13 April 2007

Conservatism Vs Liberalism

I've been reading a bit on this topic. Here's an attempt to set down the nuts and bolts of the subject.

The word 'liberal' comes from the Latin word 'liber' which means 'free'. The word 'conservative' comes from the Latin word 'servare' which means 'to preserve'. Liberals thus consider individual liberty as important, whereas conservatives consider tradition as important.

Liberalism arose out of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason. John Locke laid the foundation with his Second Treatise of Government (1689) in which he introduced concepts like rule of law, property rights and freedom of speech. The missing brick was individual liberty, which John Stuart Mill provided in his On Liberty (1859). The case for individual liberty is made based on rational and logical arguments.

Conservatism arose as a reaction to liberalism. The ideas of the Enlightenment inspired the French Revolution (1789). A year later, Edmund Burke argued in Reflections on the Revolution in France that tradition is a better source of wisdom than reason. Society is so complex that it is impossible to conjure a perfect society merely by our reason. It is better to rely on tradition, which is accumulated social experience.

Side note: The intellectual divide of tradition vs reason translates into a practical divide of culture vs politics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan summed it up best when he said, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success or failure of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change culture, and help save a society from itself."

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