In an essay entitled "Why I am not a Conservative", Hayek distances himself from both "Continental liberalism" and "English liberalism", while calling himself an "Old Whig":

I have already indicated that, though I have all my life described myself as a liberal, I have done so recently with increasing misgivings - not only because in the United States this term constantly gives rise to misunderstandings, but also because I have become more and more aware of the great gulf that exists between my position and the rationalistic Continental liberalism or even the English liberalism of the utilitarians.


The more I learn about the evolution of ideas, the more I have become aware that I am simply an unrepentant Old Whig - with the stress on the "old."

  1. What are the differences between these outlooks?
  2. What is a good source of information on this topic?
  • 1
    There is a politics SE as well, so it could help to specify what specifically has become "philosophically" interesting/important about this question to you
    – Joseph Weissman
    Sep 27, 2017 at 22:03
  • 1
    After glancing at politics SE, it appears that my question is thoroughly philosophical, in comparison. A question related to beliefs/outlooks, their justification, and their relationship is more purely philosophical than questions of presidential requirements, corporations, foreign affairs, and tax codes. The former seems theoretical while the latter stuff seems more pragmatic. That's why I posted here. Sep 28, 2017 at 1:56
  • I would have to say that this question is explicitly on topic on politics.SE, and there is even precedent to show as much: this question, "What is the difference between Communism and Anarchism?" was migrated from philosophy.SE to politics.SE where it was upvoted and answered. If the same type of question, down to title phrasing, is off topic here, then this should be as well. I'd vote to close but it has an open bounty so it can't be. You would get better results asking on politics.SE.
    – Not_Here
    Oct 10, 2017 at 7:36

2 Answers 2


All three of these political philosophies are oriented toward limiting the power of traditional institutions. They have come to differ, over time, as to whether government, economic and educational elites are seen as being among those traditional institutions.

In origin Liberalism was opposed to the control that religion and aristocracy had over European culture. It was oriented directly toward allowing individuals to act according to their own precepts, and not being driven by historical influences. It generally had a deep faith in free markets and rationalistic individualism.

Whigs are liberal in that sense. In the original English form they are anti-monarchist Parliamentarians. And in the U.S. form, they are basically a 'States-Rights party' opposed to Federal judicial and executive power. They oppose centralization of influence and encourage devolution of all power other than basic legislative decision making.

Libertarians are an extremist form of Whiggery that distrusts the centralization of even legislative power and favors extreme independence of thought and action with a minimum of government interference. Modern neo-Conservatism that wants "to starve the government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub" is more a flavor of this kind of abstract Liberalism than of traditional Conservatism.

But Socialism inflected the main line of Liberalism in the direction of considering the wealthy to be one of those controlling institutions, whether that wealth was aristocratically assigned, or earned by generations of industry. Labor movements led to modern Social Liberalism wherein the government protects the average citizen both from tradition and from the upper social classes.

The balance between these forces had different influences on the Continent and in the English-speaking world. Continental Liberalism remains largely rationalistic, favoring either complete equality or absolute individualism as the preferred position government should take toward everyone. It mixes the perspectives of Socialism and Liberalism.

The U.S. and Commonwealth version of Liberalism has, instead, tried to find a balance between the two, and in the process become extraordinarily complex. This has allowed liberalism to take on some of the empathic sentiments of the religious and the care-taking instincts of the educated elites that it was initially meant to purge from society. And this has allowed it to get behind a succession of Progressivist periods that have created and broadened institutions that try to indirectly redistribute wealth to take care of the poor and create social mobility, and that handle specific abuses (like the aftermath of slavery, or the movement of women beyond the home-front) with direct ad-hoc remedies that may limit individual freedom and defy rationalistic egalitarianism. But it has also resulted in what Libertarians often mock as 'the nanny state' in which the 'smart' people make decisions to protect us from each other -- and they see it as a direct betrayal of the origin and basis of the whole idea of Liberalism.

Given those trends, being an "Old Whig, with an emphasis on 'Old'", would mean that one adopts a form of Liberalism that avoids Socialist content and well-meaning elitist social experimentation, but is not Libertarian, and still supports a government strong enough to serve a given sense of national priorities.

  • Thanks for the answer! Are there any resources on this topic that you'd recommend? Oct 13, 2017 at 16:38
  • Not really. I am writing straight from my memory of college History classes from 20 years ago, ergo the lack of references in the post itself. I kind of agree that this is a very poor fit for this site, and would get better sources from the politics SE, where there may be actual historians.
    – user9166
    Oct 13, 2017 at 21:22

Continental liberalism differs from English liberals in on crucial way. The role of privileges.

Continental liberalism opposes privilege in favor of equality, and also considers fraternity has a pillar of thought, while the English liberals were never very keen of ending privileges and classes.

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