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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Liberalism, conservatism, and tradition

by Michael De Dora

This past weekend, while bored and perusing Wikipedia, I discovered a term I had never heard before: paleoconservative. This, according to author Chilton Williamson Jr., is “the expression of rootedness: a sense of place and of history, a sense of self derived from forebears, kin, and culture — an identity that is both collective and personal.” It reminded me of a similar expression of conservatism I ran across in the comment thread on Susan Jacoby’s recent blog post, which discusses right wing atheists. A commenter wrote that: “Social conservatism is an appreciation of what will happen to society in the face of a collapse of traditional institutions and values.”
These two quotes together broadly describe one pillar of modern conservatism: a desire to maintain traditional structures and ideas, allowing minimal, if any, change. This attitude is contrasted with the one often seen in liberalism, which looks to advance structures and ideas based on progressing scientific knowledge and human reasoning. But I think these two quotes also highlight two misconceptions and miss the real point of contention in the debate over liberalism, conservatism, and tradition.
The first misconception is that conservatism has a rich tradition, while liberalism is a newer concept lacking a foundation. In fact, components of both can be traced back as far as the ancient Greek philosophers and Athenian democracy. However, in their current form both are relatively recent ideas. Modern conservatism is thought to have its roots in the 17th and 18th century, with figures like Irish politician Edmund Burke, who served in the British House of Commons. Modern liberalism has its origins in thinkers of the Enlightenment era, including Thomas Paine (and many of the American founders) and John Stuart Mill.
The second misconception is that while liberalism has a history, its adherents do not value it. To the contrary, liberals care about the rich history behind their ideas — but only insofar as it makes sense to do so. This is where we find the real difference between the conservative and liberal attitudes: not in the historical background of their approach, or in the value they place on that history, but in how they treat tradition in relation to contemporary life.
The conservative mindset tends to value traditional institutions and values because they are traditional. If people believe institutions and values are wrong or outdated, conservatives tend to think the problem is not with the institutions and values, but with the people who have gravitated away from them for some unfathomable reason. The liberal approach is that institutions and values are only worth following if they are correct or serve a worthwhile purpose. If they are false or outdated, they deserve to be thrown into the scrap heap and replaced with better and more worthwhile ways of doing things. Liberals, in other words, are not seeking to alter tradition for the mere sake of change. They are doing so because they genuinely believe something needs changing. They find institutions and values significant only if they serve a particular purpose well.
To illustrate the difference between these approaches, consider the war of pamphlets between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued in favor of continuity (of the French Monarchy) and against revolution (led by liberals). This was echoed by conservative thinkers of the time, who defended the importance of keeping established power arrangements in place while slowly granting small changes, if at all. Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet Rights of Man, defended the uprising from Burke’s charges, arguing that the French Monarchy no longer served to protect its citizens and their natural rights. This aligned with liberal thinkers of this period. On the basis of the new and valuable concept of natural rights rejected divine and monarchic authority, they argued that all people have equal rights and liberties, and should have influence over governance. This desire to change conventional political makeup was not a mere whim.
It is important to note that liberalism does not always imply a complete break with the past, but often just an extension, broadening, or synthesis of more current thinking. For example, Enlightenment thinkers did not call for an end to government (anarchy). They called for a change in government. Or, for another example, consider the battle over gay marriage rights. Liberals do not want to create special rights for gay people. They simply wish to extend existing “civil rights” to a group that has been historically denied them.
On the flip side, it is also important to note that conservatism is not always true to its name, and is sometimes a facade that doesn’t hold up to its name. For example, many American conservatives argue that the definition of marriage should remain the same as it has always been, thereby resisting its extension to gays. Yet, there has actually never been one universal definition of marriage. Rather, the concept has evolved and changed over the past few thousand years. As such, the “conservative” position simply reveals itself to be a mask for bigotry — a way for straight people who don’t like gays to display their abhorrence of a different lifestyle in a manner that is politically acceptable.
Of course, liberals can also mask their political goals with generic language such as “we need to adapt to the times," or push for change when it is not needed. But, while liberals ought to be willing and able to defend the need for change on a case by case basis, it is equally unacceptable for conservatives to defend the status quo simply because tradition is important above all else. If the conservative believes in the defense of a particular custom, he or she must have reasons beyond the fact that we have always done things in a certain way. They have an obligation to make their reasons clear or they risk defending tradition for its own sake a rather sterile position.


  1. It is worth considering, also, that the term 'liberal' has very different meanings in different places. In my ancestral Denmark, the most prominent liberal party (the Left party (yes, that's what they're called), which is old and big) is the central part of a right-wing government with the conservatives, and with the nationalist party as support. The left wing of Danish politics, like in most non-American democracies, consists of a number of different flavours of social democrats and socialists. In Denmark, being 'liberal' means, largely, being libertarian - as in desiring a small government and little to no regulations.

    Seen historically, as this post does, however, the dichotomy does make some sense. There seems to have been a progressive and a conservative (or even reactionary) side to every political argument from Athens and onwards...

  2. I can't recommend this fairly recent essay by Corey Robin on this topic from the Raritan highly enough: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/files/raritan-essay.pdf

  3. This is a good post, thank you. I feel any discussion of political thought through the ages is skewed whenever we use the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative'. As Gert pointed out above, these terms have a very different meanings in widely diverse political scenarios and in different geographies. Adding yet another variable, time (centuries no less), further distances us and our modern categories from the philosophers of ages past. We do see this used however (at least I notice it more) in the rhetoric of modern conservatism, as iconic figures and ideas from history are invoked as being "ours".

  4. "The conservative mindset tends to value traditional institutions and values because they are traditional."

    If there isn't a term for it already, one needs to be invented for absolutist statements in qualified clothing.

  5. Perhaps the ambiguity of "liberal" (cf. "neoliberal" and "classical liberal") explains the growing popularity of "progressive" among left-of-center thinkers and activists here in the US (who are often, although not always, registered Democrats).

    Also, I've witnessed some progressive types - particularly among environmentalists - trying to claim the "conservative" label by relating it to the cause of conservation of natural resources.

    Hyphens, anyone?

  6. @Gert, good point. For another example, the Liberal-Democratic Party in Japan is actually right-wing/conservative.

  7. As Gert mentioned for Denmark, and De Dora for Japan, the same for Brazil. "Liberal" there is right wing, in the political sense. But we also can use liberal in a social sense, which is more the American meaning of liberal, and figure what is meant by context. There we say we are "leftist" when we mean "liberal" in the American political sense.

    Anyway, it is very rare for anyone in Brazil to label themselves as conservatives. It's a word with bad baggage, it seems, and people are ashamed of being seen as a conservative. Not that they are not, but they say they are "moderate" or "centrist" instead; even if all their positions would align them perfectly with an American Republican. I think our last party that was actually called "Conservative Party" died in the late 1800s... I'm not sure why this is, but it could be because our most recent dictatorships were right-wing.

  8. I think tradition is intrinsically valuable insofar as it's not too pernicious. For example, my country is a constitutional monarchy & I would like it to remain so, not because constitutional monarchy is wonderful - if we were starting from scratch, I would be a republican - but rather because the monarchy is effectively harmless now, and lends a certain aesthetic & gravitas to our political process that only comes with time.

    I do think there is something a little weird about the distaste of some liberals for fairly innocuous traditions (our coins say D.G. Regina? Oh noes!), although the nasty ones really do have to go.

  9. If this thread shows anything, it's that we should be very cautious with how we deploy terms terms. Gert and Ian give good cases in point. The fact that an institution like Canada's constitutional monarchy has a rather long history can reference one sense of "traditional," but it's an extremely thin one. The harmlessness of the "monarchy" part is an effect of a great deal of actual change in the power relations of the state, change which was very contrary to traditional monarchy.

    Insofar as "conservativism" has a substantial core, I would say it picks out a certain genre of counter-reformational tendency. In this role, it seeks to do two things: (1) Protect existing centers of power from external challenge; (2) Create a counter-narrative that preserves the rhetorical trappings of the ascendent political movement. Here again, most appeals to tradition are terribly misleading. People in the tea-party movement constantly invoke Reagan and the founders, but they're essentially historically illiterate. The appeal is simply tribal, not traditional in any significant sense.

  10. Micheal,

    Although you started this post by defining concervative (which I think was fairly accurate). You failed to define the term Liberal.
    As Fredrich Hayek states in his "Road to Serfdom". (I paraphrase) " The American left hijacked the term Liberal for themselves when their beliefs are the exact opposite with the true meaning of the word. I am surprised by true advocates for liberty letting this happen which has left themselves often times identifying themselves as inappropriatly as concervative".

    You use the term "Liberal" in this post as the current American thinks of a liberal. As a true Libertarian I hate the fact the left identifies themselves as liberal (I am not trying to debate political phylosophy here, just meaning of terms), becuase the progressive ideology has nothing to do with liberty. The term liberal is favored for many reasons over progressive, but mainly because of the ugly history that comes with progressive movement (that you are actually aligned with in ideology, not Mr Paine).

    But in your post here you are talking about people like Thomas Paine (who is a liberal in the classical libertarian sense) and trying to say this is the same movement as the modern American liberal (which is a complete 180 from the classical use of the word liberal and is actually the progressive left). They are two completely different ideologys.

    Throw the word "founders" in there and now you have spun the creators of our great nation into progressive lefties. This is a common practice amongst todays liberals and one of the main reasons for hijacking the term "liberal" when actual "liberty" means nothing to you.

    They were mainly Libertarians politically and concervatives morally and created a libertarian government , and you have spun it out to some progressive movement. How wonderful!

    Well I think it should be time to simplify things. I think Libertarians should go back to calling themselves Liberals. And the left can go back to calling themselves progressives or whatever. Then the actual historic defenders of liberty dont get aligned with todays progressive whos history actually is shared with the Nazi Germany elite and intellectuals and the whole eugenics movement of the early 1900's. Progressive history is nasty, of course you want to be a progressive with the mask of the term liberal which allows you to try and twist history through a post. Progressives have been doing this a long time. I wonder if the progressive movement in 1930's Germany called themselves liberal.

    No wonder you didnt actually define liberal. Oh yeah you did. You said:

    liberalism, which looks to advance structures and ideas based on progressing scientific knowledge and/or human reasoning.

    Is that your definition or is there an offical handbook on how to change the meaning of liberty by removing the "ty" and adding "al", then it can mean whatever you want?

    Stop calling yourself liberal, libertarians are liberal not progressives.

    If you want to keep calling yourself liberal (since we know once a word is hijacked its not going back) at least dont think you can align yourself with liberal history. They were moving toward liberty and it had nothing to do with science or whatever you define as liberal. Todays progressive moves away from liberty. So dont think you have some alignment with Mr. paine.

  11. Labels are always tricky and always changing. When I was growing up I knew people who identified themselves as "progressive". Many of them were ex communists, but for obvious reasons (to anyone growing up in the fifties as I did) they didn't want to be identified as such. Now "liberal" is generally taken to the left of "progressive".

    My advice is go with the flow. Trying to fight these shifts is like try to hold back shifts in the meaning of words such as "hopefully".

  12. Jim makes a valid point about the shifting meaning of words -- and how it actually creates a great deal of confusion, particularly regarding political history, in this case. I talk about these shifting definitions here:


    It is a much more nuanced look at the differences, I admit, than this post:


    and I clarify the rational reasons I am a classical liberal here:


    I will note that there are two traditions of classical liberalism: revolutionary and gradualist. Paine was a revolutionary. Hayek was a gradualist, seeing the importance of tradition as something one modifies gradually to get to a freer society. I'm a Hayekian.

  13. I think the essay is slightly biased to consider liberalism good and conservatism bad. I suspect that stable societies have an optimum mix of the two. Liberals are too willing to cast off tradition in favor of new ideas that haven't been shown to work, such as communism, free love or Scientology. Rejecting tradition doesn't mean that any new idea that you have is better.

  14. @Greg, I don't quite understand what you're trying to say here:

    "Liberals are too willing to cast off tradition in favor of new ideas that haven't been shown to work, such as communism, free love or Scientology."

  15. Michael:

    Liberals' "Openness to experience" makes them willing to raze existing societal structures in favor of something untried. Risky. When moderated by conservatives, society will move more slowly and will tend to tinker with existing structures, rather than destroy them. Much safer.

    The radical behavior of European Communists produced new structures that didn't work well and weren't easily reversed. The more moderate pace of the Social Democracies has been more successful, which each change being made incrementally and capable of being reversed if it didn't work.

    Conservatives slow the rate of societal change and this is probably a good thing, although I find them personally frustrating. ;-)

  16. With respect, that’s simplistic and ridiculous, Greg. No liberal I know has ever attempted to argue along the lines of, “hey, here’s a nifty-sounding idea; let’s try that since it could be fun!” Good reasons have been provided for: expanding marriage to include same-sex couples; increasing the availability and affordability of reproductive healthcare – universal healthcare, even; stricter economic regulation; union rights, etc. – the list goes on. You seem to have run away with the idea that conservatives stand for tradition, and liberals for novelty. That caricature isn’t at all accurate.

    First, it seems to me that conservatives don’t argue for a mere return to tradition, rather, they often radicalize it, frequently introducing and passing novel legislation: unprecedented tax breaks (for the wealthy), extreme deregulation, bigoted social policies, etc. It’s not simply liberals, then, who are changing “societal structures”. Indeed, societies are in constant flux anyway – they aren’t static entities.

    Second, I’m not sure how you can maintain that liberals are risky and conservatives are time-tested and safer – all with a straight face. Conservatives often propose and enact “solutions” using the same logic that inspired the damn problem: privatize, privatize, baby Jesus, privatize, privatize, baby Jesus. Brilliant. If anything, then, it seems to me that conservatives are the riskiest of the bunch, since they’re fond of proposing old ideas that only exacerbate myriad inequalities.

    Finally, what do you mean when you say, “the more moderate pace of the social democracies has been more successful, which each change being made incrementally and capable of being reversed if it didn't work”? Do you really believe that? Countless jobs have been (permanently?) shipped overseas; wages have stagnated; poverty has increased and wealth has become highly concentrated in the hands of a few – how does any of that “work”, and how is any of that easily reversed?

  17. Let's be honest here. There's a certain element of liberalism that is "open to new experiences," which is fine on the individual level. The problem comes about when the same people then go, "and you have to accept everything I do no matter what it is without judgment -- more, you really ought to be doing it too." Part of the collectivist mindset we see in conservatives, who want you to accept and adopt their unchanging moreality and world view. The classical liberal is a live and let live kind.

    But leftist politics is not necessarily -- or even particularly -- part of that open to new expereinces world view, even if it has been tied to it in the U.S. Most leftist economic thinking is little more than folk economics attached to a politics of envy and resentment. It is in fact extremely primtivist in nature. It was given a wash of scientific respectability in the 19th century by claiming that the science of Newtonian/Laplacean physics was relevant to economics in the form of "scientific economics," aka, socialism, that was in fact not scientific in the least. As reductionist science became increasingly replaced with complexity science, it became abundantly clear that socialism could not be defended scientifically or rationally, and so we have the muddling along with vague arguments of moral superiority (made more difficult with the mass murder policies of every centrally planned economy that ever came into existence) we have now. We still hear the occasional nonsense about that non-concept "social justice," as an argument for the latest welfare statist policy that is designed to do little more than create ever-more rent-seekers, as that is the source of political power and corruption, though it is often defended by the usual "useful idiots," as Stalin called them.

    True liberals aren't conservative on social issues (the standard conservative) or on economic issues (the standard leftist), but is liberal on both. Liberal comes from "liberty," and the true liberal wants both social and economic liberty -- meaning freedom from force and fraud in all realms, whether privately or from government. One does not magically become more virtuous by going into government. In fact, if one is going into government, more likely than not one has demonstrated no ability to make an honest living, combined with a desire for power. Not a good combination, yet too many want to give them more power. That makes no sense to me.

  18. @Jeff:

    I gave you a well-known example and modern history is full of others, although none so terrifying. Being able to give good reasons for a particular change doesn't undermine the truth that the solutions are unproven. Children often have good reasons for the things they do, yet many of them are rash and irresponsible, and only seem reasonable to them due to a lack of experience.

    And your criticism of my definition of "conservative" is off-base…I used the definition included with this article: "desire to maintain traditional structures and ideas, allowing minimal — if any — change."

    Anyway, my overall point is that if you intend to write an objective article, yet find that all the virtue resides with the people who agree with you and none with your opponents, then you have probably failed in your goal.

  19. Just wanted to post a link to some good commentary on this essay:


  20. Greg,

    I took issue with that very definition of conservative, though – I think it’s false. It’s not clear to me that conservatives are merely the defenders of tradition; they do not just maintain what is, rather they also change “societal structures”. It’s not just that liberals provide “unproven” solutions (which I think is itself a bizarre claim, since, to some degree, all legislation is unproven in a strictly empirical sense), but conservatives do as well. FL’s Gov. Rick Scott just instituted (yesterday) a merit-based pay system for teachers – that’s not only radical, it’s also unproven and even moronic.

    Also, your example of communism doesn’t strike me as particularly apt; it’s terribly vague for one – a single sentence isn’t really a lot for me to argue with. And couldn’t I also just quip that European fascism “produced new structures that didn't work well and weren't easily reversed”? I don’t think name-dropping communism or fascism goes much distance in making a convincing argument.

  21. I wish we have in my country a political group that can call themselves libertarian and defend, protect and fight for all human rights. We only have two political parties, and a dozen small parties that are satellites of the first two. Those two parties can only be defined democrats when not in power, once they are in power they forget all the purposes they have been voted for, break all rights, all laws and politicians only care to make money for themselves and to keep the party on power anything is proper to them. On very few countries people have the right to speak out and defend their right, my is not one of them.


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