Liberalism and Conservatism
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Discussion of liberalism and conservatism, and statism and anti-statism.
Political Philosophy and the Christian Worldview
I. The Significance of 1 Samuel 8
II. The Distinction Between Classical Liberalism and Classical Conservatism
A. Classical Liberalism
1. Greatest Strength - Upheld individual freedom or human liberty
2. Greatest Weakness - Denial of absolutes
B. Classical Conservatism
1. Greatest Strength - Social order based on objective absolutes
2. Greatest Weakness - Led to despotism
III. The Important Work of Frank B. Meyer
B. The Nature of Frank Meyer's Fusionism
IV. The Difference Between a State and a Society
A. State - Coercive
B. Society - Voluntary
V. The Difference Between Statism and Anti-statism
Course: Advanced Worldview Analysis
Lecture: Liberalism and Conservatism
I want to begin by reading Scripture, I Samuel 8. This passage came to my attention 6 months ago when I and a very important prominent Christian physician agree that we could co-author a book together and it’s supposed to be out in the next 4 weeks. This is the first time I saw the implications of these. Let me begin to read from 1 Samuel Chapter 8. It has to do with the Jewish people’s desire for a king. Now king translates into government, translates into what we will call ‘state’, the ‘state’. Listen. Beginning at verse 6. “When the older leaders said that, Samuel was not pleased. He prayed to the LORD. The LORD told Samuel, quote “Listen to whatever the people say to you. They have not rejected you. They have rejected me from being their king. They are doing as they have always done when I took them out of Egypt, they left me. They served other gods. They are doing the same to you. Now listen to the people. Give them a warning. Tell them what the king who rules over them will do”. Now I am going to continue to read in a second. But we’re getting God’s divine revelation about government. “Samuel answered those who would ask him for a king. He told them all the words of the LORD. Samuel said, “If you have a king ruling over you, this is what he will do. He will take your sons, [kings do that, governments do that]. He will make them serve with his chariots, in his houses. They will run in front of the king’s chariot. [That means when the people shot arrows at the king, they will kill your sons first]. The king will make some of your sons commanders over a thousand men, or over 50 men. He will make some of your other sons plough his ground and reap his harvest. [Another word for that is taxes]. He will take others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots, [parentheses, I am not a pacifist. I am not a pacifist]. This king will take your daughters. Some of your daughters will make perfume, others will work and bake for him. He will take your best fields, vineyards and olive groves. He will give them to his servants. He will take one tenth of your grain and grapes and give it to your officers and servants. He will take your menservants and girl servants. He will take your best cattle and best donkeys. He will use them all for his own work. He will take one tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves and when that time comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose. The LORD will not answer you then”. But the people would not listen to Samuel. They said, “No, we want a king to rule over us, then we will be the same as all the other nations. Our king will judge us. He will go with us and fight our battles”. And Samuel heard all that the people said. Then he repeated all their words to the LORD. The LORD answered. “You must listen to them. Give them a king”.”
Now, the reason I read that text and that is to be your evening devotions tonight. The reason I read that text is this. Over the next hour or so, you’re going to think that I’m kind of an extremist. But, let me tell you, compared to what you read in 1 Samuel 8, I am as I always am a consummate centrist. I embody, I am the incarnation of moderation and centrism. And we’re all smiling a little bit. That’s good. Now, the first thing I want to do is explore in an ironic way the meanings of 2 politically charged words, the word Conservatism and the word Liberalism. Have you any idea how few people in the world really understand what conservatism is? I sometimes doubt whether anybody inside the environs of Washington D.C. knows what the word means. 1 of the reason why so few people know what the word liberal means is because the news media never use the word. Or maybe, maybe, they would use the word with respect to a till of the horn or something. But if you listen to ABC, CBS, NBC or the Clinton News Network, CNN, there are no liberals in America. There are only, there are only moderates and conservatives. These are no liberals. Why do the media always talk about people as moderates. Because liberals, they are liberals, and they don't believe or they can't admit that they are liberals. Everybody's a moderate. But I'm going to tell you what a liberal really is. And I’ll tell you what a conservative is. And to do that we’re going to go back almost 200 years. We’re going to go back to the original meaning of these words in 19th century America.
First of all, I’m going to describe and define a position that used to be called classical liberalism. And this would be America 1820s, somewhere like that. This would be Europe around 1820. The funny thing is that a classical liberal is the exact opposite of the kind of person that we call a liberal today. The exact opposite. The most important value for the classical liberal was individual freedom, individual liberty. And if you go back most of these people were really opposed to any kind of dictatorial government. Government was more often than not an enemy of individual freedom. Now in the case of both classical liberalism and what we could call well, let’s call it classical conservatism, it’s never been referred to in this way, but we can keep our symmetry here. The major strength of classical liberalism was its commitment to individual freedom. The major defect, the major weakness of classical liberalism was a denial of absolutes which led to relativism. If you look at some of the major representatives of classical liberalism in the 19th century, they would have been John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, British thinkers. And they were advocates of hedonism. So you had the strange juxtaposition of a commitment to individual human freedom, and may I suggest to you as a fan of the Declaration of Independence, individual freedom is worth fighting for, is worth dying for. But this relativism stuff is bad stuff. Now, the strength of classical conservatism was just the opposite of the weakness of classical liberalism. The strength here was a dependence on social order. See, if you give individual freedom to people beyond a certain point, it turns into chaos. It turns into, and here it is actually a misuse of the word, it turns into something that begins to resemble anarchy. Later on I’ll define anarchy o you. There’s actually a sense of anarchy that’s not quite that pejorative. So social order and individual freedom are both important values and it is important to recognize that the search for a good society is really a search for the proper balance between order and liberty. The corresponding weakness of 19th century conservatism then was a tendency towards despotism, where you have too much power vested in the king, or too much power vested in the State. As you search for order, how do you avoid tyranny? As you search for individual freedom, how do you avoid relativism, anarchy and so on?
Now around 1960, a very interesting guy named Frank Meyer, I hope I don’t lose you here. I’m still in this arena, but I’m now jumping 140 years. 1960, a man named Frank Meyer. Let me tell you about Frank Meyer’s past. Frank Meyer was a secular Jew. What that means is this. Like a lot of Jewish immigrants to America, many of them became secularized and moved away from their Jewish heritage. They were Jewish ethnically but they were not Jewish in their religion. Frank Meyer was one such person in the 1930s. Frank Meyer became a communist. Not a wimpy, spineless Marxist. He became a communist. He was a Marxist Leninist. And he became the chief recruiting officer for the communist party in the United States of America. These guys didn’t play around. So during the 1930s, these guys like Frank Meyer were recruiting people to become the spearhead of the communist party of the United States of America. But something happened in the 1930s. And when the news of that reached America, a lot people who had chosen communism up to that time were shocked. What happened were the revelations of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, where Stalin ordered, issued commands that led to the murder or the imprisonment or the death or the starvation of literally millions of poor people. Many of them peasants. Many of them farmers, koulets(??). And Frank Meyer became totally disillusioned with communism. He became apolitical and he disappeared from the political scene, along with many other Jewish Marxist of that time. One of them wrote a book called “The God who Died”. This was what the revelations of Stalin’s atrocities had done. They died. They became apolitical. And they stayed largely apolitical during all of World War II.
And then about 1950, some of these guys began popping their heads out of their holes. By now Frank Meyer was a farmer in New Hampshire, I think. But he began to write tentatively. And he made the acquaintance of a very interesting young guy named William F Buckley Jr, who was starting a new publication that would be called the National Review. And before you knew it, Frank Meyer was on the masthead of National Review. I forget whether he was the book review editor or what. And during these years, during the 50s, Meyer was wrestling with these dynamic, the dynamic between social order and individual freedom. And finally around 1960, he published a book called “In Defense of Freedom”. This former chief recruiter for the communist party of the USA, had now become a champion of conservative thought. I can still remember the influence that my reading of Meyer’s book had upon me. What Meyer wanted to do was explain the nature of the new conservative experiment that had come along after the end of World War 2. This is a conservatism that left Robert Taft behind. A lot of people regarded Robert Taft, Bob Taft as the spearhead, the spear leader of the conservative movement. But Taft was way behind. Taft never knew how to get out of this dilemma right here. What Meyer argued in his book, is that the new American conservatism that had come on the scene after 1950 deserved a new name. And he had that name. He called it Fusionism. I’m not sure I like the name, but if you understand how to define it, and could you define this next week? What Frank Meyer argued was that the America conservatism that gave rise to Barry Goldwater whose run for the presidency in 1964 was a disaster. Notice we are skipping Richard Nixon here. Richard Nixon knew nothing about conservatism. Barry Goldwater who then disappointed millions of people because he basically lost a whole lot of things, but then, Ronald Reagan…
Now in just a moment I’ll get back, I want to make a little bypass here. Frank Meyer died I think around 1962 or ‘63. I remember reading in National Review which was a different magazine then, that very few people went up to the farm in New Hampshire where Frank Meyer would be buried. And someday maybe I got to go to New Hampshire and find out where that farm was. I’m sure it’s in other hands now, where that grave is. But among the small number of people who walked up that hill to say the last goodbye to Frank Meyer were William F. Buckley Jr. And a Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan. Now that got my attention because you're in the 70s and the 80s, the press, the liberal media presented Ronald Reagan as a know nothing, who wouldn’t know what to do with a book if you threw it in this face. But here was Ronald Reagan, or so my memory is of that. You can go back and find the right issue of National Review that talks about that. Here’s Reagan who knew the significance of Meyer’s Fusionism, and went to pay tribute to Meyer. Oh I need to tell you something else about Meyer. As he was dying of lung cancer, there’s a tumor in every puff. This is what smoking will do to you. Tumor in every puff. Let’s say just for the sake of some people around here that he smoked cigars- makes a better story, OK? Now what was my point? Oh, as he was dying of lung cancer, he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. This atheistic Jew became a Christian. So that bears some additional observation on the comparison of Meyer’s political ideas and the Christian worldview. Incidentally,and I still don't know what I'm going to do with this material, these pages, lest some of you think I’m some kind of a slave to certain positions, this book contains what I think is the most sustained critical evaluation of Frank Meyer’s position that you will find. I’m not a blind slave to Frank Meyer’s position. I take issue with him here. But then again I don’t know if we’ll take the time to go through all of those arguments.
One more thing, and the only reason I’m telling you this is because there are only 2 people who can tell you this story, this true story, William Buckley Jr who is now getting up in years and may not tell this story again, and me, to whom he told the story in the first place. Some of you know during the Goldwater campaign for presidency, and Goldwater was slaughtered, Ronald Reagan gave a famous speech, and kept giving that famous speech. And it was a great speech, and it catapulted him to the governorship of the State of California. But during the election campaign of 1960, actually would have been during 1963, I guess, the election of ’64., Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan went to a television studio somewhere in Los Angeles where they were going to make an appearance on behalf of Goldwater. But when they got to the TV studio, the door was locked and it was time for the show to begin. And they couldn’t get any attention. So, Ronald Reagan said, “Don’t worry Bill. Stay right here. I’ll take care of this”. He pushed up the window. They were on about the 20th storey of a tower in Los Angeles. He crawled out on the ledge. He inched his way around the building and he came to a window. And he opened the door from the inside. Those are things you don't, see, when I’m gone, you’re the only people who’ll know that true story about Ronald Reagan. Even Ronald doesn’t remember it now, of course he doesn’t remember.
Now, one more thing. I was in a discussion with Bill Buckley one day. I was driving him, back to an airport in Nashville, Tennessee. And I got the conservation going on Frank Meyer and so on, and he said, “Listen, Frank may have been wrong about a few issues. But that Fusionism is crucial, that is important stuff. It defines the nature of the new American conservatism. Fusionism is this again. Fusionism is the claim that contemporary American conservatism, the conservatism that developed in America after 1950 was a fusion of the best elements of classical liberalism and the best elements of classical conservatism. It’s a fusion of it, that we keep in tension the search for individual liberty and also the preservation of social order. That’s Fusionism. That’s the genius of Frank Meyer’s work.
Now, I want to define some terms and the first term I want to define is the word ‘State’. The second word I want to define is the word ‘Society’. First of all, let’s define the word ‘state’. But before I give you a 1 sentence definition, let me sort of back into the territory, the domain that we’re in. A lot of people think the state is the sum total of people who live in some geographic area. I'll repeat that. Some people think the state is the sum total of people who live in some geographic area. So for example, the American state is we, the people. I’m going to disagree with that. Suppose we set up a geographic boundary here and it could be the boundary of United States. It could be the boundary of one of the states like South Carolina or North Carolina. The state is not the sum total of citizens who live within that geographic area. The state is rather a smaller group of individuals who do a small number of things that I’m about to describe. The state is the small group, relatively small group of people who make the rules, determine the punishment for breaking the rules, the sanctions for breaking the rules, and pay their own salary, and do all the other things that a government does. So with the state, you’ll going to have the rule makers, that is the legislature. You’re going to have the judges, the judicial branch. And you’re going to have the executive branch. That’s hardly new. But that’s the point. Now, there is 1 keyword that summarizes the essence of the state. And that keyword is coercion. You cannot have a state that does not possess a monopoly on the use of coercive power within those geographic boundary. Having a monopoly on the use of coercive power within the geographic boundary is a sine qua non for being a state or a government. The best example that has come up in the last few years is the present situation in Afghanistan. You have an official government. But who is it official for? Even the interim leader of Afghanistan doesn’t know how to control the warlords. You’ve got dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of competing little tyrants. And consequently, you really do not have a lawful government in the Afghanistan yet. We’ll leave it up for grabs as to whether Afghanistan will ever be like that. There must be a monopoly on coercion. As long as you've got all these little warlords and all of these little anarchists, and all of these little terrorists, and all of these little Al-Qaeda people and so on, you don’t have a government. You don’t have a state. You have a pseudo state in Afghanistan, but the keyword is coercion.
What is a society? A society is a group of individuals who share a common set of values, concerns, etc. But now, you still don’t have the keyword. The keyword for society is the opposite of the keyword for state. What goes on in a society is always ‘voluntary’. What goes on in a state is all ‘coercion’. The reason we have trouble recognizing the coercion in the state is because it is often unstated. It is often implicit. You do this or else. But you know, we’re all trained, and so we all do it, voluntarily. Now, what are some examples of societies? Well, Altheas (??), we’re society. Coercion plays a little role. Once in a while students are caught doing things that seminary students shouldn’t do and they are asked to go somewhere else. And they do because we don’t really give them a choice. A voluntary society can do that. A golf club is a society. A private school is a society. A church, oh boy, a church is a society, and a family. Now the family is a little different from the normal society because even in the case of a church or a large, or a school, if the appointed leader of that social group say, “We don’t feel comfortable with you here”, there’s always some other place to go. If someone’s kicked out of one church, they can join another church. There’s always a little coercion but it is not exclusive coercion because you can always go somewhere else. But the family, you and I can pick our friends but we can’t pick our relatives. Write that down and give me credit for that. You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives. And of course there is a little coercion involved as you are growing up. But part of growing up in a decent family is that the older you get and the more responsibility that you can assume for the actions, the more your relationship to the other members of the family becomes voluntary. It becomes voluntary. You go to see your mother because you love her. Not because you are 5 years old and you can’t leave the house. But the family really fits the notion of a society better than anything else.
I’m laying a foundation here and my first foundation is the difference between a state and a society. I’ve given you examples. Alright, now. I now want to give you 2 related words- ‘Statism’, and ‘Anti-statism’. Forget everything that I’ve said about the state that is negative. I happened to believe as you all should, that states are necessary. That government is necessary. There are times when we’re going to disagree with government but boy, we do need government of some kind. The point here is don’t confuse the state with statism. Stat-ism. Here’s the definition of statism. Statisim is governmental control or government monopoly gone crazy. Statisim is governmental power gone amok. It’s too much government. It’s the refusal to recognize any proper, appropriate limitations upon the state. And let me tell you what happens when the state becomes statist. Societies suffer and individual people suffer, because the only way in which states can expand their power is at the expense of voluntary societies, and at the expense of individual people. Now let’s think just for a moment about some of the best examples of pure evil statism in the world over the last half century. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, still, Iraq, still. The worst dictatorships in the history of the world has all been statist operations. Now, what is anti-statisim? Don’t assume that anti-statisim is a total unremitting opposition to all government. That’s not it at all. As I’ll explain shortly in my beautiful little diagram here, there are degrees of anti-statism just as there are degrees of statisim. But the basic point to anti-statism is the recognition of that too much government can become an enemy of the people. Too much government can become an enemy of societies. Now, very shortly I’m going to ask you where the Biblical worldview sits on all of these.