Defining conservatism and liberalism in 2012

Lots of labels are being bandied about in this presidential election year. Two of the most commonly uttered and most basic to the American political environment are “conservative” and “liberal.” What does each mean in the context of 2012?

Part two of this two-part series by Transylvania University political scientist Don Dugi focuses on the term “American liberal.”

Since the majority of the presidential primaries are done, the focus will be shifting to the general election this fall. A lot, perhaps most, of the “discourse” will focus on the differences between liberals and conservatives. While conservatism has been discussed earlier, it is appropriate to ask what constitutes liberalism.

The roots for modern liberals as well as libertarian conservatism are found in classical liberal thought. (As to the latter, yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism.) Indeed, coupled with capitalism, classical liberalism is the basis for the political ideology of the United States. Liberalism was the first modern ideology and facilitated the transition from feudal to commercial societies. Early iterations in the 17th century met with great resistance — witness the names attached to the movements, e.g., “Levellers,” which was a term of opprobrium coined by their opponents who wished to maintain a status society (obviously, this trend of liberals being defined by their opponents continues to color understanding of the term). Liberalism was born of the need to re-conceptualize the individual in society and society itself. For John Locke and most liberal thinkers, the political community is the product of human construction (artificial, created by the “social contract”), which is established on the basis of equal freedom and whose primary purpose is to maximize the well-being of individuals. So the first wave of liberalism was aimed at securing political and economic liberty.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some liberals (labeled “reform liberals”) began to argue for social or moral liberty — witness Thomas Jefferson on religion: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes on Virginia, Query 17), or John Stuart Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” (On Liberty). Subsequently, the fractures in liberalism occurred on its two key concepts, freedom and equality. The older version equated liberty with property rights. In the second half of the 19th century in the United States, a radical conflation of this view of liberty coupled with a rewriting of the capitalist notion of “freedom of enterprise” into “free enterprise” resulted in a laissez-faire attitude toward government, a departure from John Locke and Adam Smith, who both saw a legitimate role for government. This reformulation of liberalism followed from the work of Herbert Spencer, which laid the base for social Darwinism and valorization (and validation) of the so-called “robber barons” of the late 19th century. It became the enabling ideology for the industrial revolution in the United States. It is radical because the notion of equal liberty was abandoned. It is this version that underpins libertarian conservatism.

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