Differences Between Classical Liberalism and Traditional Conservatism

Modified: 24th Aug 2021
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Liberal societies are based around two significant twin principles of consent and constitutionalism which is implemented to help protect individuals from danger from the state and government tyranny. The main desire for liberalists are to develop and build a society where individuals can satisfy their interests and achievement through fulfillment. (Heywood, 2017, p. 24). The theme of liberalism encompasses commitment to the individual and there are important differences that need to be established between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism which is the focus of this essay surrounds itself with the belief of a state whose function is limited to the conservation of personal security and safety as well as the maintenance of domestic order, this is known as a minimal state where there is a heavy reliance on market economics (Heywood, 2017, p. 25). Contrasting with this is modern liberalism which believes that the people should help others to promote personal development within individuals (p25).It has come to the attention of many liberalists, conservatives and even fascists that classical liberals focus on the virtues of individual responsibility and self help whereas modern liberals have placed more emphasis on the case of social welfare (Heywood, 2017, p. 25). As Liberalism believes in the importance of liberty and equal rights for individuals contrasting with this is traditional conservatism which attempts to promote the maintenance of traditional institution and protecting one’s nation (Heywood, 2017, p. 26) in this essay we will be focusing on the main differences in the primary values and principle beliefs between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism.

Primary values and principle beliefs of liberalism

Liberalism as a systematic political creed, which is based on ideas and theories that had developed around three centuries ago although may have not existed before the nineteenth century. Although, these ideas advocated for reform and often supported revolution, conservatism stood in defence as a more embattled social order (Heywood, 2017, p. 24-25). Liberals believe that human beings are individuals who are endowed with reason (Heywood, 2017, p. 24.) this means that each individual in society has the right to freedom just as everyone else. Liberals believe that although they are entitled to this right they should be rewarded with their determination to work and their talents (Heywood, 2017, p. 26). Liberalism favours the importance of moral trust and the ideological stance of it has a distinctive set of values and beliefs the main ones include individualism, freedom reason justice and toleration (Heywood, 2017, p. 27). Egotistical liberalism encompasses beliefs of one’s self interests and self reliance (Heywood, 2017, p. 28)which classical liberals and the New Right have adopted to. Individual liberty (liberty and freedom being interchangeable) is for liberals the supreme political value and, in the main principle within ideologies of liberalism (Heywood, 2017, p. 28).

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Classical liberals believe in negative freedom which is the notion of state being absent to prevent external constraints on the individual which ultimately allows them to have a proper freedom of choice.(Heywood, 2017, p. 27) most people believed that rights came from government. But following British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson argued people don’t just have the rights that the government has given to them and that they have rights apart from government, as part of their nature. Furthermore, people can both form governments and get rid of them (Heywood, 2017, p. 34). The only proper purpose of government is to protect these rights (Heywood, 2017, p. 34). Locke argued that, since the genuine role of government is to protect life, liberty and property, it has no right to interfere with the care of men and that toleration should be extended to all matters and moral questions should be left to the individual themselves (Heywood, 2017, p. 34).

Primary values and principle beliefs of traditional conservatism

Conservative ideas arose as a response to the rapid growing pace of political, economic and economic change which was symbolized by the French Revolution (Heywood, 2017, p. 63). Conservatism is defined by the desire to conserve, reflected in a resistance to, or at least a suspicion of, change (Heywood, 2017, p. 62). Briefly defined, conservatives have a strong support for tradition, a belief in human imperfection, and the attempt to uphold the organic and initial structure of society (Heywood, 2017, p. 62).Traditional conservatism defends established institutions and values on the ground that they protect the fabric of society by giving people who seek security a feeling of stability. It is characterised by a belief in a minimal state by combining economic economic libertarianism with social authoritarianism (Heywood, 2017, p. 62). Conservatism has been debated to be a negative ideology as its core theme is the desire to conserve which can also be translated to being resistance or suspicion of change without political creed (Heywood, 2017, p. 65). Their central beliefs include tradition, society, hierarchy and authority property and tradition which contrasts strongly with liberalisms value of minimal government interference and individual freedom (Heywood, 2017, p. 65). In terms of tradition, conservatives such as Burke believed that society was developed from the creator which he considered to be the natural law and believed that humans should not change or interfere with God’s creation as they are calling the will of God. In this case conservatives people that the practises of the past should be preserved for the future generations to come as they have been tested by time (Heywood, 2017, p. 66) Conservatisms share similar ideas with Darwinism and the belief of natural selection believing that if these institutions have survived it creates a higher value on them therefore should be preserved (Heywood, 2017, p. 66). furthermore many ideologies believe that human beings are naturally good or if social circumstances are fixed they they can be made good this contrasts with conservatism themes as they believe in human imperfection where humans are psychologically limited and fear isolation, and cannot, exist outside society, but desperately need to belong, to have ‘roots’ in society also known as organic society this idea contrasts with liberalist who preach that individuals are self reliant and self seeking and can be personally developed and improved (Heywood, 2017, p. 68)

Comparisons / differences between classical liberalism and traditional conservatism

As mentioned earlier classical liberals support negative freedom whereas modern liberals preach for positive freedom in terms of personal development (Heywood, 2017, p. 29). These values contrast with conservatives where they have a weak view of freedom. The willing recognition and award process for duties and responsibilities conservatives believe that negative freedom is a threat to the fabric of society (Heywood, 2017, p. 29). However in saying this The New Right,, endorses negative freedom in the economic globe as well as, freedom of choice in the marketplace.(Heywood, 2017, p. 29). According to Heywood (2017, p. 73) a more meaningful reason why conservatives value property ownership is because they people it demonstrates the individual’s personality and characteristics. They believe that possessions are not external objects instead a reflection of the person owning them (Heywood, 2017, p. 73). Although conservatives believe that Property is not an issue for the individual
alone, but is also of importance to society. Classical Liberalists and conservatives share some similar beliefs, whereas conservatives have even copied similar actions to classical liberals in believing that individuals have a genuine right to use their property but they can also have a choice, as they believe that even property rights, entail obligations (Heywood, 2017, p. 73).

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The ideas of New Right have created divisions between conservatism as their concerns are heavily on the free market economics (Heywood, 2017, p. 64). According to Heywood (2017, p. 64) many individuals have argued that the New Right project should not be associated with conservative ideologies as it is deeply influenced by classical liberalism economics. The New Right has not gotten rid of the traditional conservative social principles it about authority and discipline and in some parts has actually strengthened those principles however in many cases it challenges the traditional conservative economic views but still remains as part of the conservative ideology (Heywood, 2017, p. 64). Margret Thatcher who is a British stateswoman and Leader of the conservative party believes that society is a product of the actions of individuals who are self-seeking and largely self-reliant. She believes that a society is non existent and only the individuals and their families exist (Heywood, 2017, p. 64). Although people consider traditional conservatism and classical liberalism very different political ideologies they do share a few similarities. Although conservatism draws heavily on ideas such as organicism and hierarchy which are considered pre-industrial the ideology has also been influenced by liberal ideas, especially classical liberal ideas such as the New Right (Heywood, 2017, p. 78). Liberal doctrines can be said to constitute a tradition to conservative paternalism specifically those encompassing the free market, which have ultimately been advanced by conservatives since the late eighteenth century (Heywood, 2017, p. 78). The reason these ideas are considered libertarian is because they advocate for the greatest possible economic liberty and the idea of minimal government regulation of social life(Heywood, 2017, p. 79).

Libertarian conservatives have not converted to liberalism, however believe that liberal economics is can be associated with a more traditional, conservative social philosophy, based on authority and duty values that are exemplified in conservatism (Heywood, 2017, p. 79).


  • Heywood, A 2017, Political Ideologies: An Introduction, 6th edition, Palgrave, London.


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