Understanding Liberalism and Conservatism

Left-Right Chart Liberal Vs. Conservative

Liberalism vs. Conservatism: Understanding the Difference Between Conservatism and Liberalism

We explain liberalism and conservatism, including the different social and classical types of liberalism and conservatism.[1][2][3][4][5]

A Summary of Liberalism and Conservatism in their Classical, Social, and Economic Forms

In simple terms:

  • Liberalism, the ideology of liberty and equality (like classical democracy), is left-wing and comes in a classical form (favoring liberty), social form (favoring equality), and a few related economic forms. The economic forms then comes in two general flavors, classical liberal economics (liberty based economics and economic liberalism) and social liberal economics (equality based economics).
  • Conservatism, the ideology of authority, hierarchy, order, and tradition (like classical aristocracy), is right and comes in a classical form (favoring authority), social form (favoring hierarchy), and a few economic forms. Generally, the economic forms then comes in a three general flavors, classical conservative economics (favoring powerful and elite interests in the state), fiscally conservative economics (favoring austerity), and social conservative economics (favoring protectionist and nativist economic policies).

Although real life political groups tend to favor a specific mix of liberal and conservative positions that differ issue-by-issue, above is the basics of liberalism and conservatism as they exist philosophically, historically, and in modern times (with some semantics changing country-to-country).

With that basic summary of liberalism and conservatism in their different forms covered, below we will review the basics of liberalism and conservatism including their values and history, then we’ll compare the ideologies to the American political parties, then we will tie everything together with those basics in mind.

What are Liberalism and Conservatism? An Introduction.

To recover the summary above, but this time in more detail.

Liberalism, the left-wing ideology of liberty and equality (the Principles of Democracy), and its opposition philosophy conservatism, the right-wing ideology of authority and order, hierarchy, and tradition (the Principles of Monarchy / Aristocracy), are statements on human rights, social issues, economics, liberty and equality, and the role of government.

The Classical and Social Forms of Liberalism and Conservatisim

When liberty is favored we call it “classical liberalism“, when authority favored we call it “classical conservatism“, when equality is favored we call it “social liberalism“, and when hierarchy and inequality is favored we call it “social conservatism“.

In other words the classical forms consider positions on liberty and authority, and the social forms consider positions on social hierarchy and social equality.

Placing this all on some “left-right” tables (in the spirit of Aristotle) looks like this (see another way to express this here):

Sphere of political action Liberal Left-Wing The Left-Right Balance Conservative Right-Wing
Liberty Favoring Freedom (Classical Liberalism) Balanced Liberty Favoring Authority (Classical Conservatism)
Equality Favoring Collectives (Social Liberalism) Balanced Equality Favoring Individuals (Social Conservatism)

Or, to show the conservative perspective (both these charts say the same thing from different “frames of reference“):

SPHERE OF ACTION Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal The Liberal-Conservative Mean Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough
Authority Favoring Liberty Balanced Authority Favoring Authority
Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition Favoring Equality Balanced Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition Favoring Inequality (Social Hierarchy)

Putting it together, this time using the terms left and right, it looks like this:

Paradigms / Main Thesis LEFT: Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal The Left-Right Mean RIGHT: Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough
Liberty vs. Authority (“the liberty paradigm“) Favoring Liberty / Classically Liberal Balanced Liberty/Authority Favoring Authority / Classically Conservative
Equality vs. Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition (“the equality paradigm“) Favoring Social Equality (Collective Focused) / Socially Liberal Balanced Equality/Hierarchy Favoring Inequality (Individual Focused) / Socially Conservative

As you can see the tension between the classical and social forms creates four unique stances that can be held as an overarching ideology and/or per-issue.

Liberalism and Conservatism in the Economic Forms

From here we can also consider economic issues in terms of left-right politics and add a bit more complexity, like this:

Left-Right Paradigms / Main Thesis / Sphere of Action Left Thesis / Antithesis The Left-Right Mean Right Thesis / Antithesis
Liberty-Authority (Classical Political Left-Right) Liberty in Terms of Issues of State (like classical liberalism) Balanced Liberty-Authority Authority in Terms of Issues of State (like classical conservatism)
Equality-Hierarchy (Social Left-Right) Equality in Terms of Social Issues (like social liberalism) Balanced Equality-Hierarchy Social Hierarchy in Terms of Social Issues (like social conservatism)
Liberty-Authority (Classical Economic Left-Right) Liberty in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic classical liberalism) Balanced Economic Liberty-Authority Authority and Order in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic classical conservatism)
Equality-Hierarchy (Social Economic Left-Right) Equality in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic social liberalism) Balanced Economic Equality-Hierarchy Social Hierarchy and Tradition in Terms of Economic Issues (like economic social conservatism)

As you can see then, liberal and conservative are just names that denote general A…B stances on political issues.

Despite the simplicity, people have mixed views in real life, and there is a lot of complexities that arise from this. With that said, if you understand the basics, then the complexities are much easier to get. With that in mind, the next section will cover some values fundamental to each of our four identities.

TIP: If one were to balance Liberalism with Republicanism, and Democracy with Aristocracy, perhaps by separating historically overpowered powers, one would be expected to approach the “left-right mean” AKA correctness AKA balance. What a novel idea, why didn’t anyone think of… oh, wait. The philosophical point of the United States and the U.K. and the west in general. #ThanksLiberalism….

TIP: Liberal and conservative ideology can generally be thought to be based around questions like, “how much government control is necessary to ensure a just state”, “what natural rights do people have in nature and how does this relate to civil society and the law” (the social contract), “what is the purpose of government in civil society; should it be used in order to maximize equality or restrained in order to maximize liberty?

Understanding The Values of Classical and Social Liberalism and Conservatism

Above are the basics, below are some specific values of classical and social liberalism and conservatism.

  • Examples of Classical Liberal Values: Economic freedom, free trade, individual liberty, property rights, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial. They champion essential Human Rights (like those found in the Bill of Rights), but not necessarily at the cost of using too much governmental power.
  • Examples of Social Liberal Values: Equal pay for equal work, anti-slavery, women’s right to choose, LGBT rights, gender equality, healthcare as a right, pro-safety-net, anti-economic inequality, pro-globalism, fair-trade, pro-union, workers’ rights. They champion Universal Human Rights, even if that means “big government.” Social liberalism is closely related to “Progressivism“, but it is not “the same” as “Socialism” (although the two ideologies do share some planks).[6][7]
  • Examples of Classical Conservative Values: Economic planning, state-based trade, social and class-based hierarchy, no individual property rights, state-based religion, protectionist, nationalist, no separation of church and state, limited freedom of speech, limited freedom of assembly, no right to a fair trial. They stand against Human Rights not found essential to the state or social structure.
  • Examples of Social Conservative Values. Restrictions on immigration, a pushback against the social programs (of all types), decentralization of the federal policy, restoration of controls upon free trade, greater emphasis upon nationalism and isolationism, pro social hierarchy in terms of gender, ethnicity, and race. They stand against “big socially progressive government” (they are anti-social liberalism). Social conservatism is closely related to Paleoconservatism, but it is not “the same” as “Fascism” (although the two ideologies do share some planks).[8]

TIP: The terms liberal and conservative are essentially synonymous with the political left and right where liberal is left and conservative is right. Learn more about the political left and right.

Understanding the Modern American Liberal and Conservative Identities

Now that we have the basics down, it will help to understand how these relate to the modern American political parties that we confusingly call “liberal” and “conservative” (by understanding the American identities as an example, you’ll be able to better understand any global party).

The Liberal and Conservative Ideology of the “Big Tents” Democrat and Republican

The major U.S. parties are both “Big Tents” of different factions. Each “tent” consists of different ideological factions, who come together out of the need to win elections in a two-party system, but who have unique values and take different positions on voter-issues, but share some core ideology. With that in mind:

  • Generally speaking, modern American Republicans are classically liberal (in terms of some individual liberties), classically conservative (in terms of using state power), socially conservative (in terms of their position on social equality and social programs), but not socially liberal in most cases. Issue-by-issue their stance can change, but generally they tend to err toward social conservatism, and thus are a right-wing party.
  • Likewise, modern American liberals are classically liberal (in terms of some individual liberties), classically conservative (in terms of using state power), socially liberal (in terms of their position on social equality and social programs), but not socially conservative in most cases. Issue-by-issue their stance can change, but generally they tend to err toward social liberalism, and thus are a left-wing party.

Thus, the main difference is that American liberals are socially liberal, and American conservatives are socially conservative. Otherwise, they are both classically liberal and classically conservative to some degree.

The Liberal and Conservative Ideology of the Factions and Third Parties

With the above in mind, to reiterate, each major party is best thought of as a coalition of factions (although which factions were in which party have changed over time, and thus so have the basic ideologies of the parties; see “the parties changed“).

In terms of major factions, we can very roughly say:

Neoliberals and Neocons are “establishment” liberals and conservatives who are the “more classically conservative” and “pro business” factions of the major parties.

Then, each party has a populist faction, where the left-wing Democratic Party populists (like Bernie) are generally more “classically liberal” and “socially liberal” than Neoliberals, and the right-wing  populists (like the Tea Party) are generally more “classically liberal” and “socially conservative”.

Meanwhile, third parties also have unique liberal and conservative stances. Socialist and Green parties are “more socially liberal” than Democrats, Libertarians are more “classically liberal” than both parties, and Paleocons and Constitutionalists are more “classically liberal” and “socially conservative” than Republicans.

FACT: Most Americans are a type of liberal. In that they are generally classically liberal in terms of their belief in the types of rights and liberties laid out in the Bill of Rights. It is rare that a Westerner would prefer a society structured like a traditional absolutist Monarchy with a state religion and limited individual liberties. Instead most American conservatives are generally types of liberal-conservatives with at least a classical liberal streak.

TIP: Here we should note that real life stances should be considered per-issue, each form typically comes in conservative, moderate, progressive, and radical forms, each generally comes in an elite (often implying pro-business) and populist form, and that real life political factions typically have a mixed-ideology (although we can generally describe a given faction in broad terms like progressive left-wing social liberal populist, or moderate right-wing pro-business conservative, it helps to use more specific terms).

TIP: Consider also, stances tend to change depending on what “sphere of politics” were are discussing, as liberalism and conservatism can have different connotations in economics, than they do in social politics, than they do when discussing liberties and rights. For example: an economic liberal (one who spends liberally or believes in free-markets) and a social liberal (a liberal who supports spending on social issues) are very different things. Likewise, a fiscal conservative (one who believes in balancing budgets) is very different than a social conservative (who doesn’t want progressive action on social issues).

The Roots of Liberalism

Now that we have a basic introduction down, lets look at the roots of liberalism and conservatism.

To understand the roots of liberalism is to understand conservatism, so let’s look at the roots of liberalism in the west.

We can generally say liberalism is an ideology that begins with Greeks like Plato (if not earlier) in spirit, continues in the Roman Republic, then continues with early figures like Machiavelli and Buchanan, and then starts in earnest in the Age of Enlightenment with figures like Locke as a pushback against the traditional order of Churches, Barons, and Kings.

Liberalism was the political ideology upon which the modern West was founded, and it was the ideology at the heart of England’s revolution, the French Revolution, and… the American Revolution.

Aside from liberty and equality, liberalism also champions the liberal ideologies of republicanism, reasonseparation of powers, popular sovereignty, law and fairness, free speech, free trade, freedom of religion, and other general ideologies that favor human rights and the liberties and well-being of individuals and groups.

Here one should note that it isn’t that liberalism is perfect and conservatism is bad, in fact… Plato suggested that the forces are had to temper each other or they would devolve into tyranny and Jefferson suggested they were simply naturally occurring aspects of the human condition manifesting once people were free enough to form factions.

Thus it should be no surprise, the terms liberal and conservative and their related properties are at the core of the namesake of the Major U.S. political parties, the Democrats and Republicans (which party takes which stance changes per issue and per era, but their namesakes imply their original preferred type of government) and the fundamental principles that create what we call left-wing and right-wing (where left describes err’ing toward liberty and equality and right describes err’ing toward authority, order, and restraint).

When the forces are in balance, we get enlightened eras and good feelings, when they are out of balance globally we get far-right Fascists and far-left Communists and Civil or World War. So, fun terms, but also vital to understand to prevent WWIII.

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.

TIP: For more insight, see: What is liberalism?The history of the Democratic and Republican parties, The basic types of political parties, the political left-right, the American left and Right.

Defining Liberalism (Classical Liberalism and Social Liberalism) and Conservatism (Classical Conservatism and Social Conservatism)

With the above definitions in mind, we can now begin to add more detail to better understand this foundational terms.

If we had to offer broad definitions for liberalism and conservatism, we could say:

  • Liberalism is a political philosophy based on the ideals of liberty and equality (the principles of Democracies) that grew out of the enlightenmentClassical 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). Here one should note, in modern terms, when we say “liberal” we generally mean “Left-Wing Social Liberal Progressivism“, but in reality, as we have noted, there are other forms of liberalism (with nearly every ideology in the west having some liberal element). For example, Libertarians are left-wing liberals in terms of liberty (favoring individual liberty, but not state enforced collective equality) and even right-wing Republicans can be considered liberal in that “they don’t want to be ruled by a King”. This same distinction can be made for other types, as explained below. Simply, if an ideology is “to the right” of an individual driven Monarchy in terms of liberty or equality, that ideology is at least in part “liberal”. See an essay on “what is liberalism?TIP: When one favors a fully free market they are being “economically liberal”, to the degree that diminishes social justice and equality in the state is to the degree that ideology is today considered “to the right” of social liberalism (why the small government libertarian in America is more likely to side with American-Socially-Conservative “Small Government” Republicans than American-Socially-Liberal “Big Government” Democrats… they are “being classically liberal“).[9][10]
  • Conservatism is any political philosophy that favors tradition and order (the principles of Monarchies and Aristocracies). 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 fiscal conservatism), 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 (consider, the KKK is a progressively socially conservative faction that thrived within the otherwise mostly liberal pre-1960’s Democratic Party, and the Tea Party is a less extreme modern progressively socially conservative movement in the Republican Party which harkens back to the old Whiggish Know-Nothings). In America you’ll be hard pressed to find a true Monarch, our country was founded by Patriots, not loyalists. Given this, most American-Conservative ideologies, be they speaking toward state-based authority or an aversion social justice, are “mixed” and include liberal elements (a fully-liberal ideology is rare, but in America a fully conservative ideology is even more rare).[11]

As you can see, and as we have already discussed above, each type can be split into classical and social types and are based on foundational principles of liberty and equality. In this way, despite their complexity, these useful terms speak to the heart of modern political ideology and can be accurately used for categorization.

Here we should note, that definitions of terms can change with philosopher, party, nation, and era (although I’ve synthesized the key views of the Greeks, Machiavelli, the Enlightenment philosophers, and modern politics, making this account particularly useful; there is room to disagree slightly and be correct).

More on the Types of Liberalism and Conservatism – Including Complex Types and Evolutions

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, Bill “the Butcher”, 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 liberal and conservative 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 Complex 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, neoconservatismsocialism 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).[12]
  • 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 that considers everything we have discussed so far (forgive the repetition).

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: As eluded to above, despite the certainty of the basics, any proper analysis of a specific political ideology (like Democrat or Republican) must take into account the complexities of associating with terms (such as semantics, and the paradoxes related to balancing liberty and equality) and examine left-ness and right-ness per-issue (per-party-plank).

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 – Putting it All Together

Above we really covered everything we need to, below we will take one more look, putting everything together.

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:[13]

  • 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.

Article Citations
  1. Conservative vs. Liberal
  2. Conservatism Versus Liberalism: Does Philosophy Really Matter?
  3. conservative
  4. socialist
  5. Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs
  6. Progressivism
  7. Socialism
  8. Paleoconservatism
  9. liberal
  10. Liberalism
  11. conservatism
  12. History of Socialism
  13. Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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I really appreciate the article! This has helped me understand better some questions I ask myself. This topic is really confusing when you apply propaganda and actions vs beliefs. Especially in real world conversations.

Today it seems conservatives pretty much sell classical liberalism and anti-authoritarian. Todays liberals pretty much sell classical conservatism/social liberalism. This is the propaganda that I have gathered based on the patterns I see. It makes this whole thing very confusing when attempting to engage anyone about any topic. It is always this good guy bad guy one liner(left, right). I have been trying to make sense of it all as it seems like the sides seem to change or something.

It kind of goes along with my suspicion that both the left and right are authoritarian, and that is really what it boils down to. Where the left and right have middle ground. But in reality according to this article its the left view but today would be seen as a conservative if you mention the constitution.

Thanks again for the article. I have a lot of respect for this type of thinking and work


If these terms/ideologies were placed on a spectrum, with all related historical terms/ideologies, and also understanding that the spectrum could shift, are you saying that US contemporary political, social, economic ideologies would all be to the left? And then if we zoom in, that’s where we see the present right-left dichotomy? Moreover, with fascism in the mix, could it be said that the zoomed in portion may actually be a circle in which the radicals of each side would likely result in fascism? Or would you refute that because my premise is overly simplified and any linear concept would only undermine the nuances you have explained and the nuances of reality? I really enjoyed the article. Thank you.


Thank you so much ! Eye opening as a college educated person I thought I knew so much ! I appreciate these clarification and especially thr chart though didn’t see the “test to see what you are “


So many incorrect “facts” in this article. One of the biggest issues are the uses of the terms left and right. You can’t apply the French Revolution standard to American politics. Factually the left are authoritarians. Someone also doesn’t know their philosophy or their history.


I disagree with your definition of Conservatism as right-wing. The term right-wing was first used by the New York Times to differentiate western democracies from Communism, which the publication originally favored in the late 1940’s.
However, if one accepts your definition of Conservatism as right-wing, how can Fascism be considered as far right? Fascism is left wing because it nearly identical to Communism. The only difference between them is in how businesses are managed. In Communism businesses are run by government appointees; in Fascism business are run by people who are skilled in running the business. Individual ownership may be allowed. In both cases the government controls the business, the people and everything else within their countries.