Whereas conservatism and liberalism are both outgrowths of classical liberal thought, they differ in what they accept and reject of their intellectual roots. Conservatism tends to accept the classical liberal commitment to economic liberty but rejects many of its applications to the noneconomic realm. Liberalism accepts the classical liberal commitment to civil liberties but largely rejects the idea of economic rights.

John C. Goodman, “Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism”

In the United States, political debate rages between conservatism and liberalism, which are associated with the right and the left, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, respectively. Every four or eight years, a new president calls for unity between the groups, which is always a nice sentiment. Most people, after all, desire reconciliation and peace. The challenge in bringing the “right” and the “left” together is that the two hold to opposing sociologies – different sides of the classical liberalism from which they emerge, according to John C. Goodman of the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research.

Goodman, an economist from Columbia University and founder of the former National Center for Policy Analysis, is a leading thinker on American health policy. Books he has published on this topic include Patient Power: Solving America’s Health Care Crisis (1992), Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis (2012), and A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America Independent Institute (2015). To Goodman belongs credit for the adoption of Health Savings Accounts. He has also contributed to ideas on progressive flat taxation and classical liberalism. It is his discussion on the latter subject that the opening quote speaks.

The Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research works with the “best scholars from around the country” to propose private alternatives to government programs. The Institute advocates classical liberalism, so in the modern sense they are “conservative” in some areas and “liberal” in others. The distinction between the two, and their relation to classical liberalism, is described with great care and precision in Goodman’s essay, quoted above, “Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism.”

This post summarizes that lengthy essay. If times allows, I encourage you to read in its entirety.

One of the difficulties in describing political ideas is that the people who hold them are invariably more varied and complex than the ideas themselves.

John C. Goodman, “Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism”

Modern liberalism and conservatism, Goodman explains, have the approaches to life and views on policies that they do because of the influence that the “dishes” of classical liberalism have had on their palettes. Classical liberalism recognizes a belief in liberty and rights on which the government cannot infringe. Government should protect those rights and no more. This ideology flourished in the 19th century, contributing to the “ever-increasing economic and political liberty” of that era, and languished in the 20th century, leading to “dictatorship, depression and war.”

The difference between the Thanksgiving plates of liberals and conservatives.
This may seem irrelevant, but it isn’t. I did mention dishes of classical liberalism

(c) 2018 Samantha Lee at Business Insider

Though classical liberalism took a blow, the exaltation of liberty survived: In modern liberalism, in its defense of civil liberties; in modern conservatism, in its defense of economic liberties. Conservatives and liberals, Goodman admits, are more diverse and complicated than the ideas that the “official” party professes, but it is this difference in liberty – civil or economic – that he finds to be the glue giving the “diverse views…coherence.”

Goodman presents several examples to demonstrate this split in perspectives on liberty. On the modern liberal side, for one, while you “have a right to engage in almost any sexual activity in the privacy of your own bedroom”, you do not have a right to rent your bedroom to whomever. Government regulation must exist. On the modern conservative side, you have the right to work whenever and however you wanted without government intervention, you may not have the right to read of watch anything you like. Some control of the books and magazines read and the movies watched must be in order.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor, New York City, USA, circa 1905.
(c) Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The 19th century saw the reformation of economic and civil institutions by classical liberals. The break-off of modern liberals of the 20th century continued to push for reform, prompting the rise of modern conservatives to stymie the reform. Through the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court sided more with liberal rights than conservative rights, which has granted Americans “almost unrestrained constitutional right to say whatever you want to say” while strengthening the government’s economic regulatory power. This conflicts with the non-discrimination of classical liberalism in supporting freedom of thought and freedom of commerce. Divorced from economic rights, political rights are meaningless.

Freedom of speech is a meaningless right without the economic right to acquire space, buy a megaphone and invite others to hear your message. Freedom of press is a meaningless right if one does not have the economic right to buy paper, ink and printing presses. Freedom of association is a meaningless right if one cannot own property or rent property or otherwise acquire the right to use the premises where a group can assemble.

John C. Goodman, “Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism”

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when political leaders realized the failures of the collectivist economies of Communism, socialism, Fascism, and the welfare state, there was demand for privatization and deregulation of business – a task largely led, Goodman argues, by modern liberals rather than modern conservatives, who “lacked…the needed skills, having spent the better part of a century on defense.”

What happened in the beginning of that century points to the origin of liberalism and conservatism. The Progressive Era of the late 1890s and early 1920s inspired in liberalism and conservatism “[their] worst ideas”, while classical liberalism gave them their best. It was in this era that an anti-classical liberalism trend spread through the West, stirring enthusiasm for Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States. Before World War II, intellectuals on the left were “enamored of Lenin’s communist regime in Russia” and “Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy” because they saw the realization of the conditions of a country during wartime (state power, “regulated” individual rights, industry ordinances, etc.) instituted in peacetime. A popular idea among intellects at the time was eugenics – state controlled improvement of the gene pool.

In light of the abuses of the regimes under Stalin, Mao, and others, there is an obvious desire to distance the groups from the 20th century pro-communism and pro-Fascism streams of thought. Hence, Goodman notes, little is asked or said of the origins of today’s liberalism and conservatism, though much is asked and said about their tenets.

Neither sociology provides the full political answer, Goodman concludes. Reactionaries on both sides – the most visible members – threaten the liberties of classical liberalism; he sees the reactionary forces as “the greatest intellectual danger we face.” A return to pure classical liberalism, however, will not work in these epoch. “Two hundred years ago there were no weapons of mass destruction — no nuclear arms, no biological or chemical weapons,” he points out. “There was also no threat of global warming, and mankind’s ability to harm the environment was much more limited than today.”

As a solution, Goodman proposes the creation and execution of a political theory, called neoclassical liberalism, that lends the best of both modern conservatism and modern liberalism, building on the philosophy of the Founding Fathers to accord with the unique landscape of the 21st century.

Where do you fall on this sociopolitical spectrum? Where do you see conservatism and liberalism heading?

Read the full essay here. Two sections in the middle address the aberrant strand of the liberal camp that advocates political correctness and group rights and the aberrant strand of the conservative camp that advocates protectionism and tribal politics.