On what can classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Why are Australian libertarians suddenly so keen to collapse the ‘broad tent’? You don’t see many social conservatives trying to reform the tax-code according to the Summa.

John Heard today.

Political alliances between different ideologies shift with the times. For most of the second half of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives were united against communism and its fellow-travellers. A lot of differences could be overlooked when there was a united view on what was perhaps the most important issue in world politics, at least from the perspective of liberals and conservatives.

As many people have commented, there have been more overt tensions between liberals and conservatives since soon after that glorious month of November 1989 took away their common cause. But there is still something of a liberal-conservative camp – if not quite a single tent, to modify John’s metaphor. This is partly because there are many people who, in the context of contemporary politics, are on the liberal side of economic debates and the conservative side of social debates. But it is also because there are some issues on which ideologically distinct classical liberals and conservatives can still agree. Here are a few:

* school choice: conservatives do not put the some normative emphasis on choice as classical liberals, but they want the right to educate their children according to their faith.

* anti-discrimination law: classical liberals, who support freedom of association and an independent civil society, think conservative groups should be able to organise themselves in ways that discriminate on the basis of sex, sexuality, lifestyle or religious beliefs. Classical liberals may think that such discrimination is obnoxious and personally have nothing to do with the institutions that practice it, but also believe that it is none of the state’s business.

* federalism: this does allow more conservative governments to exist in some places, but classical liberals tend to like federalism as insurance against an over-bearing central government.

* law and order: I expect some classical liberal friends will disagree with me on this one. But in my view the state’s primary job is to protect its citizens and their property from violence and theft; and in high-crime times that means lots of police and full jails.

* (somewhat in tension with the above) scepticism about the state’s competence: social democrats have huge faith in the state; even when it has stuffed up for decades they still think that with more public funding or some other fix it will all come good. So while conservatives do not have the same ideological opposition to state intervention as classical liberals, they are far more open to the idea that the state’s failings are more fundamental than the size of the budget.

* scepticism about the welfare state: Conservatives and classical liberals both tend to believe that the welfare state creates and entrenches some of the problems it was set up to solve. So they tend to oppose higher welfare benefits as that will encourage people to go on to them, and tend to support compulsory activity in exchange for welfare support (though to be fair some social democrats have come around to this view as well, and some classical liberals oppose it).

Plus there are latent agreements that could become salient if the political environment required it, such as some of the attacks on religion, the family, private property or democracy that we have seen before.

But we should accept that there are areas in which conservatives have more in common with social democrats at the current time. For example, there is now a powerful left-familism trying to protect the family from the ostensible threat of the market that has strong parallels with the right-familism long seen in conservatism. John’s point about WorkChoices here is an example.

And on other issues, such as equal civil freedoms for gays, classical liberals have more in common with social democrats than they do with conservatives, though following Andrew Sullivan I think that the logic of secular conservatism does in fact support gay marriage.

To me, a liberal-conservative alliance is an issue-by-issue affair. Liberals and conservatives should work together where they have a common cause, and not be upset when they disagree on other things.

36 thoughts on “On what can classical liberals and conservatives agree?

  1. A big yes to the last para, indeed we should be prepared to work with any group on an issue by issue basis. And similarly we should be prepared to oppose any group on an issue by issue basis as well. That is easier for those of us who are outside factional politics because those in the game have to trim their sails to maintain alliances.

    The tension between liberals and conservatives was pretty clear before 1989 with the big differences being the scope for state intervention in (a) the economy and (b) moral issues of individual conscience (this piece was first written in 1986 http://www.the-rathouse.com/hayuniting.html).

    So far as economic policy is concerned, many conservatives and social democrats have moved towards liberalism (or at least deregulation) in the last couple of decades but the gains in efficiency are mostly dissipated in pork barelling and spending on “feel good” projects.

    One hopes that conservatives will maintain the learning curve in economics and so form a stronger alliancewith liberals on that front. At the same time one hopes that economic liberals will become more engaged with educational, social and cultural issues to counter the leftwing propaganda that flows through those channels. And we should work with cultural conservatives (without being rigid and closed to innovations) to maintain moral and aesthetic standards without demanding state intervention.

    We need to adopt a conservationist stance in moral and cultural matters to protect valuable traditions in the same way that we protect and conserve the natural environment. How odd that leftwing radicals can be so rabid about protecting the ecology of the streams and forests while they ravage the socio-economic environment, trashing the traditions and institutions that support peace, freedom and prosperity!


  2. It gets a bit confusing when people use the labels “conservative” and “liberal”. Did you mean “liberal” in the sense that it is used in American political discussion? Or did “liberal” mean “classical liberal”?


  3. By all means, life and property must be protected, but the conflict for libertarians is the loss of civil liberties that don’t seem to bother conservatives as much. Issues of privacy, habeas corpus, due process seem to get swept under the carpet in pursuit of security. So we have the situation of free and otherwise law abiding citizens being harangued by law enforcement officers. The law must always have a light touch on the law abiding.


  4. Brendan (1) – The post is generally about classical liberals, though during the Cold War all liberals whether classical liberals or ‘progressive’ liberals or left-liberals were anti-communist, albeit with varying degrees of passion and willingness to fight.

    Brendan H – I agree, and this has become a particular issue with some over-the-top responses to concerns about terrorism. But I think on most disputes about policing and sentencing in the last 20 years classical liberals have had more in conservatives than progressive types who see criminals as also ‘victims’ who should be given a soft ride.


  5. Brendan, it is usuallly clear from the context what sort of liberalism is being talked about, certainly on the site of Carlton’s lone classical liberal! When Hayek wrote ‘Why I am not a conservative’ in the early 1960s he was just about ready to give up the term liberal to the left but since then there has been a move to save liberalism in its original laissez faire sense.

    Jim Bellshaw has an interesting piece on liberal/conservatism in On Line Opinion, with a nuanced take on gay marriage. http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6867

    btw Jim and I share a blog on the history of Aust and NZ thought http://historyofaustralianthought.blogspot.com/


  6. Federalism?

    Since Federation, there has been no worse trasher of federalism than John Howard, and he claimed to be an both an economic liberal and a social conservative.


  7. Would liberals and conservatives agree that people fulfill their obligations to the community by taking responsibility for looking after themselves?
    Whereas those on the left would accept a greater responsibility and role for the state/community in looking after the welfare of everyone – acknowledging that though the state is often incompetent, its incompetent efforts produce results better than no action at all.
    (This may not be true in the case of the Potato Marketing Corporation of Western Australia which provides “for the marketing, sale & disposal of potatoes & control of their production”)


  8. Andrew,

    I agree with your analysis of closer ties between classical liberals and conservatives on law and order. There is however a massive difference of opinion with conservatives regarding victimless crimes, drug crimes, prostitution and the like. Here classical liberals are much closer to the socialist progressives. In fact I would go so far as say that the conservatives tilt at victimless crimes is a major setback to maintaining law and order with respect to life and property.


  9. Russell,

    I’m not sure on that. Many conservatives would probably argue that individuals have a greater responsibility towards their fellow man than a libertarian might. Conservative institutions like the church are at the forefront of promoting altruism. A classical liberal or libertarian would accept a role for charity, but would balk at using the state to either enforce or promote philanthropy.

    All the libertarian asks of his fellow man is to respect his life, his property and his liberty to do with both what he wishes while respecting the same rights for others. The conservative might expect more from his fellow man and be tempted to use the state to enforce it.


  10. Brendan,

    Of course you are right, once something becomes compulsory, it is no longer charitable. But how do characterize using taxpayer money to promote voluntary work? Using taxpayer money to support independent religious schools? Funnelling taxpayer money into socially conservative charities? The taxpayer individually did not agree to any of these, and so is forced to support a conservative agenda. The classical liberal would completely disagree with the use of government funds to support any charity.


  11. Brendan,

    My whole point is that conservatives are more willing to use the state’s ability to raise revenue through taxation to subsidise their favoured non-government charities than classical liberals or libertarians. Taxation is not voluntary, but the charities conservatives would subsidise are.


  12. (somewhat in tension with the above) scepticism about the state’s competence: social democrats have huge faith in the state; even when it has stuffed up for decades they still think that with more public funding or some other fix it will all come good. So while conservatives do not have the same ideological opposition to state intervention as classical liberals, they are far more open to the idea that the state’s failings are more fundamental than the size of the budget.

    This is utter bollocks. Conservatives have no problem with the power of the state as long as it is being used to enforce their beliefs.

    The only thing conservatives are opposed to as far as government goes is that leftists tend to naturally drift towards jobs in public service, so they can’t control it the way they’d like.


  13. Yobbo – But since conservatives don’t believe in the intrinsic virtue of state delivery of services or in equality ‘implementing their beliefs’ has far fewer implications for the size of government than does the leftist version of ‘implementing their beliefs’.


  14. What is this “intrinsic virtue of state delivery of services”?

    I remember Macmillan accusing Thatcher of selling off the family silver, so he must have had a different conservative view re the advantages of government owning things. I suppose there will always be pros and cons of government ownership but the specific virtues of the ABC, for example, (lack of bias, breadth of coverage etc) outweigh the cons (ummn, can’t think of any).


  15. Russell – This seems to be implicit in many left-wing arguments, mostly starkly shown in opposing privatisation of profit-making enterprises in competitive industries, but also in public education and health.


  16. But isn’t opposition to privatisation usually based on specific reasons for not putting profit first – safety in the case of aviation, keeping country branches open in the case of banks etc – not because of some “intrinsic virtue of state delivery of services” ?


  17. Russell, how would you explain the strong opposition to the proposed NSW power sale/lease process? There’s no issue of safety or equity I can identify (both are already the subject of regulation). To my mind, the opposition basically comes from two sources: (1) union fears over job security; and (2) a view amongst some that electricity assets ought to be publicly-owned as a matter of principle.


  18. Rajat – I don’t know anything about power privatisation in NSW … but I’m opposed to it!
    On the grounds that what you hear about power privatisation isn’t encouraging. Our own first steps here in WA aren’t going too well. News from California and Auckland wasn’t so good a while back. What most of us want from an essential service like electricity is guaranteed supply, even if we pay more than we perhaps needed to because of inefficiencies.

    There’s no reason why the NSW government can’t borrow money and build a power station – presumably as a government it will be paying low interest, and it can charge as much for the electricity as it takes to pay back the loan. I wouldn’t want a company to borrow that money and then be looking to make as many ‘savings’ as it can in order to extract as much profit as it can – in other words putting other factors before an ongoing guaranteed supply.


  19. I must be more conservative than I thought – I’ve just read the executive summary (no need to read more) of a report called “The Power of Belonging: identity, citizenship and community cohesion” (IPPR, 2007)
    When I read that “local education authorities should act to ensure that children mix and are able to form friendships with pupils from different backgrounds to their own”, I thought – who could argue with that?
    But “Our museums, libraries and galleries can provide a safe and trusted space for people to reflect on the diversity of cultures that make up contemporary Britain”, I felt a bit queasy.
    Then ” the state could do more to mark the registration of a new-born child, which could act as a point at which parents and the state commit to bringing up a child and supporting it
    throughout his or her life.” – which makes you want to shout “Stay away from me” and run away.


  20. “local education authorities should act to ensure that children mix and are able to form friendships with pupils from different backgrounds to their own”

    How can you ensure without enforcing and coercing? What that it is actually saying is that a LEA ought to force children to mix and form friendships with pupils from different backgrounds of their own.


  21. Relax Brendan – “ensure” just means ‘developing a plan to ….’ and ‘appointing an officer to ….,’ but nothing will actually happen.


  22. I’m not sure John Heard’s silly over the top comment deserves such an intelligent response. He was accusing libertarians of having ‘totalitarian impulses’ for not wanting to be in the ‘tent’ anymore i.e. of not wanting to be in an exploitative relationship where we were being played for suckers.

    And he then went on to suggest that libertarians were feeling these ‘totalitarian impulses’ in no longer wanting to be suckered by conservatives because of the LDP’s poor electoral results. Hello? who lost the last election? An appalling Prime Minister whom most libertarians didn’t give a toss about (and I was also happy with Marlborough Man losing his seat and cheering along with the left wing crowd at the LP election party at that news)


  23. Jason,

    I hope you mean an ALP party??? Tell me you didn’t go to a Larvatus Prodeo election party did you???? The shame, the shame!


  24. “On what can classical liberals and conservatives agree?”

    Economic liberals and social conservatives are fundamentally at logger heads – Exhibit A: Costello and Howard. (Coincidentally, this is also a rift within the ALP, between the Right and the more nationalistic Left of the party)

    Furthermore, there is no intellectual link between the conservatism and liberalism- for example social conservatives want immigration restricted, whilst economic liberals want to liberalise immigration so that workers can move in and out at the leisure of the market. True economic liberals tend to promote international cooperation, whilst social conservatives are more agressive.

    However their paths do cross on some important issues such as the role of government, taxation etc.

    @ Andrew Norton
    “law and order: I expect some classical liberal friends will disagree with me on this one. But in my view the state’s primary job is to protect its citizens and their property from violence and theft; and in high-crime times that means lots of police and full jails.”

    This is an interesting point. Both economic liberals and conservatives agree that the state should at least provide the means to enforce contracts and protect private property. But I’d like to extend this a little further. There is one kind of government spending that conservatives don’t mind, and that is military expenditure. You can be as profligate as you want with your military budget (E.g. the US). In my opinion their paths cross with economic liberals here because in a globalised economy the assets of the private sector are spread across the planet. If it is the job of the government to protect private property, then in a globalised world this means finding a way to protect your interests across borders. And one of the most efficient ways to do this is through a centralised military. This is not the first option, it is employed when international institutions such as the UN, the WTO and the IMF fail to do so. These institutions are essentially mechanisms of control for wealthy countries – especially the WTO and the IMF. When soft control fails, hard control (military) takes over.

    @Rajat Sood
    I don’t know much about the proposed NSW power privatisation… but my view is that privatisation should be a case by case proposition. Privatisation does not produce the best outcomes where it involves swapping a public monopoly for a private one. I don’t think this is a very controversial position to take. Where there is an industry with healthy competition, privatisation is certainly the best way to go. You state that those opposed to privatisation are either unionists or are (essentially) ignorant… probably true… but it is also true that business is never interested in healthy competition, so business will always be in favour of privatisation, even when not appropriate. So there are very good intellectual arguments put forth by well respected economists (eg Stiglitz and Krugman) as to why privatisation may not be good all the time. There has to be a balance between these two competing views and privatisation must be a case by case proposition.

    On a separate issue, I found the following presentation by an MIT economics professor on the state of the French economy… hardly the armageddon that Conrad and others paint.



  25. Andrew – it seems a lot depends on which “conservativism” we’re considering. There are the obvious Burkeans and Neocons, these groups aren’t particularly distinct, and there are “values voters” whose views are even less codified. Conservativism is inherently ideologically fuzzy because of its anti-rationalism.

    You’ve acknowledged both sides of the story on gay marriage. But I think the “familism” issue can go both ways as well. In my analysis, the options are to subsidize families or cut welfare to single mothers.

    A liberal obviously goes for option B, and it’s only incidentally to do with families: individual autonomy is the highest good. A left-familist reaches for the moneybags and goes for A.

    Now in your analysis, conservatives also go for A. It’s distastefully rationalistic to give single mothers the homo economicus treatment, families rock, and conservatives don’t have any ideological problem with “big government”.

    But there is also a strong conservative argument for option B. Fiscal prudence is a conservative value – for governments, true, but also for families, for whom austerity is one of the bourgeois values neocons (and others) so treasure.


  26. Leon – I’m talking about contemporary Australian conservatives, few of whom of course have read Burke or the Kristols.

    On my analysis both liberals and conservatives would be inclined to (b), one primarily to save money and the other to discourage single-parent family arrangements, though of course as you note they favour fiscal prudence (that’s one big difference between Australian and American conservatism). However only conservatives are likely to be enthusiastic about (a).


  27. Rajat (19): The government has an interest in opposing the growth of electricity usage. It would be intolerable for a private company to seek to maximise growth in a jurisdiction where the government takes contrary action.

    It is interesting to note that many companies that bought Australian electricity assets have exited the market, and that many of these assets are owned by the government of Singapore, an entity which understands the tension between private profit maximisation and the myriad agendas of public policy.


  28. I don’t think one has to have read Burke to be a Burkean. I think most Australian rightists are instinctively Burkean in a fashion (when they are not busy being pork barrelists).


  29. Andrew E, on your first point I think you are precisely wrong. It was Victoria’s regulator (the Essential Services Commission) that several years ago mandated the rollout of time-of-use electricity meters in order to enable small customers to face cost-reflective tariffs in a bid to curb their peak consumption. Whilst I thought their analysis was lousy and I disagree in principle with compulsion, at least the Victorian Government does not face a conflict of interest in regulating local businesses. More generally, governments regulate the activities of private businesses all the time to balance different objectives and it generally works fine if the regulation is not overly stupid.
    I am conflicted through work from commenting on your second point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s