The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

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