Nick Gier

      Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

     University of Idaho


See also: Liberals: Take Back the Flag

Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers

Libertarianism and Christianity



The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.

--Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (p. 354)


        Liberal democracy is spreading throughout the world and many countries are "liberalizing" their economies at a rapid pace. Our conservative politicians praise this development and even encourage it. Liberals in Europe are in the center of the political spectrum rather than on the left. Economists at the University of Chicago who support free market capitalism, and who helped the dictator Pinochet turn Chile's economy around, prefer to be called "classical liberals." Conservatives also support Christian liberal arts colleges, and all of us want our children to have a good liberal arts education.

        But what are conservatives doing supporting liberal ideas?  Isn=t liberalism supposed to a bad thing?  Not in the old days it wasn=t.  The Latin word liberalis means Apertaining to the free person,@ that=s the reason why a liberal arts education prepares students for making free and responsible choices in their lives.

         Some conservatives might ask: Why does the word "democracy" have to be qualified by the word "liberal"?  There was voting in the Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, and the early American republic, but the franchise was severely restricted.  Everyone voted in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but there was no free press or party competition. Classical liberal rights include freedom of speech, religion, and assembly that lead to public discussion of the most important political and cultural issues.

In medieval times there was a strict distinction between the liberi, the free born nobles, and the servi, those who were born to serve and obey.  The American and French Revolutions were fought to eliminate this distinction and to declare that all human being, regardless of their class, had inalienable rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. 


The divine right of kings and the rule of top males constitute classical conservatism, whereas the American and French Revolutions gave us classical liberalism.  I don=t know anyone who still wants an absolute monarch, so all of us today, conservative and liberal, are living in the political house of classical liberalism.


The watch words of the French Revolution were Aequality, liberty, and fraternity.@ I would like redefine Afraternity@ as Acommunity@ and point out what I think went wrong in France.  The French revolutionaries mistakenly thought that their Anew man@ would be able to create new values from scratch.  Our American revolutionaries were much more reasonable.  Although they were critical of oppressive tradition and religion, they still saw value in traditional community values.


In a similar move the American Wiccan community propose that the French fraternite be translated as the virtue of cooperation. They quote the great classical liberal Ben Franklin: "If we don't hang together, we shall surely all hang separately."  The Wiccans rightly emphasize that the origins of democratic and republican ideals are pagan not Christian.


Today=s conservatives are classical liberals because they support equality and liberty as well as community.  Conservatives go wrong when they support, or used to support, traditions that discriminated against people because of their race or their gender.  For classical liberalism to work, as it has done where it now thrives in the world, the three values must always achieve balance and harmony.


Classical liberals who stress liberty and neglect equality and community are called Alibertarians.@  Libertarians believe that adults should be able to do anything they choose as long as they do not kill, assault, defraud, or steal.  They make, I believe, persuasive arguments with regard to free speech, private sexuality, and taking drugs,  but their rejection of public services and education undermine the ideal of equality of opportunity.


Classical liberals who stress equality are those who have now been tagged as Aliberal@ as a four-letter word. It was common for some people to argue that no person is equal to another, so this is an impossible ideal.  Classical liberals were not talking about physical traits such as strength or skin color; rather, they were talking about formal equality before the law, the very cornerstone of liberal democracy everywhere. These liberals go wrong when they support job quotas, reject merit pay in any form, or encourage schools to promote students who have not done their work.


The free born noble Americans who founded our country claimed that only they as male property owners could have a full complement of rights.  However, African Americans and then women forced us to realize that the classical liberal promise for America was a sham until they were included with full and equal rights.


Today Americans who are attracted to people of their own sex, through no choice of their own, are denied the equal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  When judges, even those appointed by Republicans, repeatedly rule in favor of gay and lesbians, they are simply upholding the ideal of equality won for us by American and French revolutionaries.


When local governments recognize the right of gays and lesbians to marry, it does not undermine traditional values.  On the contrary, the love that these couples express to one another preserves the sanctity of marriage, and it causes no harm to heterosexual wedding ceremonies performed according to conservative religious traditions.


It is always surprising to me to find that there are some Americans who are not liberals in this classical sense.  There are some right here in Idaho who believe that men should vote for their wives and that gays and lesbians should be executed or at least banned from society.  One recently quipped that democracy was the equivalent of two coyotes and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch. Finally, there are some in the South who want to set up a New Confederacy in which Calvinist males would rule in the name of God over women and other lesser human beings. 


Classical conservatism will always find a few fans.  Some of these folks call themselves "paleo-conservatives" in order to distinguish themselves from conservatives whom they charge have sold out to classical liberalism.  It is an apt phrase because they are certainly not as classy as these moderate conservatives, and they are, according to Whitehead, "fighting against the essence of the universe."  They are instead wading in the dank backwaters of the French and American Revolutions.