Conservative vs Liberal: What’s the Difference Politically? A Quick Primer

Conservative vs Liberal: What’s the Difference Politically? A Quick Primer

As we head into yet another national election, our culture seems perpetually divided into conservatives and liberals. What’s the difference? First of all, the words liberal and conservative are largely 19th century terms, but they capture worldviews that are much older.

The word liberal (from the Latin libre meaning “free”), shares a root with the word liberty. Classical liberalism has an optimistic view of human nature, and believes that the role of government is to help good people flourish with well-thought-out policies and regulations. Classic liberals hold to an “unconstrained” vision of human nature.

The “unconstrained view” of human nature was the view of French social critic and thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. 1712), and is the view that underlies the French Revolution. In short, those who hold to an unconstrained view of human nature believe that we are morally able to choose the good more often than not. Because of this, they believe some people exist who have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society. Hence, the unconstrained view sees expansive government as helpful to assist all citizens in their quest for moral perfection.

The word conservative (from the Latin conservo meaning “to preserve”) shares a root with the word conserve. Classical conservativism has a pessimistic view of human nature, and believes that the role of government is to create a system of checks and balances to protect us against the worst aspects of fallen human nature. Classic conservatives hold to a “constrained” view of human nature.

The “constrained vision” sees human nature as fallen, flawed and in need of moral boundaries to keep it in check. It is a vision of human nature with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and the experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. This was the view of Adam Smith and many of the founding fathers of our land, even if they were not individually Christians. It is this view that underlies our American Constitution. Hence, the constrained view sees expansive government as dangerous because of the intrinsic nature of human corruption and greed for power.

In his classic book, A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell attempts to answer the question of why the same people tend to be political adversaries on issue after issue. He opens the book this way, “One of the most curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on the opposite side of different issues.” The root of these conflicts, Sowell claims, are conflicting “visions” of human nature. The book then unpacks the two basic visions of human nature, namely the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions.

The reality is that there is very little common ground between these two visions of the world. Those who hold to the constrained view of human nature will inevitably come to very different conclusions about taxation, immigration, LGBTQ+ issues, and abortion than those who do not. How could it be otherwise?! The worldview gap is simply massive—too massive it seems—to exist within the same marriage, family, church or even political party. That is why Americans, and those from other nations, disagree so much about politics.