A Note on Terminology: Classical Liberalism

Freedom and Tradition: An Introduction to Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke
Fall 2006

Properly speaking, the correct term for “classical liberalism” is simply “liberalism.” Outside of the U.S., the word “liberal” everywhere, including other English-speaking countries such as England and Australia, means just what we have been calling “classical liberalism.” The switch in American terminology was introduced by FDR. The correct name of his philosophy of government intervention in the markets would have been something like “moderate socialism” (or semi-socialism, soft socialism, cultural socialism). But he recognized that Americans would never accept something called “socialism,” so he cast about for an alternative name and came up with “liberalism.” He knew quite well that the term already had a quite different meaning, and engineered the switch deliberately.

Related to the respect that conservatives typically have for legitimately constituted authority is their respect for institutions. An institution is organized cooperation given some stable form which enables it to continue to exist independently of the particular individuals associated with it. It is an arena where people work together to achieve some common goal. Government is an institution, as is the family, and so are the thousands of schools, hospitals, banks, restaurants, fire companies, shops, businesses, associations, foundations, think tanks and other corporations that exist in our society. Institutions are one of the great creations of the human race, adding immeasurably to human well-being. Just as “liberals” have a problem with authority, however, they also have a problem with institutions. When a “liberal” sees someone operating within an institution of any kind, his first emotion tends to be suspicion and fear, because he sees it as exploitative and dangerous to equality of power.

Institutions are created for particular purposes. Schools and universities are created to hand on the learning of the society, hospitals to heal the sick, business corporations to make a profit, banks to lend money, fire companies to fight fires, police forces to fight crime, etc. But during the twentieth century, “liberals” throughout the Western world made use of civil rights legislation to add another purpose to all of these institutions, that of creating equality. Now it is no longer enough for schools to hand on knowledge: they must help create equality in society. It is no longer enough for businesses to make a profit: they must help create equality in society; and so on. Every institution must now serve two masters. The consequence of this, however, is that all institutions are weakened and ultimately undermined. None of our institutions works properly any more. This, I believe, is an important reason why so many people feel that our society as a whole is not working well. Of course, some people believe the remedy for this is more equality…

An institution that conservatives view as especially important is the family. This was the first and is still the most basic of human institutions. For “liberals,” the family is an object of suspicion and even detestation because it is viewed, like all institutions, as inherently exploitative, a restriction on freedom, a haunt of inequality and the abuse of power and privilege. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx lists among his aims the destruction of the family, which he views as a bourgeois creation. (If we look around our society today, it would not be difficult to conclude he has been successful.) He seems to have taken it for granted, however, that the human race would nonetheless continue to exist and reproduce itself, just as he assumed factory production would continue unabated even after all the factories had been taken over by the workers or the state. Just as the latter assumption has been proved incorrect, however, so has the former. As marriage and the family have declined throughout the Western world, so has the birthrate. Italy, once renowned for its love of children, is now a rather sad place because they are scarcely to be seen: the birthrate there is 1.23 children per woman, slightly more than half of what is needed for replacement. The immigrant Muslim population, however, has a far higher birthrate than the national average. This is the picture in most European countries. The demographic future that lies ahead there if present trends continue is one where Muslims are in the majority. Something analogous is true of the U.S., since the birthrate among Hispanics and blacks is far higher than that of whites.

(Why have marriage and the family declined? Some factors commonly mentioned: easy divorce, working women, birth control.)

A second area where conservatives have a distinctive viewpoint concerns the existence of standards of performance and behavior. Traditionally in every field the standard or benchmark that others use to measure themselves by is constituted by the best or close to the best in that field. “Liberals,” however, do not typically like discussing standards because standards are discriminatory. If a particular standard of performance is labelled “good,” some performers will fail, which is not good for equality. This distaste for standards has led to a widespread tendency to mitigate all tests. Thus for entrance into the police force or the armed forces, etc., there are often two sets of examinations, one for the majority and an easier one for minorities or women so that each can “pass” with the same grade. This of course has been the idea behind “social promotion” in the schools.

In literature and the arts, the “liberal” unwillingness to accept standards has led to the viewpoint that no work of literature or art is “better” than another, only different. Once upon a time, a dictionary of the English language was understood to indicate that some usages were acceptable and others not — a judgement made especially by observing what the best writers wrote. But now there are no best writers, and the role of the dictionary is simply to record common usage. Similarly in the study of religions, the view that one religion might be “better” than another has been outlawed, despite recent events that might suggest otherwise.

In the present era the chief difference between conservatives and “liberals” lies in regard to what is called “social justice.” The traditional conception of justice was well summed up in the Institutes of the Roman emperor Justinian: not to cause harm, and to give to each person what belongs to him. This traditional conception understood justice and injustice to be in the first place always a quality of human actions. A state of affairs could be called unjust if and only if it was produced by an unjust action. It was assumed that persons possessed free will and could choose their actions freely, and that they therefore were responsible for what they did. The concept of “social justice” is altogether different. It understand justice and injustice to be primarily qualities of states of affairs in society, namely states of equality or inequality, no matter how they came into being. Simply the mere fact of inequality, for example poverty, is enough for the state of affairs to be labelled unjust. It is possible, according to the Supreme Court, to be guilty of the crime of discrimination without any intention to discriminate, merely by performing an action which has “disparate impact.” Proponents of social justice typically do not believe, or at least not very strongly, that human beings possess free will, but rather consider that their actions are the inevitable result of either biological forces within or societal forces without. Consequently there is little room in the theory of social justice for any concept of personal responsibility. Responsibility, so far as it exists at all, is to be attributed to the society.

This is a conception which grew out of the French Revolution, and as might be expected it is duly revolutionary, since it dispenses with conceptions, such as individual responsibility, that have been considered absolutely fundamental to our life together in society. Amongst other things it makes it difficult if not impossible to defend ourselves against the attacks of enemies abroad, for it leads its proponents secretly to sympathize with them, on the ground that they are poor and discriminated against. The great task of conservatives, in my personal opinion, is to overcome this idea and restore to Western civilization its traditional conception of justice as a feature of actions for which people are responsible.