Over the past few centuries, the notions and flavors of conservatism and liberalism have become confused and conflated. The American Revolutionaries, for example, were contemporary liberals, while their adversaries the Tories (or British Loyalists) were conservatives. Today’s conservatives, on the other hand, embrace the American Revolutionaries, whereas today’s liberals probably would necessarily have embraced neither. Since these definitions have been lost in translation, this article will attempt to annotate a brief history of true conservatism and other similar and/or competing ideologies.
Classical liberalism was an 18th-19th century philosophy of general antipathy toward the state which argued for free markets, individual liberty, and natural law. “Liberal” in this historic definition is similar to “liberate” – from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”. This ideology espoused rebellion against authoritarianism in the manner of John Locke, along with the total laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith. It held a general distrust of governments in light of historical erosions of civil liberties.
Conservatism (in the United States) is in practice a far cry from classical liberalism, though oratorically it is very similar. Mainstream modern conservatism pays lip service to the notion of limited, Constitutional government, but in fact many conservatives only espouse limited government in the areas they choose. Many of today’s so-called conservatives are now pro-big-military, pro-social-intervention, pro-power-state. This clearly contradicts the “limited government” rhetoric; whereas today’s liberals want big government for social programs, today’s conservatives want big government in other places.
Neoconservatism evolved as a result of progressives (Democrats) who, beginning in the 1970s and 80s, infiltrated the conservative (Republican) party in an attempt to shift it to the left on the political scale. Some of their main goals were increased foreign interventionism in defense of Israel and expansion of welfare programs, all in the name of conservatism. They were overwhelmingly successful. 9/11 was the spark that really lit the fire, when Bush declared that the United States should seek to promote liberal democracy around the world as cause for invading Iraq.
Paleoconservatism, on the other hand, is much more consistent on limited, Constitutional government. Paleoconservatives often tend to be religious and carry strong moral sentiments, but being aware of the “slippery slope” are more leery of advocating state intervention into many of these social and moral strata.
Libertarianism evolved as a contemporary approach to classical liberalism, and is sometimes called neo-classical liberalism or neoliberalism. This school of thought was revived by more modern intellectuals and Austrian economists such as Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and Friedman. The term “libertarian” is typically associated with the United States, as similar movements around the world are known under different labels. It is characterized by a fundamental belief in liberty, and all its tenets flow from that point. Libertarians and paleoconservatives share a lot of common ground, but the former is antithetical to the latter’s preference for state-imposed social conservatism.
The Founding Fathers would be thought of at the time as classical liberals. In today’s terms, this would make them libertarian. Those who insist on invoking the Founding Fathers need to get consistent on their philosophy and embrace real libertarianism. Otherwise they are just regurgitating some flavor of neo- or faux conservatism. If only they knew what is often said and done in their name, the Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their individual (not collective) graves.
Many of these terms were also discussed in one of my previous posts, ideological definitions.
Recommended reading: dissertation on liberalism.