On what do classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Early last year I wrote a post on common ground between classical liberals and conservatives. The Australian political identity survey helps me test my argument, though given the relatively low conservative response rate I have combined the answers of those who described themselves as ‘conservatives’ (69 respondents) and those who described themselves as ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’ (94 respondents). Because of this, I have not analysed responses to economic questions, as the economic liberal responses would dominate. The comparison charts can be found here.

As I thought, conservatives and classical liberals hold similar views on schools – neither gives majority support to monopoly curriculum, and larger numbers agree rather than disagree that while the government should help fund school education, it should not deliver it. Both groups disagree that the trend away from federalism is a positive development (both groups, though much more so conservatives, are Coalition voters – the Howard government was way out of line with its ideological supporters on national curriculum and other forms of centralisation).

I thought conservatives and classical liberals would hold similar views on anti-discrimination law. Conservatives are considerably more likely to think that it should be repealed altogether. However, on the current debate – whether or not the exceptions to anti-discrimination law should be preserved – conservatives and classical liberals are both firmly on the side of exceptions.

I thought both groups were welfare sceptics, and this is certainly true. Both very much oppose further redistribution of income and tax-funded maternity leave. Conservatives are also more sceptical of family benefits than I would have thought, though not as sceptical as classical liberals.

Inevitably, however, there are differences, particularly on some social issues – though these are not as large as expected.

While a surprisingly large number of conservatives are willing to give up the legal fight against marijuana, 50% say it should be illegal, while 50% of classical liberals say it should be fully legalised. This is not the only social issue in which conservative respondents were more liberal than expected. While there was a plurality in favour of banning sexually explicit materials beyond what can be now depicted in R-rated films and magazines, more conservatives chose either no censorship or censorship only where children or violence are depicted.

On gay relationships, about a quarter of conservatives were against any legal recognition, but nearly half were in favour of civil unions. Though my immigration question was in hindsight not well worded, conservatives were noticeably less likely than classical liberals to say there should be no discrimination based on cultural or religious background.

Conservative views on climate change are more sceptical than classical liberals. Less than 20% think it is happening and is due to human causes. A clear majority think that nothing should be done about it.

On constitutional issues, classical liberals and conservatives were divided on a republic, but each group was most likely to support the democratic system as the protector of individual freedoms.

As expected, conservatives are more religious than classical liberals, though a third are agnostics or atheists.

Though the views of conservative respondents in this survey conform to the expected pattern, of the results reported so far these most need checking with a bigger sample. The large numbers of self-described conservatives giving quite liberal answers to some questions supports my claim, against the rather wild imaginations of some left-wing academics, that by international standards Australia barely has a conservative movement, and that our ‘conservatives’ are really pragmatic liberal conservatives. The numbers in this survey aren’t large enough to say anything more than that this hypothesis is still standing.

27 thoughts on “On what do classical liberals and conservatives agree?

  1. While there was a plurality in favour of banning sexually explicit materials beyond what can be now depicted in R-rated films and magazines, more conservatives chose either no censorship or censorship only where children or violence are depicted.

    Ironically R-rated can depict violence (and in fact can get the R rating because of violence) whilst to get an X-rating a film is not allowed to depict any violence at all.


  2. I believe conservatism is alive and well within Australia, but not as an ideological movement. Conservatism, in my opinion, is what’s in the hearts and minds of the grannies, rednecks and religious groups around the country. Our conservative movement is definitely not a cohesive movement- but 90s levels of Hanson support and the power of Christian groups over the major parties is strong enough in my mind to say that conservatism is a powerful force within Australia. It definitely- especially on the basis of these results- seems to be the case that the government of the day pushes a disproportionately conservative agenda (in democratic terms) regardless of popular opinion. The fact that neither Rudd nor Howard was willing to support even civil unions is indicative of the power of the conservative in Australia.


  3. I agree with Shem — I think Christian groups have a disproportionately large amount of influence in Australia. I’d love to see a PM that doesn’t go to church, doesn’t say god bless this and god bless that etc. I assume some of it is simply put on, but it seems to me that the average politician is far more religious than the average citizen, and probably one of the reasons we get such a conservative agenda on some issues.
    On an alternative topic, speaking of statistically conservative, without looking at the numbers, I think your data is probably fine to examine economic questions with and how conservatives respond.


  4. Or in the case of the current federal government, a Christian individual (ie the Prime Minister) has disproportionate influence. I think we are stalled on civil unions more due to the intuitions of the last two PMs than any interest group or democratic obstacle.

    I don’t know about the average serving politician, but the candidates in the 2007 Australian Candidate Survey were more likely to be regular church attenders than the average voter recorded in the Australian Election Survey

    Dataset: Australian Candidate Study, 2007
    Variable E7 : E7. How often attend religious services
    Literal Question
    E.7. Apart from weddings, funerals and baptisms, about how often do you attend religious services?
    Values Categories N
    1 At least once a week 97 21.3%

    2 At least once a month 37 8.1%

    3 Several times a year 64 14.1%

    4 At least once a year 50 11.0%

    5 Less than once a year 75 16.5%

    6 Never 132 29.0%

    -1 Missing 15
    Dataset: Australian Election Study, 2007
    Variable h7 : H7. Religious attendance
    Literal Question
    H.7. Apart from weddings, funerals and baptisms, about how often do you attend religious services?
    Values Categories N
    1 At least once a week 240 13.1%

    2 At least once a month 79 4.3%

    3 Several times a year 198 10.8%

    4 At least once a year 194 10.6%

    5 Less than once a year 343 18.7%

    6 Never 776 42.4%

    -1 Missing 43
    Summary Statistics
    Valid cases 1830
    Missing cases 43


  5. Bear in mind that political parties are themselves conservative institutions that sort and select candidates. There are a number of markers that would be valuable. You might think, for example, that a regular church goer is less likely to have habits and characteristics that, when exposed, would prove embarrassing.


  6. ” You might think, for example, that a regular church goer is less likely to have habits and characteristics that, when exposed, would prove embarrassing.”

    On the other hand, if exposed they will be hypocrites as well.


  7. Bob Hawke wasn’t religious, was he? Nor was Mark Latham, and he could have won in 2004. And I’m sure there are plenty of frontbenchers who aren’t regular churchgoers. Maybe Christian influence has increased in recent years — due the post 1970s evangelical boom, perhaps — but the “political appeal” explanation still seems weak. Howard and Rudd just happen to be earnest religious types.


  8. “Howard and Rudd just happen to be earnest religious types.”

    Though Howard’s religious beliefs have always been rather vague. He’s certainly a lot less religious than Rudd.

    Though the candidate study results are interesting, I am yet to be convinced there is a ‘structural’ increase in Christian influence – ie Christian voting blocs, well-organised interest groups, or more MPs who are active Christians – rather than as Leon suggests key people who happen to hold certain views on issues like civil unions/gay marriage.


  9. Something to remember is electoral math (the West Wing teaches us this and it is more obvious in the US than here, but still applies). Elections are decided in the marginals. In many states those marginals are in the outer suburban bible belt and socially conservative, economically below average regional centres. Therefore governments tend towards the more conservative side on many social issues.

    There is a formal Christian lobby group, however I suspect it has little traction since it is not only focused on “issues of personal morality” but also social justice type issues. While it may appear successful on the first, there is great frustration in much of the “Christian left” on social justice issues. This leads me to suspect that government polling tells them that the community (especially in battler marginals) is more socially conservative in general. Or alternatively that senior members in the major parties tend to be older and more conservative and less ambitious about social change.

    Also the assumption of growing Christian influence appears to be based on Howard, Rudd and Costello. Very small sample size.

    Last point from me. People who talk on blogs and read more than one news source are not the mainstream. The quiet majority is probably mildly conservative, but not vocally so, do not read newspapers, do not have a coherent ideology, they don’t live in the inner city, they don’t have university degrees, they earn $50K and have little to no interest in politics.


  10. I guess part of the reason a lot of politicians are regular church-goers is networking. Nothing is more important in politics and the more organisations one is affiliated with the more networking opportunities one is faced with.

    Not many atheists are actually affiliated with atheist/ secular organisations so they miss out on regular weekly networking opportunities from the get-go.


  11. Andrew Sinclair: “You might think, for example, that a regular church goer is less likely to have habits and characteristics that, when exposed, would prove embarrassing.”

    You’re joking, right?


  12. No. Being a church goer is a signal. Political parties are on the look out for individuals who can act as members of parliament. This becomes a classic principal/agent problem. The party is the principal and the potential MP the agent. So from my advanced corporate finance notes.

    Signalling implies acting in such a way that indicates intention or ability or the possession of some characteristic about which the agent has superior, but unverifiable, information. The signal must, of course, be credible and highly correlated with being a high quality agent. A potential problem, however, is that low quality agents have an incentive to signal that they are high quality agents and hope to earn higher returns in the short run before being found out (i.e. engage in mimicking behaviour). The solution for this to high quality agents is to engage in costly (but affordable) activities, that in turn are prohibitively expensive to low quality agents. If high quality agents are able to send credible, expensive and non-mimickable signals then a separating equilibrium will occur.

    Being a church goer could be a signal. It can be mimicked – but as Andrew indicated, that is very expensive when caught.


  13. A firm adherence to European Christianity tends to reduce the size of central government. This is intuitively obvious, since the evolution of Christianity is obviously correlated with the development with the largely liberal European state.

    If liberals or libertarians want to lower taxes and or constrain state funded welfare agencies I suggest that they encourage Christianity. Rather than constantly knocking it and generally being disrespectful towards the dwindling number of people who are proud of our cultural heritage.


  14. European liberalism predates Christianity. The Romans were big on free trade, low taxes, property rights, freedom of religion etc. In fact it was the coming of Christianity as the religion of the Roman state that undid a large part of the early western liberalism. Until the time that we started the abolition of slavery I don’t think the modern world had really done much to outshine ancient liberalism. So I think of european liberalism as having been supressed by Christianity for more than 1000 years but then finding a way to recover and ultimately pull of the shackles of Christianity.


  15. TerjeJ – While there were certain ancient practices and ideas that can be seen, as John Gray put it, as ‘pre-modern anticipations of liberalism’ I think it is stretching things to date its beginnings before the (Christian) 17th century, and the term itself did not come into use in its current meaning until the 19th century.

    Jack – The Christian churches have long been enemies of freedom.


  16. correction – the Papists has long been the enemy of freedom. but there is something about Protestanism that is more conducive to the culture of a free society – see Neal Stephenson’s historical trilogy Quicksilver


  17. Andrew – perhaps. But the size of state debate as measured by tax rates is an old one and the Christians introduced very high tax rates.


  18. “Andrew – perhaps. But the size of state debate as measured by tax rates is an old one and the Christians introduced very high tax rates.”

    But due to some element of their Christianity?? We need to keep in mind that the idea that there should be limits on political power is the exception, not the norm.


  19. Sorry, this is getting a bit strange. The idea that the Romans were liberals before their time just does not accord with my (amateur) understanding of ancient history.
    Sure there was freedom of religion so long as you first officially worshipped the Emperor. There was persecution of Christians and the destruction of the Jewish state which is a curious sort of religious toleration.
    The reason why there were low taxes was because most of the peasant population of the Empire operated not that far above the level of subsistence. The Roman state like most ancient states funded itself through expropriation of agricultural surpluses. Another source of revenue was invasion of neighbours – a lot of the Forum was paid for on the plunder taken from what is now Romania and the Colosseum was funded by the treasure taken from the temple in Jerusalem.
    Roman Egypt had custom duties within Egypt – not exactly a free trade area. Sure it was probably a lot better than “dark age” and medieval Europe, but that was because it was a single empire not a collection of small states, duchies, principalities and cities.
    Then there was the slavery – you don’t have to raise taxes so high if all you do is feed and not pay the people you have digging your silver and growing your crops.
    Then there was the on-again and off-again war against Iran in Iraq for the better part of 700 years.
    By the time of Diocletian they introduced price control and required young men to undertake the same occupations as their fathers.
    I have a lot of admiration for the Roman achievement, but liberals they weren’t!


  20. If you go back a few comments you can read Jack suggesting that Christianity is key to western liberalism. I’m merely countering that point by indicating that the rise of Christianity coincided with a significant increase in the burdens of government and the ultimate collapse (though not destruction) of western civilisation. The fact that civilisation eventually recovered is hardly a credit to Christianity. Perhaps the collapse was not due to anything special in the nature of Christianity (although I’d argue that the integration of state and religion was a key failing) however the correlation between the arrival of Christian rulers and economic collapse is real enough. If we must be careful in drawing conclusions from this correlation then likewise for the correlation between the renaissance emergence of liberalism in the west and the practice of Christianity in the west.


  21. The price controls of Diocletian was the beginning of the end. To his credit he had tried to reinstate sound money in the way that Julius Ceasar had in order to arrest inflation, however when he fluffed it he reached for price controls (something leaders in our liberal age have also done, noteably president Ford in response to Nixons inflation).

    Yes slavery was widespread in Roman times. However also in modern times. 150 years ago slavery was still common and respectable in many quarters of western society. To be sure it was not a liberal thing to enslave people which is why I indicated earlier that we did ultimately exceed Roman liberalism by abolishing slavery and undertaking other subsequent reforms (most noteable full citizenship for women).

    Compared to the dark ages farmers lived prosperous lives. When the high taxes of the Christian leaders were imposed the economies of Europe collapsed. Peasants essentially sold themselves into serfdom to avoid taxes. Feudalism was born of such decay. The collapse in trade in Britian was so severe that coinage all but disappeared for two centuries.

    The Romans may not have been classical liberals by todays measure but they were relative to what followed and relative to most alternative regimes of their time. At least for Roman citizens.


  22. Peter;

    One of the tricky things about saying stuff like “the Romans did this” and “the Romans were like that” is that the phrase “the Romans” could encompass a very broad set of societies centred on the city of Rome for approximately 1000 years.

    There were the Roman kingdoms, the early Republic, the late Republic, the early Empire, the middle Empire and the divided Empires. All of them were quite different from each other.

    As for early Christians, they were the terrorists of their day. They even had a split which made Shiites and Sunnis look like kindergarten kids. It was safer to be a Christian in the coliseum than in the company of Christians of the other persuasion. At least you’d die relatively quickly.


  23. I think you’d find a larger difference between self described conservatives who read blogs and those that don’t than you would between self described conservatives and classical liberals.


  24. Andrew,
    You’re correct – there is no ‘conservative movement’ in Australia, certainly nothing like the conservative movement in the US, and even unlike anything in the UK where you still have something like a conservative establishment beyond the Conservative Party and self-consciously conservative magazines like the Salisbury Review. What passes for conservatism on the Right of the political spectrum in this country is the generally non-ideological and at times even anti-ideological attitude of many Coalition MPs who believe basically in stable government, are more reflective in their own views of the average citizen’s prejudices and attitudes than those on the other side, and believe (generally speaking) in economic responsibility and balanced budgets. But there is no understanding of ‘conservatism’ as an attitude to politics or a state of mind in this country. You see that in the media where everyone on the Right is referred to as a ‘conservative’ (As you yourself know well! How many times have I seen Andrew Norton referred to in the media as a ‘conservative’ commentator!), regardless of their views on policy. However, I’m not sure I would agree with you that conservatives in this country are actually just pragmatic liberal conservatives – compared to what??? Do you have another definition of conservative? While I agree with you that classical liberals and conservatives have much in common – in particular, a desire to preserve the basic constitutional arrangements of this society – to me the big difference between liberals and conservatives is a mind set rather than any particular ideological position. I think conservatives are more interested in preserving social stability and opposing radical change, whereas many liberals and libertarians share the Left’s view that the human condition can be generally improved through political and social reform. Conservatives remain sceptical – human beings will always be fallible instruments for change, lacking the wisdom and foresight to see the unintended consequences around every reformist corner. This is why I refuse to see Rudd as a conservative, as some commentators maintain he is – he may or may not share my Christian moral convictions but he clearly has not a sceptical bone in his body when it comes to his obvious belief in the goodness of reform as a means of improving the human condition. True conservatives also believe in the importance of authority, albeit authority embedded in traditional institutions and communities, not merely in the state as the monopoly of force within a geographic boundary, as the Left in their hamfisted way seem view the role of the state in society. Without traditional authority human freedom would merely descend into anarchy. On the surface, though, it seems to me that a classical liberal wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of the above points. But, conservatives, I believe, view civil society somewhat more mystically – for want of a better word – than classical liberals. Conservatives believe civil society is a great artifact, built up over many generations, forged by human reason (but not entirely devised by conscious human reason) that we tamper with at our peril. Liberals I think ignore that aspect of social order – as Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty makes clear. The idea that you can self-consciously build a political constitution from scratch, according to liberal principles (as I think Hayek seems to imply in his book) is both absurd and alarming in its naivity. It’s the type of thinking that got the US in to trouble in Iraq thinking they could impose a liberal democratic constitution on a people that have never known civil society or rule of law. Anyway, as always I’d be interested in your thoughts.



  25. Martin – In the situational sense, ie their attitudes to change as such, perhaps we could say that Australian conservatives are *more* conservative than those found in the US or Britain. To a significant degree, they have accommodated themselves to current social, political and economic realities. The surprising number of ‘conservatives’ in my survey willing to take ‘liberal’ policy positions is consistent with this. To paraphrase William F Buckley Jr, the role of the Australian conservative is not so much to stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’, as to stand athwart history yelling ‘slow down’.

    The American and British conservatives I had in mind in drawing my contrast are more likely to have a strong alternative social reality in mind, creating the apparent oxymoron of ‘radical conservatism’.

    I think you are right that liberals have more confidence than conservatives that reforms will go better rather than worse. On the other hand, sometimes you have to build a political constitution from scratch when a state collapses or is destroyed. This will rarely these days be in a country with a democratic history, and there is little prospect that it will turn into a Western liberal democracy anytime soon. On the other hand, non-democratic regimes have massive problems of their own – the number that have been both largely benign and also competent is small. In backward countries, there are no easy options and democracy, as Churchill said many years ago, may be the least worst.


  26. Andrew, We don’t live in a democracy, and most western countries that call themselves democratic ain’t! The only truly democratic country in the world is (probably) Switzerland where the people directly elect their officials at town meetings and debate issues with each other, eyeball to eyeball. In most western countries, like Australia, we have a representative form of government that allows people to vote for other people to represent them in Parliament, who then don’t have to follow the desires of the electors if that interferes with their personal views or their parties’ ideological position. And a good thing to! Too much democracy can be a bad thing! Our society isn’t democratic – and please don’t tell me it’s Parliamentary Democracy. I would argue that’s two different and opposed forms of government that have been smashed together in our society without much thought. And anyway, as you would know, Hayek would agree with me – he was no democrat (thankfully!) but a liberal constitutionalist. And on a related topic, we don’t live in a capitalist society either. Capitalism is a Marxist term that denotes Big Business class dominance of society. I believe Thatcher hated using the term. It’s a completely biased term. What we have is a (relatively) free economy, based on the (relatively) free exchange of goods and services. But, anyway, I’m getting off topic. The topic was philosophical differences between classical liberals and conservatives. I take your point about Liberal Party MPs being more “conservative” in the sense that they are wary of radical change. But only up to a point Lord Cropper. Truth is that on so many issues our MPs, whether they are Liberal or ALP, are motivated by progressive tenets and beliefs that they hardly merit the description “conservative” in their political outlook. Wary of drastic change, maybe. Wary of progressive reformism, not on your life. They all want to be seen as “with-it” and up-to-date, and there does not seem to be any great love of prescription and continuity, which should be the rule for any conservative worth their salt. Possibly the many conservatives who take liberal positions on some issues (eg. I’m in favour of legalising all drugs) is because when applying conservative principles to these social issues, one comes to the conclusion that there is nothing inherently conservative about drug prohibition. In fact, more often than not they relate to the activism of a religious, sectarian minority who favour progressive reform by governments to change the behaviour of the impure, “unenlightened” masses, who have no idea what’s in their best interests and need the guidance of their betters. Once one realises that this is the reality behind our drug laws I don’t believe there’s necessarily any more onus on a good conservative to support them. Anyway, I’m starting to go off the term conservative, because the word itself has been cut free from its original meaning. Nowadays ti can mean anything from a complete libertarian hedonist, right through to a devout Muslim (ie. Conservative Islam). There’s no good word actually for my political position: maybe Traditionalist or Disraelian or One Nation Tory??? I don’t know …


  27. Martin – On the democracy issue, as with all the major political ideologies I favour a broad church – any system in which voting creates incentives for rulers to be responsive to the ruled is a democracy and distinguishes it from other types of regime – monarchy, authoritiarian, totalitarian etc. From there we can talk about different types of democracy and argue their merits.


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