Compare and Contrast Modern Conservatism and Modern Liberalism

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Compare and Contrast Modern Conservatism and Modern Liberalism

The history of America is characterized by only one fundamental and predominant issue- individualism vs. collectivism. Do all people have the right to pursue happiness or do they have an obligation to live their lives for the sake of state? Does the American live as Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence deemed fit or is he/she controlled by the state and the society he lives in? Despite this issues being a paramount issue, it is not quite debated during the elections than other issues “sociologies” are. The ideologies of liberalism and conservatism today, are not quite as they were during the founding of the nation. Modern liberalism is neither entirely collectivist nor is it entirely individualistic, and so is modern conservatism. Both ideologies possess elements from both doctrines and do not provide a consistent approach to politics when compared to the first principles.

The Concept of Liberty

The fundamental liberal principle states that all human beings are free and equal and that any restriction to their liberties must be justified, can only be imposed by the government as the government should always ensure that the equal liberty of all people is protected(Guide, 4). However, different liberals hold different concepts of liberty. There are those who advocate for a negative conception of liberty, such as Isaiah Berlin, and others who advocate for a positive concept. According to Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 “Two Concepts of Liberty” negative liberty is defined as the freedom from outside interference while positive liberty is defined as the freedom to act upon one’s will(Guide, 5). Negative liberty is based on natural rights while positive liberty is based on the language of entitlement. Both these concepts support freedom but are nuanced. Negative liberty calls for the non-interference of the society or the state in an individual’s activities. Positive liberty calls for the achievement of personal goals regardless of external interferences or non-interferences. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence provides negative liberties to the citizens. They call for the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without the interference of others. John Stuart Mill’s two maxims of liberalism are also based on negative liberties. They state that, “the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no one but himself. If the actions are prejudicial to the interests of others, then the individual is accountable and may be liable for social or legal punishment.”

The limitations of negative liberty come about when an individual is unable to attain their goals due to the limited or complete lack of resources. For instance, Booker T. Washington’s book” Up From Slavery” states that after the emancipation proclamation and the slaves were freed, they did not what to do next. In the negative sense of liberty, the African Americans were free since they no longer could be subjected to slavery or being owned a white man. However, in the positive sense, the former slaves did not have any property or any money and were therefore not completely free since they could not afford food, shelter, education, or healthcare. Positive liberty therefore states that all members of the society have a right to food, employment, healthcare access, and education. Today, many liberalists lean on positive liberty while many conservatisms support negative liberties.

The development of modern liberalism and modern conservatism

In the liberal political theory, also referred to as the ‘old’ liberalism, private property and liberty are strongly connected. Classical liberals and libertarians state that an economic system where all rights are regarded as forms of property and where all individuals are allowed to live their lives, employing their labor and capital, is one of the most important forms of liberties. And that the economic system should therefore regard property as a form of freedom. The classical liberalism states that people are therefore free to sell their labor, save their income, or invest it as they want to. This ideology also states that the freedom to obtain and use private property is simply one of the features of liberty and that it is an efficient means of protecting the liberty of the people. Classical liberalism states that the power that emanates due to liberty in private property and consequently in a free market, protects the freedom of all citizens from encroachment by the state.

Classical liberals state that liberty is the primary political and social value and hence the government can only limit this freedom to keep the people and their property protected. Classical liberals also believe in individualism, that is, an individual’s needs should not be sacrificed in the name of “common good” since everyone’s needs are important and should be taken care of(Guide, 12). Classical liberalism is also skeptical about power, and the government should not use its power to coerce people into certain actions. Therefore, the power of the government should be controlled since the individual is the best judge of his/her interests. Classical liberalism hold the belief that the rule of law is are higher principles by which the government can be examined. This controls the government and its power. For instance, the US. Supreme Court can refute some legislations passed by Congress and signed by presidents if they go against the Constitution. The law is therefore an equalizer and everyone should be treated the same despite their gender, race, or religion.

Classical liberalism supports the formation of civil societies to be between the individual and the government since these volunteer societies are more effective at solving social problems since they have personal knowledge on individual circumstances than government bureaucracies. Classical liberalism also support spontaneous order, that is, order does not require institutions to manipulate and maintain order. People through voluntary interactions are able to spontaneous create rules by which the society can live by. For instance, the English language was not invented by a particular person, but arose from interactions and rules have been applied through time. Classical liberalism also promotes free markets that is, people can work wherever they want, when to save, what to produce, and that private properties are needed for free market, and there should be mechanism and structures to settle disputes peacefully.

Another ideology supported by classical liberalism is toleration, which is, “the belief that one should not interfere with things that one disapproves.” This ideology states that despite the government holding certain moral principles, it should not use its power to stop other people from activities perceived as “wrong.” Classical liberalism also holds that peace is important to a country. The government should avoid war and violence by limiting its interference with other nations even if these countries support a non-interventionist foreign policy. Interactions with other nation should be based on the four freedoms of movement, of capital and labor, people, goods and services, and ideas. Classical liberalism also believes in a limited government. The government should be limited to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the people.

The turning point of classical liberalism was the industrial revolution. Some liberals viewed this era as an embodiment of their ideals while others were concerned about the increased poverty levels and that it encouraged socialism. This group felt that the government had an obligation to improve economic opportunities for the less privileged to alleviate poverty. This resulted in the group splitting into modern/welfare liberalism.

Classical conservatism is the ideology that justified the rule of kings or the monarchy. It was the dominant philosophy before and during the American Revolution. This ideology holds that every individual in the society is born in the society for a particular reason, such as gender roles, classes such as peasants and the nobles. This philosophy emphasized the need for the principles of natural law and transcended moral order, tradition, hierarchy and organic unity, classism, and high culture (Guide, 32-37). Classical conservatism focuses on tradition and many followers of this philosophy are reactionaries who resist radical social change. Traditional conservatism also emphasized on the need for hierarchy and organic unity. This meant that persons with the ability to lead were made leaders after being chosen by a chosen few. This philosophy also promoted classism where people could either be born into the noble classes or the peasants.

Edmund Burke, regarded as the father of classical conservatism, formulated four main points for conservatism. He was inspired by the French Revolution, and stated that the masses needed to control because failure to do so would result in chaos as evidenced in France. His main points were, that society should be organized in a hierarchy with those best suited to lead at the top and others below. Second, government should be chosen by a limited electorate, third leaders’ responsibility should be to take care for the welfare others, and last, that the stability of the society, law, order, and the preservation of tradition are the main concerns of a society. Conservatism did not regard inequality as a concern. His ideas were against the classical liberalism stating that these ideologies sparked the French Revolution since they allowed the masses to be out of control. He believed that a prosperous society needed to control the masses.

Classical conservatism was threatened by the scientific revolution brought by the renaissance and empowered human being and reduced the reliance on God. Second, the protestant reformation that held that there was essential equality and everyone was equal before God- peasant, king, and the nobles. The third factor that challenged classical conservatism was the industrial revolution that began in England, where wealth was created for commoners. Classical conservatives could not explain this phenomenon. Classical liberalism was then born, as a reaction to classical conservatism.

Modern Liberalism versus Modern Conservatism

Modern liberalism is established on an egalitarian perspective, that is, this ideology holds that all human beings, despite their race, religion, or socioeconomic class, are equally free and should all enjoy equal opportunity. Therefore, all individuals have a right to a good education, healthcare, employment opportunities with good wages enough to provide for their family, right to live in a safe environment, and to retire with dignity by having social security. Modern conservatism is established on the ideology that a large government and too much government involvement brings about a lot of the problems. This ideology believes that regulation of the free market, imposition of taxes, and government investing in social welfare is too much government involvement.

Modern liberalism is divided into welfare liberals and neoclassical liberals. Welfare liberalism holds that that not only should all individuals be free, but that the government should support those in need achieve their goals. Welfare liberals on the one hand, believe in positive liberty and state that an individual cannot be totally free if they do not enjoy an equal opportunity to life. This ideology supports government involvement in social security, housing, healthcare, education, and affirmative action. On the other hand, neoclassical liberals also referred to as libertarians believe that the government should be limited since it infringes on people’s freedoms by being too involved. The libertarians state that government infringement is legitimate only if the security of the people and their property is at risk.

Modern conservative ideologies are mainly established on religious ideologies on morality and ethics. They are mainly divided into two ideologies, the neoconservatives and the Religious Right. Neoconservatives believe that the government should not be weakened, but strengthened for it to better satisfy the society’s needs. They also believe that the nation should have strong military action to achieve national goals. Neoconservatives also believe that certain attitudes towards the government are formed due to the current consumer ethos that supports “buying now, paying later” and hence the people are encouraged to live well beyond their means making them expect too much from the government. The Religious Right believes that government policies and action should follow Christian guidelines and teachings since, to them, the classical conservatism philosophy is no longer in use in the American society, and only Christian based-policies can change this.

Modern conservatives generally prefer the traditional societal orders and oppose efforts that bring about fundamental changes. Conservatives underscore the benefits of a small government with the exception of the national defense to uphold individual liberties. Conservatives argue that the nation requires strong institutions of leadership, laws, and strict moral codes (PP Modern Conservatism). These ideologies are founded on religious teachings and traditional morals and downplay realistic theories proposed by economists and social philosophers. Conservatives prefer the elimination of abortion, labor unions, and affirmative action. The extreme conservative viewpoints agree to social inequities of privilege, status, and wealth, and often support returning to the former, more inegalitarian, and hierarchical political-economic order. Modern Liberalists support social and economic equality by eliminating discriminatory practices. The modern liberal ideologies advocate for egalitarian public policy that states that the government should provide all citizens with affordable and quality healthcare, education, clean environments, and social safety net initiatives. Liberalists also support union rights, progressive taxation, health and safety protection by workers, and affirmative action programs.

In conclusion, the ideals of modern liberals and conservatives differ radically and yet, these same philosophies work cooperatively to make up the framework of American politics. Liberal and conservative ideologies both have similar objectives for the nation’s prosperity but have polar opposite approaches of achieving these objectives. Liberalism is the belief in government action to achieve equity and equal opportunity for all. It is based on the philosophy that the government should alleviate social ills and protect civil liberties, individual and human rights. The government’s role is to guarantee that no one is need. Generally, liberal philosophies underscore the need for the government to solve its citizens’ needs and problems. The conservative ideology holds the belief in personal responsibility, a limited government, individual liberty, free markets, a strong national defense, and upholding the traditional American values. This ideology holds that the role of the government should be to provide its people the necessary freedom to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize on the importance of empowering an individual to solve problems.



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