Understanding the Difference Between Conservatism and Liberalism
We explain liberalism and conservatism, including the different social and classical types of liberalism and conservatism.
What are Liberalism and Conservatism?
Liberalism and its opposition philosophy conservatism are statements on human rights, liberties, and equality that can be thought to be based around the questions, “how much government control is necessary?”, “what natural rights do people have in nature and how does this relate to civil society” (the social contract), and “what is the purpose of government in civil society?”
If we had to offer broad definitions for each, we could say:
- Liberalism is a political philosophy based on the ideals of liberty and equality. Classical liberalism emphasizes the role of liberty (sometimes at the expense of social justice) and social liberalism stresses the importance of social equality (sometimes at the expense of favoring classical conservative “big government” and “state control” over classical liberalism). “Progressivism” is a social liberal ideology focused on social progress. See an essay on “what is liberalism?“
- Conservatism is any political philosophy that favors tradition. It can generally be understood as the opposition philosophy of classical liberalism and social liberalism. Classical conservatism (the opposite of classical liberalism) comes in a few forms, including: an authoritative form (such as the old absolute monarchies and “church states”), in different economic forms (such as where the government controls the economy), and in other various forms pertaining to religious, cultural, or nationally-defined beliefs and customs (when traditions, customs, and/or law and order are put before individual or collective liberty). Social conservatism meanwhile resists the social change and social programs favored by social liberalism, and in doing so it can often end up taking classically liberal positions pertaining to the use of government.
As you can see, each type can be split into classical and social types and one should take care to note that each term is only roughly defined and can change with philosopher, party, nation, and era. We explain all these details and more below.
TIP: It can be said that the classical types are the first types to arise and then the social types follow. This is true as far as them being articulated clearly in modern times or embraced by modern governments, however each type has roots that arguably stretch back to the start of recorded history, and it can be argued (as it is by Jefferson) that the types are simply an advent of naturally occurring aspects of the human condition manifesting as views on economics, politics, and the social structure. The ideologies are all responses to each other, but if you are looking for a starting point for modern political ideology (ignoring Aristotle – Livy – Machiavelli – Buchanan) the Age of Enlightenment is a good place to start.
Quick Overview of the Types of Liberalism and Conservatism
Now that we’ve given an overview, lets look at the classical and social types more carefully.
Taking into account all the detail above and below, the basic types of classical and social liberalism and conservatism can be defined as:
- Classical Liberalism: A rejection of kings and churches as central authority, people have individual rights and liberties based on the state of nature. The original liberalism. Ex. John Locke and Adam Smith. Beliefs: Pro free-speech, free-market, freedom of religion, etc.
- “Progressive” Social Liberalism: An evolution of classical liberalism that says state intervention is necessary to ensure social justice. It is “progressive” liberalism. Typically it champions “fair” or “mixed-market” economic individualism paired with social liberty. It is a more social version of classical liberalism, informed by the social aspects of socialism, but generally rejecting communism. Ex. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Maynard Keynes. Beliefs: Pro social safety net, otherwise a mix of classical liberal and classical conservatism.
- Classical Conservatism: Kings, churches, and social classes are necessary for maintaining strength and order. Ex. Thomas Hobbes and James VI. Beliefs: Pro order, hierarchy, and tradition.
- Social Conservatism: A rejection of social liberalism, socialism, and classical conservatism. Ex. Andrew Jackson and George C. Wallace. Beliefs: Anti-social programs, pro tradition.
Each type can be thought of as “a big tent” which contains many sub-types. Specifically, any of these can be conservative, moderate, progressive, or radical. Conservatives don’t want change, moderates are a middle ground, both progressives and radicals push for change, and their distinction is complex and semantic. Also ideologies can focus more on economics, like neoliberal and neocon, or more on social issues and central government, like socialism. We explore these complex types below.
TIP: This page is aims to use the historically accurate and accepted meanings of liberal and conservative with care to avoid opinion. The terms are hard to define, so make sure to compare and contrast definitions both on the page and between us and other sources.
A Summary of the Types of Liberalism and Conservatism
Above we gave the short version, below we examine the basic forms in more detail and describe more complex ideologies like neoliberalism, neoconservatism, socialism and libertarianism.
As broad comparative terms used in common language, liberal means “more left” (toward liberty and collectives) and conservative means “more right” (toward authority and individuals). See individualism vs. collectivism and the origin of the political left-right.
Beyond that broad definition, the terms Liberal and Conservative can be understood in these ways:
- Liberalism is an ideology that grew out of the Age of Reason as classic liberalism (individual rights, anti-authority; a rejection of Kings, humans have natural rights), and evolved into social liberalism (collective rights, pro-authority; a rejection of social injustice, authority and law are needed) in the mid-1800’s.
- Conservatism stands against both types of liberalism as classical conservatism (collective rights, pro-authority; Monarchy is the best system, revolution is wrong) and social conservatism (individual rights, anti-authority; anti-social justice and anti-big government; in modern times we can call this group paleocons).
- The classical version of each is concerned with authority, economics, and individual liberty.
- Meanwhile, the social version of each is concerned with social issues, including religious issues, social welfare, and the related size of government. This aspect of liberalism grows out of the school of Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and later thinkers like Marx; It should not be confused as only being comprised of radical forms of socialism, which are conservative and liberal mash-ups, like Stalin’s Communism or Hitler’s National Socialism.
- Socialism comes in many forms. Forms include Bernie Sander’s Democratic Socialism (socialism by vote, not force), the Labour party‘s socialism in Britain’s history (a worker focused hybrid of socialism and liberalism), and more.
- Straight Communism itself comes in many forms too. The main difference between socialism and communism is that socialism typically implies the creation of social programs (by any means), while communism implies a fully communist (not capitalist) economic system. There are as many forms of socialism as there are liberalism, and it is a mistake to see them all as the same or relate them directly to liberalism itself (especially to classical liberalism).
- Sometimes we have to consider economics on its own, as people often hold a different economic view than a political view. Types of economic liberalism and conservatism include Fiscal conservatism (pro-moderation in economics), Fiscal Liberalism AKA economic liberalism (pro-free-market in economics), Social market-ism (pro-state intervention in economics, but an otherwise free market; today new Keynesian or new neoclassical synthesis), and Communism (no free market, a pure Socialist economy; based off of Marx). See Mises’ take on free markets vs. social markets.
- The terms neoliberal and neoconservative the “third way” versions of liberalism and conservatism. They are similar ideologies focused on mostly-free-market globalization, each type erring on the side of its core liberal (global) or conservative (protectionist) ideology. In overly simple terms neoliberals are “establishment” liberals and neocons are “establishment” conservatives (thus they are more focused on major issues like military, trade, international relations, etc and not on social national issues). Learn more about neoliberalism and globalization and their opposition ideologies protectionism and nativism.
- Beyond economics, we can also consider any single issue (military, religion, women’s reproductive rights, voting rights) and describe a different liberal and conservative views and how progressive or radical those views are.
- As noted above, these terms can get another important qualifier that describes how quickly change is implemented. These include liberal, moderate, conservative, and progressive. A conservative social liberal may want change but compromise with social conservatives, while a radical progressive social liberal may take to the streets to demand change.
- In modern America, the major political parties hold mixed views, and liberal and conservative roughly denote the fact that Democrats are social liberals, classical conservatives, and are fiscally “social market” and Republicans are socially conservative, classically liberal, and fiscally liberal. No American political party is fiscally conservative, and the “social” debate often dominates politics (see Budget and Economic Data from the CBO and A Side-by-Side Comparison of the 2012 Democratic and Republic Party Platform Documents).
Beyond the above generalizations, the terms are complex and used a number of different ways depending on factors like country, period, and even the issue. Thus, they are best contrasted and compared in different contexts.
Below is an overview of the types of liberalism and conservatism.
First, a worthwhile video on the 19th century “-isms” from Tom Richey’s YouTube channel (arguably the best non-PBS affiliated political science youtube channel outside of Hip Hughes’ YouTube channel which we also use below).
19th Century Isms (AP European History). I think Tom Richey’s YouTube channel is a gem, he doesn’t tell the whole story we do below, but this video (and Tom’s channel) pairs well with this page (like the other videos below).
TIP: For more reading see left vs. right (which explains the authority and the individual vs. collective paradigm) and the social contract (a philosophical concept on which western governments are based that describes the basic government types).
The Types of Liberalism and Conservatism
Liberal means “more left” moving toward liberty and collective. Conservative means “more right” moving toward authority and individuals. Each group has liberal, moderate, conservative, and progressive factions. We can summarize liberalism (classical liberalism, social liberalism), and conservatism (classical conservatism, social conservatism) like this:
- Liberalism: As a general term is the political ideology of the enlightenment, thus it champions values of liberty, progress, science, tolerance, wisdom, and fraternity (as Kant explains for instance), but specifically as a Locke-style ideology opposes absolute authority and the Divine Right of Kings. The favored forms of government are Republican (laws and elected officials) and Direct Democracy.
- Classical Liberalism: Individual rights and individual authority. Limited state authority, based on a social contract and how man lived in the state of nature. The Bill of Rights is a classical liberal document; the American Revolution was a classical liberal revolution. This ideology is largely based on John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and Adam Smith’s economics but also includes later radical liberal ideology like Mises and Hayek. Tends to favor a laissez-faire ideology.
- Social Liberalism: Collective rights and [necessarily] joint authority. Increased state power, based on the alleged abuses of the Barons like slaveholders, factory owners, etc. In hindsight, it also sometimes stands against corruption in the state. Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ are social liberals. The socioeconomic ideology ranges from Keynes to Marx. Social liberalism realizes government with its money, power, and order is needed to ensure liberty, progress, science, tolerance, wisdom, and fraternity. It tends to support globalism. TIP: Social liberalism is not socialism and it is not liberalism. See John Maynard Keynes’ 1925 essay Am I a Liberal? for insight into this ideology. Keynes rejects conservatism and socialism, and pokes fun at radicals, yet he can’t bring himself to say he is a liberal (at the time meaning a mostly classical liberal and specifically referencing the British Liberal party of 1925)… this is because Keynes is one of the fathers of the then unnamed “social liberalism” (specifically he is the father of economic social liberalism).
- Conservatism: As a general term, conservatism opposes liberalism. Initially, conservatism meant supporting hereditary princes, order, and churches (the State and the Divine Right of Kings; or at least absolute monarchy). Despite its roots, it changed with the times. When it opposed classical liberalism, it was for collective rights and [necessarily] collective authority for order, not typically for progressive social values. When it opposed social liberalism it was for individual rights and individual authority and order, but not typically for progressive social values. It often took the stance of social liberalism fighting against corruption in the state or of classical liberalism pushing for deregulation. King George III, Alexander Hamilton, Winston Churchill, and Eisenhower are all types of conservatives.
- Traditional Classical Conservatism opposes classical liberalism. The more authority people want, the more conservative they tend to be. Conservatism is also concerned with how many people get a say, the fewer people, the more conservative the stance. This type of conservatism prefers order to anarchy; it is much less concerned with social issues than its counterpart. The goal is order and power.
- Social conservatism opposes social liberalism. It is concerned with how progressive we are about social issues; more progressive is less conservative. The primary goal of social conservatism changes from issue to issue, but it is typically concerned with social issues and spending to support social welfare. It can be prejudice and nativist in a bad light but is also a push toward tradition.
Also, In America modern liberals and conservatives believe:
- Modern American Liberals (social liberals, neoliberals, and classical conservatives) believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Liberal policies emphasize the need for the government to solve problems. (i.e. today’s American liberals, AKA Democrats, are social liberals. They are economically classical liberals regarding trade, but conservative in favoring central authority).
- Modern American Conservatives (classical liberals, neocons, and social conservatives) believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their goals. Conservative policies emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. (i.e. today’s American conservatives, AKA Republicans, are classical liberals concerning deregulation and individual and states’ rights, but social conservatives in their favoring authority to implement policies like religious laws).
TIP: When we say Republicans are classical liberals we mean in economics and individual rights. We mean the anti-authority aspect, not the peace, love, science, and fraternity aspect that became social liberalism. For reference, the American Confederate South in the Civil War are classical liberals and social conservatives. Likewise, most Democrats aren’t classical conservatives in their favoring authority to enforce social justice. Some radical progressives might not favor authority, and some compassionate conservatives might embrace social programs, but remember, we are describing whole parties, not individual beliefs, which are almost always mixed.
TIP: If your ideology has “liber-” in it, it is a form of liberalism. For example, Libertarianism is classical liberalism informed by American conservatism. All American political parties are “liberal” to some extent. Democrats are liberal-conservative social liberals who are “right-wing” in terms of authority being needed to ensure social justice. Republicans are liberal-conservatives, classic liberals and social conservatives, who are “right-wing” in terms of social justice. Authority is needed to limit social justice and ensure tradition. Unless we want to revert to Hobbes and ask the Royal Line to take us back, we will continue to have aspects of liberalism in America (like we always have had). Likewise, unless we want to live in a pure state of nature, we will have aspects of order, authority, and general conservatism.
In summary, we can summarize classical liberalism, social liberalism, and conservatism like this:
Classic Liberalism (1650’s – mid 1800’s) = Individual Rights. These are the right to a fair trial, the separation of church and state, freedom to worship, no indentured servitude, no cruel and unusual punishments, free-trade, and the separation of government powers and the right to life, liberty, and ownership of property.
- Comes from: The Enlightenment, England’s Glorious Revolution, and later the French and American revolutions.
- Ends With: The use of state power in the mid-1800’s (think Lincoln). It doesn’t end, but social liberalism begins, and that increasingly makes classical liberalism conservative by comparison.
- Centered classical liberals include American and English Whigs, American Federalists, French Girondins, and modern free-market Democrats and libertarian-conservatives.
- Radical classic liberals include “New” “Radical” English Whigs, Anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, French Jacobins, and modern Pure Objectivist Mises-like Libertarians. The French “Reign of Terror” was a radical classical liberal revolution.
What is a Liberal?
What is a Libertarian?
Social Liberalism (Mid 1800’s – Today) = Collective Rights: This is liberalism informed by socialism (not just pure socialism like Communism, or even socialism informed by liberalism, it is liberalism first). No slavery for any class (Locke opposed slavery, but it continued until the mid 1800’s in the west anyway), social welfare, worker’s rights, women’s rights, minority rights, state-intervention in the private market for the public good, policing in the name of liberty and Democracy. Can include things like healthcare, education, food, and housing as human rights. When social liberalism uses central authority, even if it is for the power of good, it has aspects of being “right-wing” (as by definition more authority = right)…. Remember, classical liberalism is literally rebellion against authority. Social libearlism keeps the science and fraternity, but drops the small government aspect.
- Comes from: Lincoln, Marx, and a response to the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age (see the People’s Party and William Jennings Bryan).
- Ends with: Hitler, Stalin, prohibition, and the great depression, which was a warning shots of sorts showing the dangers of central control; it doesn’t end, but it is reeled in.
- Centered Social Liberals include Lincoln, the Roosevelt’s, Wilson, the Clinton’s, and Obama.
- Radical Social Liberals include The far-left hippies, protestors, and such. These include communists like Lenin and Marx and also Communists like Stalin.
What is a Socialist?
Conservatism: It opposes classic or social liberalism. If people want to go back to a different time or are adverse to progressive change, they are conservative. Conservatism often denotes being “right wing” meaning favoring individuals over a group and favoring authority, but since it is almost always a relative term, this is often not true. If one went back to a time when there was less central control, they would appear to have “leftist” views for instance.
- When conservatism opposes liberalism: It favors churches and Kings and hereditary power, it favors order. The American Federalists were conservative liberals, and the Anti-Federalists were radical liberals. They were both liberals; one was more conservative. In the American Revolution, the loyalists were conservative, and all the founders and patriots were radicals, even those who went on to become federalists.
- When conservatism opposes social liberalism (or socialism): It favors classical liberalism or a more traditional conservatism of order, or economics, or social issues. A social conservative opposes changes like LGBT rights and might want to impose religious law or anti-immigration measures. However, when conservatism opposes social liberalism it mostly takes a classical liberal stance and opposes taxes, central authority, and state control (and in this way only, it is a left-wing ideology).
- Centered Conservatives include the Old Whigs and moderate Tories in England, and sometimes America, and the Clevelands and Eisenhowers of the world. We can call these figures liberal-conservatives.
- Radical Conservatives include conservative Southern Democrats of Lincoln’s era or Republicans of the modern era, traditional Tories, some more conservative “neocons” “neoliberals” or crony capitalists. Especially included in this group are the authoritative religious right.
What is a Conservative?
Fascism is a hybrid of radical conservatism and radical social liberalism. It includes Stalin’s “Big C” Communism and movements like National Socialism (socialism for some, death to the rest). It is radically authoritative despite its social liberal aspects. This type of right-wing/left-wing government is called “Fascism.”
Fascism Explained: World History Review. Was Hitler a Liberal or conservative or socialist? He was all three, and an authoritative right-wing tyrant who dragged the good name of western democracy through the mud. He is left in some ways, right in others. It is hard to grasp, but it is the case. Before liberalization in the late 1600’s, there was a constant war between Kingdoms. Hitler returned to the old ways with new technology. Any ideology can revert to this sort of authoritative fascism.
TIP: See liberalism and conservatism as political parties, or see them compared to the terms progressive and moderate. Also see the history of liberalism, the history of human rights documents, and the origin of left and right.
- Conservative vs. Liberal
- Conservatism Versus Liberalism: Does Philosophy Really Matter?
- Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs
- History of Socialism
- Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs
"Understanding Liberalism and Conservatism" is tagged with: Abraham Lincoln, American Politics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, John Maynard Keynes, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Liberty, United States of America