Minding The Issues - Conservatism: When Can Liberals Work With It?

Conservatives and liberals: Like cats and dogs? Or like yin and yang? As with so many questions in this world, the answer is “It depends.” It depends on what we mean by conservatism.

After living through the catastrophe that is the Bush administration, liberals and conservatives of good will and sober intellect have every reason to appreciate what the other offers by contrast. They face both the opportunity and the desirability of finding common ground and cooperating with one another.

Whether cooperation is possible depends not only on the situation but also on the form of conservatism we are talking about. In the last issue I listed various forms of conservatism, defined by their basic goals or principles. These were:

ORGANIC (individuals are merely part of the societal whole).

TRADITIONALIST (tradition must be respected and followed).

PERSONAL-DIGNITY (individual dignity lies in being independent).

RELIGIOUS-MANDATE (the dominant religion should be incorporated into the laws).

LIBERTARIAN (safeguarding lives and property is the only proper function of government).

(strong authority must be maintained because human nature is malign).

MANICHEAN (the world is divided into the good and the evil camp).

PRAGMATIC (conservative policies are the most effective way to achieve goals shared by all or most).

As I tried to make clear, this list is not the final answer, but only a starting point. Still, it is sufficient background for asking what forms of conservatism are compatible with liberalism, and under what circumstances?


The first step is to recognize a distinction at the deepest level. It concerns the bedrock conception of what government is for.

On one view, government is for determining public policy and then imposing it on the members of society. On the other view, government is for imposing public policy that has been determined prior to, and outside of, government.
Before looking at these two views, I must admit to a problem with terminology:
I would like to call the first view “liberalism-in-the-broadest-sense.” But that term invites confusion with the political position we call liberalism. So for want of a better term, I will call the first view the “Open” view of government.
The second view I am inclined to call “Theocratic,” but that would be inaccurate because the view is not necessarily based on religious dogma. So – again for want of a better term – I will call it the “Closed” view.

OPEN VIEW: The Open View begins with consideration of what an individual is, basically and apart from any involvement with government (corresponding to what some authors have termed “state of nature.”) It recognizes the individual as a conscious, choosing being, with needs and interests and possibilities for fulfillment that vary according to the individual and his or her circumstances. The purpose of government is to complete and perfect the lives of all individuals – to satisfy their needs and interests and to aid in the fulfillment of their lives in ways that cannot be done adequately by solitary individuals or voluntary associations.

Thus government acts as an agent for all citizens in formulating public policy and undertaking projects -- providing police, roads, and schools; collecting taxes; regulating industry; etc. Since these interests are potentially in conflict, the government acts to reconcile them in accordance with a certain principle.
And in recognition of the fact that each individual’s fulfillment is peculiar to that individual, government on this view does not interfere with the actions of an individual unless those actions impinge, directly or indirectly, on the lives of others.

What is the principle on which the government reconciles individuals’ interests? It may vary. The aristocratic principle prescribes that government policy favor those who are (allegedly) the best or the most blessed by God. The democratic principle, by contrast, prescribes that every person be accorded equal treatment.

Thus, on the Open view, public policy is created within the operations of government, with government acting as agent for the citizens in reconciling and furthering their interests.

The position we know as liberalism is firmly and clearly within this Open view of government. I think of liberalism as the Open view, following the democratic principle and augmented by the assumption that government can and should act in positive ways to help all citizens, giving the most to those who need the most.

(But note that liberalism is not the only political viewpoint within the Open view of government. That’s why liberalism can work with other viewpoints, as will appear.)

On this view, the basic principles for society to follow are ready-made, at least for the most part, prior to and apart from the operations of government. This view does not see persons as choosing beings, but rather as beings cast in a certain mold with their basic goals set for them. Government exists to guarantee that individuals conform to this mold by imposing the proper principles of behavior on the citizenry.

The most obvious examples are those in which government imposes a certain religion – the Christian religion, or Islam, or Judaism or Hinduism – which is why I am tempted to call the view “Theocratic.” (But the set of principles to be imposed need not have a religious foundation.)

Thus, by contrast with the Open View, public policy is created outside of, and prior to, the operations of government; it is not an agent of the citizens but more like their overseer, enforcing values and principles it had no part in formulating.

Furthermore, the Closed View has no place for an individual sphere of privacy immune from government interference. As we saw, the Open View sees this private sphere as essential for each individual’s full development. But on the Closed View, the government knows specifically, from the beginning, how each life should be lived; therefore there is neither need nor justification for allowing free choice in matters that have no effect on others. Everything is potentially subject to government regulation.

The Open View and the Closed View are antithetical. If we are consistent, we must choose one or the other. (To be sure, a measure expressing one view can be inserted into public policy fundamentally based on the other – a foreign substance inserted into the body politic, as in the case of Ohio’s anti-gay marriage amendment. But legally sanctioned or not, such a measure is still contrary to the basic purposes of the government.)
Either view is possible. But clearly, our society has chosen the Open View. And we can be glad of that, for the Open View best recognizes and best expresses our human being.


With whom, then, can liberals do business? Which forms of conservatism are compatible with liberalism? Which share the same goals or assumptions, roughly speaking, and allow for the possibility of agreement on specific policies?

We’ll find that compatibility varies sharply from one form of conservatism to another. I’ll first consider forms that are definitely incompatible, then forms that are definitely compatible, and finally forms that are in the middle.


RELIGIOUS-MANDATE FORM: In our time this is commonly known as fundamentalism or social/religious conservatism.

Liberalism clearly and definitely cannot work with this form of conservatism. Liberals (embedded in the Open View) and fundamentalists (embedded in the Closed View) are simply playing different games with different aims. If a given measure happens to satisfy both positions, that is purely accidental.
If we are to be true to the spirit of our government – and indeed, true to what we are as human beings – we must repulse the fundamentalist position, and those who adhere to it must be persuaded that their purposes are basically and irreconcilably at odds with the purposes of government embodied in our Constitution and the workings of our society.

LIBERTARIAN FORM: To a lesser degree, this form of conservatism is also ruled out. Libertarianism as applied to private life is clearly in accord with liberalism, but as applied to economic affairs – distribution of resources, taxation, regulation, welfare measures etc. – it is antithetical. Liberalism could never be true to itself if it had to abide by Libertarian strictures.

ORGANICIST FORM: Since liberalism is concerned with the distinct value and welfare of each individual, it is basically at odds with the organicist form of conservatism.

To be sure, the welfare of all individuals might require that we preserve the integrity of society – as in the case of illegal immigrants, mentioned in the last column – but liberals would do this for the good of individuals, not for society considered as one overall entity.

Definitely compatible:

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, those forms of conservatism that liberalism can clearly work with, we find:

PRAGMATIC CONSERVATISM: This is the form most obviously compatible with liberalism, for pragmatic conservatives share the Open View of government and roughly speaking subscribe to the same goals or basic principles. Their disagreements concern the means for achieving those goals as well as some of the assumptions that guide their efforts. In debating these disagreements, liberals and conservatives can learn from one another if they do away with ideological clashes and entrenched positions in favor of openly and honestly investigating the issues. They will hopefully arrive at one of three possible outcomes:

a) The two camps reason to the same conclusion based on common principles.

b) They come to a common conclusion based on the resolution of factual issues. (With science, not religion or partisan dogma, being the arbiter of such issues.)

c) They arrive at a principled compromise.

As a quick example, consider religious celebrations and displays, e.g. the well-publicized display of the crèche in the public square. Agreement might be served by distinguishing between the use of such displays as a means of celebration (which conservatives champion) and as a means of imposition (which liberals object to).

PERSONAL-DIGNITY: This form of conservatism is also compatible with liberalism, though probably to a lesser degree than in the case of pragmatic conservatism. For individual fulfillment – the liberal goal -- might be best achieved by insuring that individuals stand on their own, as the personal-dignity form of conservatism maintains.

Equality of opportunity could form the common ground between liberalism and personal-dignity conservatism. Equal opportunity means equality of the means by which individuals can act to increase their welfare; liberals might well conclude that government should provide no more. And equal opportunity is also in accord with the personal-dignity viewpoint, because availability of an opportunity does not lessen a person’s independence or integrity.


These are forms of conservatism that might be compatible with liberalism, depending on the situation, for the same reasons that apply in the case of pragmatic conservatism.

TRADITIONALIST: In some cases, the goals of liberalism might best be achieved by taking account of the traditions of the society.

Similarly, accomplishing good for all citizens might require recognizing the dark side of human being and the need for strong authority.


I would not entirely rule out the remaining form of conservatism – the Manichean -- but I am dubious about it. Manicheanism – the view that the world is divided inescapably between the good and the evil (which must be overcome by force of will) applies mainly to foreign policy. It leads all too easily to Conservatism of the Blindfolded Sledgehammer, by which I mean the attitude of striking out at one’s supposed enemy with all force possible and doing so in an unrestrained fashion, turning to the most obvious and immediate target without reflection as to whether hitting that target will have good results or not. (Sound familiar?)

I hope you will see that the stupidity and moral crudeness of this attitude makes it incompatible with liberalism. Nevertheless, the Manichean view in general does not propose goals that are different from liberalism; it only claims to describe the arena in which these goals must be sought. And recognizing evils for what they are might be a necessary step in attaining liberalism’s goals. (For example, consider the rise of Hitler; or the failure of the democracies to aid the Republican government against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.)

So -- Liberals and pragmatic conservatives (and kindred spirits): touch gloves and come out debating!
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 2, Issue 25, Posted 3:03 PM, 12.04.06