Are You a Conservative or a Liberal? What’s the Difference?


Most people have only the vaguest idea of the differences between the two major political parties in America today, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. As one author comments:

“The secret ballot was a well-intended democratic innovation designed to provide voters with enough privacy to vote their true convictions without fear of reprisal. Unfortunately it is an innovation that also manifests a concomitant desire to think and even learn about politics in private so as to, again, avoid possible reprisals from a public revelation of political positions and, additionally, the acrimony that often accompanies adversarial democratic politics. With such an attitude, it is no wonder that 60-70% of us don’t know the difference between Democrats and Republicans and that by default we send equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans to Washington where they proceed to divide and grid-lock the governmental process.”

In this post, I’m going to concentrate my efforts on describing the differences between a “Liberal”, and a “Conservative”. Party definitions of what a Republican, or a Democrat are, tend to shift over time, but the underlying political philosophy, which can be described with the terms Liberal and Conservative, stay the same. For example, Republicans were defined as the “Anti-Slavery” party in the 1860’s, but that definition hardly applies today. The underlying philosophy that led to these definitions have not changed.

The first attempt for most people is to examine what the dictionary says about “Liberals” and “Conservatives”. From the Random House 1999 Webster’s College Dictionary:

liberal, adj. 1. favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
2. [often cap.] designating or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
3. pertaining to, based on, or having views or policies advocating individual freedom of action and expression.
4. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
5. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant.
6. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.; openminded.
7. characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts.
8. given freely or abundantly; generous.
9. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
10. of, pertaining to, or based on the liberal arts: a liberal education. — n.
11. a person of liberal principles or views.
12. (often cap.) a member of a liberal political party, esp. the Liberal Party in Great Britain. [1325-75]”

conservative, adj. 1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
2. cautiously moderate: a conservative estimate.
3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: a conservative suit.
4. (cap.) of or pertaining to a conservative political party, esp. the Conservative Party of Great Britain.
5. of or pertaining to political conservatism.
6. (cap.) conforming to or characteristic of Conservative Judaism.
7. having the power or tendency to conserve; preservative. — n.
8. a person who is conservative in principles, actions, habits, etc.
9. a supporter of conservative political policies.
10. (cap.) a member of a conservative political party, esp. the Conservative Party of Great Britain.
11. a preservative. [1350-1400]”

This concept of attempting to use just the dictionary meanings can be found in posts by various people, and websites have followed this same path… here’s two examples:

Here is another rather interesting discussion of the issue.

The dictionary meaning give only the barest outlines of what the basic fundamental philosophy that underlies these two political belief systems. Attempting to rely on the idea that Liberals are “generous, progressive, and reforming” and Conservatives are “cautious and tend to conserve/preserve” is to completely misunderstand the terms as used in today’s political debates.

Somewhat better is to look to a dictionary designed for political definitions. The Harper Collins “American Government & Politics” dictionary provides the following:

liberal: 1. An advocate of political and social reform, expanding government control of the economy, greater efforts on behalf of the poor, and more laws protecting consumers, the environment, and criminal defendants. (Because of this last concern, it is often said that a liberal is a CONSERVATIVE who has been arrested.) During the 1988 presidential election, the Republican candidate George Bush effectively used what he called “the L word” against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who was trying to avoid political labels and run on the issue of competence. Only toward the end of the campaign, after it was too late to do any good, did Dukakis admit he was a liberal — and proud of it. But by that time the Republicans had effectively insinuated that “liberal” was a dirty word, and Dukakis simply wasn’t competent enough to clean it up. 2. When referring to trade policy, relative freedom of controls or restraints. The most liberal trade is free trade.”

Conservative: One who believes in conservatism. But conservatives are seldom pure. The new right is a major variant and many conservatives are closet LIBERALS. For example, Republican Representative Trent Lott of Mississippi said: “Americans think of themselves as conservatives; they want government reduced. But in their hearts they’re liberals; they want money for sewers and libraries and all the goodies coming in. It’s a fact” (The New York Times, November 18, 1982). Another Republican Representative, Clay Shaw of Florida, confessed: “Every conservative becomes a liberal when he talks about his own district” (The New York Times, January 18, 1981). Even the nation’s leading conservative officeholder, President George Bush, once admitted that he was “a conservative but… not a nut about it” (The Washington Post, November 3, 1984). The reality is that most Americans, the mainstream of society, have both conservative and liberal inclinations depending upon a given issue and how they perceive their economic circumstances. Purity is to be found only among the LUNATIC FRINGE.”

It can be seen that by using a more specific dictionary, we approach more accurately the meanings of the terms as commonly used in politics. But for the underlying philosophy of each term, it’s necessary to move away from dictionaries and begin a little actual research. Taken from the textbook, “The Challenge of Democracy - Government in America”:

“In popular usage, liberals favor a broader scope of government whereas conservatives would narrow the scope. This distinction applies clearly to government action in providing for public goods. Liberals favor generous government support for education, wildlife protection, public transportation, and so forth. Conservatives favor fewer government programs and smaller government budgets. In particular, conservatives favor free enterprise and oppose government activism in economic matters, such as undertaking major job programs, regulating business operations, and legislating working conditions and wage rates.”

As can be seen, by using textbooks on politics, we are moving away from simplistic “reform” and “preserve” definitions that are commonly found in dictionaries. The textbook “Government by the People” offers these definitions:

“In its modern American usage, Liberalism refers to a belief in the positive uses of government to bring about justice and equality of opportunity. Modern day liberals wish to preserve the rights of the individual and the right to own private property, yet they are willing to have the government intervene in the economy to remedy the defects of capitalism. Contemporary American liberalism has its roots in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, designed to aid the poor and to protect people against unemployment and bank failures. Today liberals seek protection against inadequate or deficient medical assistance and inadequate or deficient housing and education. They generally believe in affirmative action programs, regulations that protect workers’ health and safety, tax rates that rise with income, and the right of unions to organize as well as to strike.”

“In contrast to liberals, conservatives want to keep government small, except in the area of national defense. However, because conservatives take a more pessimistic view of human nature than liberals do, they maintain that people need strong leadership institutions, firm laws, and strict moral codes to keep their appetites under control. Government, they think, needs to ensure order… Conservatives are also inclined to believe that those who fail in life are in some way the architects of their own misfortune and thus must bear the main responsibility for solving their own problems.”

The textbook “American Government - People, Institution, and Policies” comments that:

“Conservatism and Liberalism. To make our discussion of these two leading ideologies as clear as possible, let us begin with the extremes. A person who takes conservative stances across the board would oppose government intervention into the economy, oppose social programs, and favor governmental intervention to uphold morality. He or she would want a strong military and be willing to use force to obtain desired ends in foreign policy. A person who took across-the-board liberal stands would favor government intervention into markets, favor social program to help the needy, oppose governmental restrictions on morals and private activities, and oppose military expansion. Liberalism and conservatism are ideologies because each links together positions across a variety of issues.”

This textbook also includes an interesting chart that shows the inter-relationships and ideology:

More Government ————————————— Less Government
Socialism ———— Liberalism —– Conservatism —– Libertarianism

Guarantee equal —– Freedom ——- Freedom ——— Individual
Distribution of —— and Political —– and Order ——– liberty;
Wealth, social ——– Equality ——————————— Laissez
Equality —————————————————————- Faire
—————————————————————————– Economy

While this is good, certainly every text I’ve seen agrees when it comes to government, this book lists “Values”, and it seems that there may be an alternative that is preferable. In “Are You a Republican or a Democrat” by O’Leary and Kamber, the statement is offered that:

“Whether you’re a liberal of a conservative has a lot to do with how you view human nature. Liberal philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that people were naturally good and only corrupted by the evil world. Therefore, a government that protected and developed that natural goodness was necessary. Conservative philosophers like Thomas Hobbes believed that it was human nature to be subdued by evil and that government should be used to protect people from each other.”

This immediately makes understandable the differences on many issues between Liberals and Conservatives… for example, Liberals don’t believe in the death penalty… why would you offer the supreme punishment to a good man who was corrupted by forces beyond his control? Rather, let us attempt to control those forces that led him to his crime, such as poverty, child neglect, poor education, and so on. Conservatives, on the other hand, see crime as a moral issue, and believe that transgressions against society must be paid for. This explains why Conservatives are for the death penalty.

On almost any issue, it becomes apparent why the Liberal/Conservative takes the position he does, once you understand these two underlying philosophical differences… how one views human nature, and what the purpose of government is.

(Just a side note here: Interesting to point out that Christians are more often found among Conservatives, for as Romans 3:23 points out, “For all have sinned, and come short of the Glory of God”. This is the Conservative view of human nature. And while you don’t have to be religious to be Conservative, it’s a fact that a large fraction of those who consider themselves conservative also consider themselves religious.)

Another example that becomes clear [once the philosophy is understood] is the favor Conservatives appear to show to the “rich”, vice the disdain of the Liberals. Conservatives believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions, and applaud those who have, through their own hard work, achieved wealth. Liberals, believing that all men are equally good, see no reason for one person to so dramatically achieve wealth above others, and will tend to assume criminal behavior. And, as all people are equally good, will prefer to “level the playing field” by inordinately taxing the wealthy.

There can be a greater divide between two people of the same party than between two of opposing parties… for example, Pat Buchanan, who is rather to the right of most Republicans, and John McCain, who would fit so easily in the Democratic Party that no-one would complain of any conservative streak. So it can be difficult to label people on the basis of their professed political party. But there’s no doubt in people’s minds that Pat Buchanan is Conservative, and John McCain is Liberal. This explains why it can sometimes be more accurate to use the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative”, rather than Democrat or Republican.