Sunday, December 06, 2009

What is Conservatism?... is it Liberal or Classically Liberal? (Whats the Difference?) -- Robert P. George

I was reading my copy of National Review today and I came across this smaller piece of a larger article entitled, "Conserving liberalism? Conservatism, modern liberalism, and classical liberalism: a symposium," and had to share it with you.  It is by one of my favorite authors.  He has written a book that every conservative should read to strengthen their worldview and "response time" to answering that pesky family member or co-worker.  Enjoy the article:

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. 

Robert P. George

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.
That 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 (