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Liberal conservatism is "a political ideology combining conservative policies with liberal stances, especially on economic issues but also on social and ethical matters" (Wikipedia).

It is represented by authors such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Roger Scruton, and Friedrich Hayek.

Not very astonishingly, they are famously opposed to the French revolution.

But more generally, they are very critical of the whole Enlightenment intellectual and political period.

  • Question:

So what is, in the eyes of the liberal conservatives the historical period which best embodies their ideals?

In other words, are there some historical periods that they often cite or refer to as exemplifying their ideas?

Is it the “classical republics” of Ancient Greece city states, Ancient Rome Republic, or the republic of Renaissance Florence?

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  • You need to situate this question by continent at least if not country/party. Consider Bernie Sanders. He's untouchable in US because O my O no COMMIE! But Europeans like Guy Verhofstadt call him center right
    – Rushi
    Dec 17, 2023 at 7:47
  • If one term includes both Hayek and Scruton, then whatever its supposed definition, the real meaning of that term is "opponents of the American Left" and nothing more.
    – g s
    Dec 17, 2023 at 8:08
  • @gs A rather America centric view. As best as i know Hayek was basically an economist and Scruton talked on culture an politics mainly. Besides they are off by more than a generation.
    – Rushi
    Dec 17, 2023 at 8:40
  • @Rushi placing Friedrich "Hegel is literally the worst thing ever and I'm an Old Whig and I love the free market more than anything" Hayek and Roger "Hegel is my BFF and I'm a Tory and the free-marketists ruin everything" Scruton on the same philosophical team can only have one plausible reason. It's not my fault whatever people decided to do so had America centric biases.
    – g s
    Dec 17, 2023 at 8:45
  • Speaking of which, just how are Hayek and Scruton and BURKE supposed to be against Enlightenment intellectual and political thought?
    – g s
    Dec 17, 2023 at 8:47

2 Answers 2

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Since the question is about American conservatives I'll give an answer based on American politics of the later part of the 20th century. Words change from place to place and time to time, so I don't know if this applies to Europe or to earlier times in the US.

In the US, at least since conservativism became associated with names like Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly, conservatives have almost always been classical liberals. Conservatives in general believe in rule of law, liberty, and equality under the law which are all liberal positions (in the classical meaning of the term, before it came to mean leftist). In addition to these classical liberal positions, conservatives also believe that nature is brutal and that human nature is corrupt. This is why they tend to be impatient with anti-industrial movements like green energy which they believe make us less secure against unexpected events and why they are against powerful government, because they believe powerful people will inevitably abuse that power.

Given these beliefs, conservatives don't believe that there ever was a time in history when the political situation was particularly great. The best time/place in history was probably from the mid 20th century to the early 21st in the US. There was no slavery, and rule of law was fairly good if you didn't cross the wrong cop, criminal, or petty bureaucrat. The government still took a huge portion of your money and in turn they miseducated your kids, passed burdensome regulations making things more expensive, and tried to control who you did business with, who you hired, who you rented your spare bedroom to, etc., all in service to powerful political interests, but compared to other times and places, that was all pretty mild stuff.

In the last few years, things have gotten really bad to where there is no more equality under the law. In 2015, a mob chased down Trump supporters and beat them up, and there were no consequences for them. Compare the treatment of the 1/6 protestors to the Leftist protesters who spent the entire previous summer rioting, burning down buildings, taking over police stations, trying to burn down courthouses, and engaging in an actual insurrection by cordoning off a section of Portland and declaring it an independent country. People who peacefully wandered around the capitol building, (many not knowing they weren't allowed), have spent over two years in prison, while people who burned down a Wendy's got fined $500. There was a massive national manhunt for everyone at the 1/6 protest and they were held without bail, while people who assaulted cops and burned cities were let out on bail to do it again the next night. A 17-year-old kid was prosecuted for defending himself against several men who were chasing him with obvious intent to do him harm.

So, to conservatives, the best period in history was probably the US from about 1960 to 2015, but it was far from perfect. And this is to be expected, given the conservative position on human nature. If there had been a perfect time in history, this would mean that there are circumstances in which a whole society can live in peace and freedom without human nature ruining things. This would mean that the real problem with society is external circumstances and not human nature itself. If a conservative believed that he would not be a conservative.

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    "I don't know of any non-liberal conservatives." In European history, there are many. De Maistre, Maurras, etc.
    – Starckman
    Dec 17, 2023 at 11:12
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    "Conservatives in general believe in rule of law, liberty, and equality under the law which are all liberal positions (in the classical meaning of the term before it came to mean leftist)." Apparently you defend a conservative position. But the values you describe define this (your) position as classical liberal. Why then identifying this position as "conservative" rather than "classical liberal"? Is your position conservative with regard to social norms?
    – Starckman
    Dec 17, 2023 at 12:30
  • @Starckman, conservatives (generally speaking) are classical liberals with certain other beliefs as well, among them that human nature is essentially corrupt. That belief about human nature is not itself a liberal position. In fact, the people called liberals in the second half of the 20th century could be described as classical liberals who had the opposite view of human nature--that human nature is either good or perfectible by suitable education and institutions. Conservatives think that's a pipe dream, and the most you can hope to do is hold off the barbarians by constant vigilance. Dec 17, 2023 at 12:42
  • @Starckman, about European conservatives: you are probably right. I don't really know how the word is used in Europe; and I was just describing how it has been used in the US since about 1960 or so when it was the conservative Republicans who were pushing for civil rights for black people. I'll update my answer to clarify this. Dec 17, 2023 at 12:47
  • "classical liberals with certain other beliefs as well, among them that human nature is essentially corrupt" IMK, historically, liberal conservatives (in Europe and in the UK) were those very sceptic, if not opposed, to the French revolution, and were quite ambivalent about democracy and the idea of republic. This ambivalency between liberalism (e.g. democratic republicanism, individualism) and conservatism (e.g. monarchy, the Church) is still very present in modern liberal conservatives discourse, like Hayek, Thomas Sowell, even Peterson and Shapiro.
    – Starckman
    Dec 17, 2023 at 12:50
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First of all I'm not really convinced by the premise of the question, in the sense that looking for a "perfect" encapsulation of a political idea in the past is something that is almost bound to fail, because the status quo of any political system is always sort of an amalgamation of lots of political ideas and practices.

Which either means people describe something through rose colored glasses (conservatism, reactionism,...) though with a questionable relation to reality or that it is something very shallow or meta which leaves a lot of leeway for possible implementations. Either way an historic example is almost bound to fail with regards to exmplifying a political philosophy.

The other problem is that from what I get from the Wikipedia article, "liberal conservatism" doesn't even sound like a coherent political idea to begin with.

Both liberalism and conservatism are ideologies, they have a sort of "Weltanschauung" (world view), that is a bigger picture of what human nature is, how the world is and in consequence how it should be. While "liberal conservatism" seems to lack that at least from what I can see.

That is in a conservative mindset there is a focus on order, on hierarchy, inequality as the natural stratification of society. Of humans as imperfect an in need of a strong hand to guide them. Often times with a corporal structure (corpus = body) so one unit with a head, extremities, a core etc. in order to justify and explain the hierarchy.

While in liberalism every individual is their own body and essentially equal in value, rights and freedom to every other human being. So the whole hierarchy is unjustifiable and instead the push is towards self-actualization and liberation on the one hand while coping on the other hand with the question how to do that without becoming an overlord to other people who would then justifiably try to liberate themselves from you. Which in turn gives rise to ideas like, democracy, pluralism, republics, social contracts, etc.

However there is a "minor" problem with "liberalism" and that is that in it's full fledged enlightenment utopia, it could look like some version of communism or anarchism (ideals not practical applications), where there are no institutionalized powers, all power rests within the individuals who form mutual collectives (social contracts) and decide (direct) democratically and without suppressing the pluralistic ideals of it's members how they want to progress.

While in it's practical application it far more often than not resembled more of the old regimes that it succeeded. So much so that you can ask the question what "liberalism" even means, does it refer to the enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality or does it refer to the practical political advancement made under the banner of that ideology.

Did "classical liberals" just fail when they weren't able to outlaw slavery, colonialism, racism, when they didn't manage to erect direct democracy and didn't even provide universal suffrage, when they crushed a hierarchy with the flimsy justification of the church and erected another one with the equally flimsy justification of "meritocracy"? Did they simply not foresee that privileges and property would be the new hierarchy and that free markets of unequal players would perpetuate and increase inequality crushing equality and thus freedom for the vast majority of people... again. Which is entirely possible, I mean these things were kinda new and had never been tested so they could have in good faith failed at their objective, no shame in that.

Or were they working as intended? Was it never the great liberation of the individual, but always planned to be just another coup d'état of a privileged upper class that wanted more rights for themselves, but never actually attempted to have them be universal. Was it less of an intellectual and social revolution and more of a shift in terms of what constitutes the power in society and who wields it, in that case a shift from hereditary aristocracy of the large scale agrarians towards the industrial capitalists.

Because if it were the former than "liberal conservatism" makes no sense. The two are fundamentally opposed in their Weltanschauung and pretty incompatible. While if it were the latter then this would pretty much just be conservatism in a new technological era with a new narrative, but with essentially the same features as before. It would still hail an inequality as a natural order, it's just that the ordering parameter has changed. Previously land ownership, now money.

So "liberal conservative" sounds more like regular conservatism in a setup where liberals won. So a version of the the "Mom, can I have X. We have X at home" meme. Like the classical liberal guys wanted a free market, because not being your own boss and working the fields all day just for your land lord to come by and steal a part of your stuff for himself kinda sucked. So obviously that means that you want a system like industrial capitalism where, the vast majority of people are employed (not their own boss) and work all day to produce stuff just for your boss to come by and steal part of your stuff for himself... wait a second... Technically it's even worse because previously you build the stuff and then a particular part of it was stolen, so people could resort to hiding or whatnot, but now your boss gets the whole thing and then decides how much they would like to give you (potentially hiding a lot for themselves).

And before someone thinks that "Yeah, taxation is theft!". The subtle difference is that taxes aren't an obligation free benefit for your overlord, but that at least technically in a democracy it's a way for citizens to pool money to collective tackle bigger expenses. So you can technically participate in both the debate on how much should be spend on that and where it goes to.

So in other words liberal conservatism is just regular conservatism which cherry picked the liberal portfolio of ideas to accomplish what conservatism was before without that nasty label that became very unpopular during the enlightenment.

Or maybe they actually believe that after 1000sands of failed attempts, this time a free market will accomplish trickle down economics? (fingers crossed)

Maybe they actually had higher aspirations but were reality crushed their dreams and they felt forced by circumstances to do the same or similar things as the rulers before them? Lots of political system cite that anecdote.

Either way in neither of these cases would any existing system be a perfect encapsulation of their ideology and in most of them there wouldn't even be an ideology to begin with, but people are just trying to manage crises. So their ideal solution to unideal circumstances thus not really an ideal system.

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