What are the differences in the primary values and principal beliefs between classical liberalism and traditional conservativism ? Are there any values that these two ideologies share?

Comparison between Classical Liberalism and Traditional Conservatism


Most of the modern political ideologies can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries after the revolutions that occurred in parts of Europe such as in France (Battistini 2017). Of the numerous political ideologies in the modern world, liberalism and conservatism are the most practiced and appreciated. However, there are some differences between the original meanings and intentions of liberalism and conservatism, otherwise regarded as classical liberalism and traditional conservatism, and the modern views and values of the two ideologies.  The discussion as to whether which of the two political ideologies is better remains unsettled, with supporters of each ideology holding that their ideology is best suited to govern people. The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism, discussing the differences and similarities in their primary values and principle briefs.

Differences between Classical Liberalism and Traditional Conservatism

Traditionally, liberalism and conservatism held ideas that were contrasting to each other on most of the factors that touched on how people were to be governed. Classical liberalism is based on the belief that the state function or role is minimal and is only concerned with maintaining domestic order as well as personal security (Bell 2014). On the other hand, traditional conservatism resists changes with regards to governance. Therefore, this ideology holds that order is only, and in fact should only be established by the government (Rahe 2017). This ideology came into practice mainly during the nineteenth century and was seen to counter the pressures from increased liberalism and socialism. As such, the ruling and the elite class were resistant to the changes that were advocated by the other ideologies. In the modern era, not much difference can be noted between liberalism and conservatism. In other words, a political candidate based on political parties advocating for either ideology does not portray much difference in the eyes on the voter. On the other hand, differences between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism are critical to governance and they can be discussed based on three major factors; human nature, political freedom and the role of the government.

Political freedom is among the key pillars of any political ideology and has been manifested differently in classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. The former focuses on the individual and his self-interest. The individual discussed by the ideology has a right to property, liberty, and life, all which are bestowed by God through nature (Bell 2014). All people have these rights and they can use them for their self-interest and all people should have the freedom to do so since it is a gift from God. Therefore, classical liberalism gives individuals the political freedom not only to vote but also pursue what they are interested in with government regulation and restrictions. In addition, the fewer regulations imply that individuals will have more liberty, large growth as well as large productive forces, for instance, the industrial revolution, which resulted in both innovation and economic growth. Nonetheless, this ideology has been criticized by various authors such as Durkheim, who assert that liberalism fails to give society independence, but rather, considers the society as “an artificial body consisting of individuals (Gray 2014).” Furthermore, less regulations and increased freedom does not always imply success or equality as it sounds. In this case, individuals are not in a position to utilize their freedoms in the right way always. Similarly, markets cannot formulate themselves automatically if they are to operate without regulations.

On the other hand, political freedom as depicted in traditional conservatism opposes the stand of classical liberal ideology. According to Feldman and Johnston (2014), classical liberal is more likely to trust human reasons for pursuing their self-interest compared to conservatism. In the eyes of traditional conservatism, no individual would be granted any freedom that contradicts virtue and sums as immoral in the community. Edmund Burke, considered as the originator of conservatism in Europe, argues that people have no right to actions that are not reasonable or beneficial to them (Sullivan 2015). In this regard, traditional liberalism goes beyond self-interest.  Freedom based on this ideology does not include freedom to immorality. Therefore, conservatism aims at guarding what is morally upright in a society, and thus maintains the social order. On the other hand, the ideology has faced major backlashes especially with regards to authoritarianism. On this issue, most of the wealth is controlled by a few people who can use it to exploit the vulnerable (O’Neill 2017). In addition, social conservatism is also seen as a major drawback with regards to this ideology. For instance, in Iran, there are moral police to instruct women not to unveil themselves (Abramovitz2017). Similarly, people with different sexual orientation are mistreated and even denied their rights.

The comparisons between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism can also be discussed based on human nature. Classical liberalism regards a person as a “rational individual”, such that he can be trusted in all his endeavours including pursuing f self-interest because it is expected he will do so in a “rational way” (Apple 2004). Accordingly, people are free to pursue their interests such as economic without the interference of the government, and because of their “rational” nature, they do not require a large government to control them. Moreover, an intrusive government is not required since people will not impede on the rights of other people. However, this notion is not only practically impossible but also contradicts with the traditional view on the nature of human being. For instance, Christianity teaches that men are sinners, and therefore their sinful nature extends not only in their reasoning but also their actions (Rossen et al. 2015). Adherents to this ideology would argue that people do not need religion or tradition in a bid to provide the general direction, in which the society should follow. For instance, Thomas Paine argued that the rights of people should not be overshadowed by tradition; rather each generation should pursue their own interest freely without historical constraints.

On the other hand, traditional conservatism holds that a person is not connected to his society. The word “individual” in conservatism is seen as an adjective rather than a noun and thus, people are seen as primarily connected rather than primarily individuated (Feldman & Johnston 2014). The nature of human being in conservatism is through their connection to one another. And because people are arranged organically, if changes are to happen, they should slowly. Otherwise, despite their good-intention, sudden changes will only do harm. One of the disadvantages of this ideology with regards to human nature is that the role of a person in the society is reduced. But on the other hand, it asserts that people should rely on experiences rather than reason, of which experience is regarded as “the best teacher.”

Lastly, differences between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism are discussed based on the role of government. According to Heywood (2003) and Heywood (2015), the role of the government, from a classical liberal point of view, involves protecting people’s lives, properties, and liberty. Therefore this ideology sees governments not only as men’s creation but also as the defender of their rights. Governments and the laws created are meant to protect the liberties of people. The most significant importance of the classical liberalism is observed with regards to the development of rights of life, property, and liberty, and all people are not only entitled to these rights but also their governments should protect them. However, limiting the role of the government as a protector is not satisfactory because the role of the government should go beyond the interest of people.

On the other hand, Rossen et al. (2015) state that traditional conservatism sees the role of the government as enforcers of law and punisher to people who violate the laws. As opposed to liberalism view that government creation is a result of the rational act, conservatism holds people were born under authority, and that no one chose what kind of authority to leave under. Due to the role of government under conservatism, order and justice can be achieved; wrongdoers are punished based on their crime. In case of punishing wrongdoers, liberalism would focus on the rights of the citizens and the possibility of a revolution if the rights were to be infringed. In the eyes of conservatism, maintain law and order is important compared to securing rights.

Similarities between Classical liberalism and Traditional Conservatism

Despite the above-discussed differences between the two ideologies; there exist a few similarities. Firstly, as discussed by Sullivan (2015), both ideologies believe in hierarchies as a core principle of organizing the society. The only difference is observed based on the hierarchy each of the ideology supports. For instance, traditional conservatism believes in religious power because, in itself, it is a traditional norm that should not only be respected but also supported in its purest form. On the other hand, classical liberalism believes in the power of unions especially because they advocate for the rights of the workers such as minimum wage and opposes wealth being controlled by only a few people as in the case of conservatism. Generally, both ideologies believe in hierarchies without no argument on who is in charge; people lower in the hierarchy should be obedient to people higher in the hierarchy.

Additionally, both ideologies believe in the principles of neo-liberal economic policies which advocates for the abolition of trade barriers as well as internal market restrictions, while at the same time, using the power of the government to open foreign markets. And because of the importance of middle-class families in both ideologies, supporting free markets can easily achieve this objective.


Conclusively, this essay has discussed classical liberalism and traditional conservatism focusing on their major differences as well as similarities. This essay has discussed that the differences between the two ideologies are based on political freedom, human nature, and the role of government. In classical liberalism, there is emphasizes on the rights of individuals on their lives, property, and liberty. All individuals are entitled to rights based on these three things, while in traditional conservatism despite the freedom given to citizens; they are not to be immoral. Human nature has been discussed in classical liberalism as people acting rationally, without impeding on the rights of other people, while in traditional conservatism; human nature is sinful and is likely to lead to a reasoning that violates the law. With regards to the role of the government, classical liberalism holds that the purpose of the government is to protect their rights to life, property, and liberty. On the other hand, the role of the government in traditional conservatism is to enforce the law and punish the wrongdoers, thereby maintain law and order. However, the two ideologies have similarities in neo-liberal economic policies and organizing people through hierarchies.


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