposition to European “throne and altar” conservatism, with its monarchism, corporatism, political inequalities, and indifference or hostility to religious freedom and other basic civil liberties and rights. This brand of conservatism was never salient in America. Our conservatives have respected religion and tradition. But they have rightly regarded freedom of religion as necessary for faith’s flourishing in modern conditions, and the traditions they have sought to preserve favor constitutionalism, the rule of law, civil liberties, the market economy, limited government, personal responsibility, and civic order and virtue.

Many contemporary conservatives were once Humphrey-type liberals; some — including Mary Ann Glendon, Leon and Amy Kass, and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus — were themselves civil-rights activists. It was their commitment to human dignity that led them both into the civil-rights movement and then out of the liberal fold when lifestyle libertarianism became liberal orthodoxy. They did not change their fundamental beliefs; what changed was what counted as liberal. And while remaining loyal to the causes of civil rights and equal opportunity, they came to believe that big-government economic and social policies failed to help, and often actually hurt, their intended beneficiaries by, for example, eroding the sense of personal responsibility and by undermining the marriage culture, thus entrenching the poverty against which great civil rights–era liberals such as Humphrey proposed to wage war.

Old-fashioned liberals can make common cause with contemporary libertarians against statist policies now being advanced by President Obama and the Reid-Pelosi Congress. In some cases, however, the old-fashioned liberal critique will differ in important ways from the libertarian critique. The former will often focus on considerations of prudence, not principle (though prudential judgments are often shaped by underlying principled commitments). Where libertarians see a threat to the individual’s freedom to do as he pleases, the old-fashioned liberal may see a threat to the autonomy of the family, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society. This will likely be true of debates over health care, education, and taxation.

On lifestyle issues, cooperation with strict libertarians will be more limited. But a significant minority of libertarians are pro-life, and many oppose (for good libertarian reasons) government sex-education programs and population policies.

Opportunities for cooperation with orthodox contemporary liberals are fewer. The Obama administration and Congress seem determined to advance the causes of abortion and embryo-destructive research, and their social and economic policies would shift authority and resources from families and private enterprises to the government.

Indeed, Obama, Reid, and Pelosi represent contemporary liberal orthodoxy in its purest distillation. Carter, Clinton, and previous Democratic congressional leaders cannot begin to compare. It is as if the country were being run by Ivy League faculty. In fact, strike the “as if.”

So old-fashioned liberals will likely have little choice but to oppose the Obama administration and Congress at virtually every turn, for contemporary liberal orthodoxy is the antithesis of the old-fashioned liberal brand of conservatism.

– Mr. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society. He is the founder of the American Principles Project (


Should American conservatism be understood as a branch of liberalism, in that liberal institutions and a liberal society are what it chiefly aims to conserve?

From its earliest days, American conservatism has wrestled with the irony that the tradition that is ours to defend is a liberal one. In a nation that was founded by self-described revolutionaries, that declared its independence in the most eloquent and radical testament to liberal ideals ever written, and that prides itself on liberal institutions and principles, should conservatives defend the liberal order or argue for a different path? Neither option seems especially conservative.

But this is neither a debilitating paradox for conservatives nor a peculiarly American dilemma. Anglo-American conservatism — as opposed to the blood, throne, and altar traditionalism of some continental Europeans — has always been a branch of liberalism properly understood, and has therefore been locked in conflict with more radical liberals over the character and future of the liberal society.

The great 18th-century English statesman Edmund Burke, a father of modern conservatism, described this conflict at its outset. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace, Burke argues that in the wake of the French Revolution there were no longer Whigs or Tories in English politics — parties divided essentially on the question of the prerogatives of the monarch and the parliament. Instead, two new parties would take the stage and define the politics of free societies from then on. He called them a party of conservation and a party of Jacobinism, and both were, in a sense, liberal. The question between them was whether liberalism was a way of life or a means to a rational politics; whether it was an end or a beginning for political thought; whether it was defined by its principles in their purity or by its practice, with its exceptional capacity for putting up with diversity, messiness, and uncertainty.

We might say, therefore, that the two parties of modern liberal societies are a party of conservative liberals, who seek to secure the liberal society as a product of countless generations of gradual social and political evolution, and a party of progressive liberals, who seek to go beyond liberalism by using liberal principles to enact a complete break with the past and achieve a politics of rational control.

In this sense, modern conservatism has always been liberal, and there is nothing self-contradictory about the fact that American conservatives are the defenders of classical liberalism in America. There is also nothing terribly surprising about the way in which the modern Left, in its effort to go beyond liberalism, has often undermined and attacked liberalism. This is sometimes hidden from view by our political terminology: The effort to “progress” beyond liberalism has come to be called “liberalism” in our politics, while the effort to treasure and defend the liberal order has come to be called “conservatism.”

Part of the reason for this is that, as conservatives know, liberalism even at its best is not self-contained. It is not an expression of our nature (as radical liberals once argued, and progressives now implicitly assume), but is, on the contrary, a fragile edifice erected by means of a massive cultural undertaking to channel the lesser angels of our nature toward decent ends. This means that liberalism feeds on roots, and rests upon foundations, that are decidedly illiberal: It depends upon the family, upon the Judeo-Christian moral order, and upon the Western cultural tradition. It can survive and thrive only when it rests on these; if its connections to them are lost, and liberal principles are taken to be themselves the foundation of a new order, we will lose not only our traditions but liberalism itself. The result, as Burke knew and as revolutionaries ever since his day have demonstrated, is decidedly illiberal and ugly. 

It is this vision of liberalism as one crucial element of our larger inheritance — an inheritance to be treasured, protected, and refined — that conservatives defend. This means that we are liberals with an awareness of the prerequisites of liberalism: liberals who defend the liberal society as well as the family, religion, and the Western tradition against liberals who see liberalism as a rejection of those earlier ways of life and a means of building an entirely new order that has no place for them.

The mission of conservatism is thus a demanding one: to defend liberalism from its own excesses and to build on its strengths. Conservatives therefore face a complicated challenge, but recognize that thus is the human condition.

– Mr. Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.


American conservatism is devoted to conserving the American republic. Since the American republic is commonly classified as a “liberal” regime, the question of this symposium almost seems to answer itself: Conservatism today serves liberalism. (“Liberalism” in this context refers to its original 18th-century variety, meaning a limited government whose chief aim is to secure individual rights, rather than the modern variety, meaning a positive state that seeks to establish “social justice.”)

Yet it is mistaken to think of conservatism as merely a branch or subsidiary of liberalism. Conservatism may serve liberalism, but it often does so in ways that original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And this it does for liberalism’s good. Liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism, while endorsing so much of liberalism, recognizes and satisfies this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away. In fact it has already begun to do so.

Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, they are in full accord with the original liberals. Modern liberals, by contrast, are suspicious of metaphysical truths, advertising themselves as pragmatists while hiding their values behind the process of change.

Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation. The nation is necessary for security, for the activities of the common political life, and even for the welfare of humanity in general. What entity other than the nation-state, after all, defends us, enacts our laws, and provides for the well-being of many beyond its authority? Conservatism not only recognizes the rational case for the nation but leaves space for justifiable feelings of attachment to it, acknowledging that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend. 

Original liberalism was also a friend of the nation and developed such ideas as sovereignty. But it had difficulty from the first in articulating what the nation-state was beyond a contract, and it could never make full sense of feelings of attachment to it, allowing them therefore to develop unregulated. Modern liberalism, by contrast, has grown increasingly uneasy about the nation. It considers patriotism an anachronism and promotes global citizenship and global studies as replacements for American citizenship and education in our own political tradition.

Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the biblical religions, which have been the major source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence. Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principles of freedom of religion, nonestablishment, and religious tolerance. But they see no contradiction (why should they?) between holding these principles and promoting reasonable measures — whether these concern immigration, fiscal policy, or education — that seek to preserve the central place of the biblical religions in our culture. Original liberal theory was sometimes cool to religion, failing to acknowledge how much liberal society was borrowing from the storehouse of religious capital. As for modern liberalism (setting aside the important faction that is hostile to biblical religions), it has taken the legal norm of religious freedom and twisted it into a new ideal of neutrality among faiths — an ideal reflected in President Obama’s proclamation that America is not “a Christian nation.”

Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting “the tradition,” which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence. Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principle of equality of rights, but they do so in no small part in order to allow for the emergence of inequalities and excellences. The tradition also provides a theoretical basis for a hierarchy of standards, which gives conservatives the confidence to criticize the vulgarity that pollutes any society and runs rampant in ours. Original liberalism often had the same inclinations — Jefferson spoke of a “natural aristocracy” — but it engaged too easily in attacks on the classics and, in its rationalist exuberance, went too far in elevating utility at the expense of nobility. Modern liberalism, in its focus on compassion, has had difficulty openly supporting and rewarding excellences. It has also allied itself culturally with relativism, which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought. Relativism makes it harder to support standards except those that touch on equality or diversity. Above all, in our universities, modern liberalism has pushed aside the “old books” in order to make room for diversity and identity politics.

Conservatism is the home today for the few remaining full proponents of original liberalism. It is also the home for those friends of liberalism who believe that liberalism’s defense requires something more than itself. The combination of these different strands of thought within the same movement produces tensions, but it is also a source of the movement’s great creativity. That creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the clearest and simplest principles, but rather in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. It is above all by acknowledging this fact that today’s conservatism is no mere branch of liberalism.

– Mr. Ceaser is a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of, among other books, Liberal Democracy and Political Science and Nature and History in American Political Development.


Should American conservatism be understood as a branch of liberalism, in that liberal institutions and a liberal society are what it chiefly aims to conserve?

It depends, as a notorious (and liberal) ex-president might say, on what the meaning of “liberalism” is. In its original sense, liberalism refers to the qualities of the free man (homo liber), who is not a slave to someone else or even to his own passions and interests, and who has acquired the habits and virtues, the courtesy and generosity, pertaining to a gentleman (homo liberalis). In this sense, liberalism culminates in the liberal arts.

American conservatism seeks to rally free men to defend themselves against servitude and to live happily and morally, and to that extent is a proud branch of this noble liberalism. 

In a narrower sense, of course, liberalism means the political and economic doctrines from the 17th century onward that strive to protect the free man and his virtues against contemporaneous threats. Primarily, this means protecting him from governments grown powerful with the fruits of modern science and despotic with the ambitions of perverted religion and ideology. But here one encounters many varieties of liberalism, not all of them sound. John Stuart Mill’s version rejects all notions of natural right and social contract in favor of a renovated utilitarianism that, though not his father’s utilitarianism, cannot do justice to justice. Hegel’s account of liberalism as the final truth of the historical process celebrates the modern state as the apotheosis of freedom and the ethical life, a claim whose credibility diminishes in proportion to one’s experience of the modern state. Neither of these liberalisms is what conservatism is seeking to conserve.

Nor is latter-day liberalism, that strange mixture of Hegel’s statism with Mill’s fondness for experimental lifestyles. Neither man is responsible for the unlovely combination that has resulted, but each might have had some second thoughts had he seen it. Moral anarchy and political collectivism make strange bedfellows — but then there are a lot of strange bedfellows in today’s liberalism!

With the liberalism of America’s Founders, however, we come to the species that American conservatives are, or at least ought to be, laboring to conserve. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are its literary monuments, supplemented by The Federalist, the ratification debates, and other words and deeds of the Founders. As a doctrine, natural rights and the social contract stand at its center, drawn from John Locke but interpreted through Americans’ common sense and Christianity, and brought to life by the profound prudence of statesmen like James Madison and George Washington. 

Conservatism rightly serves this liberalism — though not doctrinairely, because Americans possess a character as well as a doctrine. Proclaiming, rightly, that “all men are created equal,” the U.S. became a republican example to mankind. Yet the U.S. Constitution was fashioned, in the preamble’s words, for “ourselves and our Posterity” alone. Guided by universal principle, the Founders molded a people with its own history, character, and destiny.

For libertarians, the temptation is to play up the universal principles and forget about the particulars, to reduce America to its liberal principles and forget about the politics and culture required. But liberty is about self-government, not merely limiting the powers of government, important as that is. For traditionalists, the temptation is to cry up the particulars and forget about, or even deny, the universal principles. But prudence looks both to universals and to particulars, mediating between them. Without a proper respect for each, conservatism will neglect the true genius of our institutions and our country.

Part of our task, then, is to prize and preserve both aspects of the country’s distinctiveness. We are alive to the American past and want our children to learn to love it in turn, with all its baseness, greatness, and contingency — standing lessons in human nature’s variability and utopia’s false promises. The adventurous spirit of our entrepreneurs and explorers deserves to be honored and encouraged. What Madison called “veneration” and “reverence” for the Constitution remain vital to our common life, too. Nor can conservatives forget God’s role in the American story (or perhaps I should say our role in His story).

America is about liberalism in the healthy but narrow sense, yet it’s about more than that. Our character and love of freedom reflect as well the original, more comprehensive sense of the term, even when, as often happens, we fall short of it. A genuinely American conservatism applauds the best of liberalism while refusing to march behind the soiled banners of today’s illiberal liberals. 

– Mr. Kesler is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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