Struggle between liberal and conservative tendencies is, perhaps, the key element for understanding the political life of the west in the last three centuries. So, in order to understand this struggle one needs to understand what are the core ideas of liberalism and conservatism. This paper aims to investigate some of the most prominent example of liberal and conservative political thought.
The first basic ideas of liberalism have been explained by John Locke, who explained that “Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood, or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, or dominion over the world, as is pretended” (1. 84). Later the state of natural freedom has been replaced by different forms of unjust oppression, and freedom can be restored only by agreement of free individuals making a civil society. In the world of monarchism this idea sounded revolutionary, but was still far from practical application.
Liberal concepts gained much popularity between the Founding Fathers of the United States, as well as later American publicists. Among others they have been explained and practically developed in the Federalist Papers. For example in Paper 51 James Madison investigated the system of checks and balances as a foundation for independent and responsible state power and a guarantee of reservation of liberty and against usurpation.
The source of power for Madison is not God or king, for “the supreme executive, legislative, and judiciary magistracies should be drawn from the same fountain of authority, the people, through channels having no communication whatever with one another” (1. 118).
However, liberalism concerns not only the formation of political power, but relations inside the society as well. British philosopher Thomas Hill Green in 1861 wrote about “the liberation of the powers of all men equally for contributions to a common good” (1.132). And so paradoxically liberalism restricts some forms of civil transaction such as trade of slaves or, for example, those, which jeopardize public health. Liberalism is understood as general state of freedom in the society, which is limited only by freedom of the others and the function of the state in such society is only to protect freedom and never exercise more power, than needed for the interests of liberal society.
In contrast to liberalism, conservative ideas gained more popularity in the XIX century and were a sort of reaction to the spread of revolutionary ideas, especially after American and French revolutions, therefore, they have been aimed to limitation of liberalism. As explained by Michael Oakeshott, “adults who do not consider themselves under any obligation to justify their preferences for making their own choices; and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom” (1.193). Humans are week, and too much freedom is likely to corrupt the power and ruin the society. Oakeshott’s example is brutal but very persuasive: “we tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them?” (1.194)
Conservatism can be helpful at unstable times and conservative methods of rule like cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth or taking control of the media may sometimes serve the public good. Liberalism and conservatism are therefore the two opposite political foundations, neither of which can be obviously preferred of disfavored. The application of liberal and conservative ideas is not a matter of principle, but a matter of current situation.
1. Nancy S. Love. And Dreams: A Reader In Modern Political Ideologies. (CQ Press; 3 edition, 2005)