A Conservative Vision for a Richer Liberalism

ChanegChaneg Torres outlines how conservatism can add to the Liberal Tradition.


‘But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.’ 
– Edmund Burke

 

What place does conservatism have in the classical liberal tradition? For many, conservatism is seen as merely reactionary; a liability to the electoral success of the liberal tradition, only capable of opposing progress and impotent to provide compelling vision for the challenges of today and the future. I argue that ‘conservatism’ is a disposition toward certain truth claims regarding the nature and end of the individual, the individual’s need for voluntary community and the individual’s relationship to political community. This disposition is necessary for a robust liberalism. It provides liberalism with presuppositions and a vocabulary that has a vision of inherent human dignity at its center and thus gives liberalism sufficient moral grounding and capability to present a compelling vision of the common good.

Classical liberalism has traditionally been understood as the belief in individual liberty. The individual for a liberal possesses natural, inviolable rights prior to any political association, articulated by Locke as ‘life, liberty and property’. Milton Friedman understood it to be ‘the intellectual movement that…emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual…(the) reduction in the arbitrary power of the state and protection of the civil freedoms of the individual.’ Thus the classical liberal claims that in order to flourish, individuals must be free to associate, voice their opinions and engage in enterprise. Inherent then is a preference for smaller government that gives room for the exercise of individual initiative and exists to protect, rather than to curtail, the liberties of individuals. Smaller government is less capable of coercing individuals into conformity, allowing individuals to pursue their own beliefs and happiness. Indeed, government must be small, because government is made up of flawed individuals who, despite the greatest of benevolence, have the propensity to miscalculate at best, or at worst use the coercive power of the state to impose what they deem to be their anointed vision on those who may find their vision unconscionable. Greater political and economic freedom, then, leads to greater material prosperity and individual wellbeing.

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