Liberty is the zeitgeist of our world. From Europe to Asia, Africa to Latin America, the people are adamant in their demands for freedoms and rightly so. Mankind, it is right to say, has never enjoyed an epoch such as this -where neither the fiat of gods or monarchs, or the weight of tradition can keep us down. As a result, “Traditional values” and institutions like the family, marriage & religion have been under assault and are often at a loss on how to respond persuasively to a global discourse that centralizes individual liberty. The purpose of this piece is not to argue against this zeitgeist but to show how conservative ideas can be persuasive within this prism.
Liberalism and conservatism are very broad concepts that can have treatises written about them, but for the sake of this piece, I would attempt a compression of them to the following definitions.
- Liberalism is a philosophy with social and economic ramifications. Socially, it espouses the equality and liberty of individuals and seeks (liberty’s) protection from all who would threaten it, be they persons, entities, or states. Economically, liberalism believes that the unregulated free market is a danger to individual liberty, so while it supports capitalism, it encourages more government oversight of markets and social safety nets to protect the poor.
- Conservatism also has economic and social dimensions. Its underlying principle is an opposition to radical change of the traditions and institutions of old. Economically, conservatives believe in deregulation and the most minimal involvement of governments in markets and service provision. Socially, conservatives oppose for example, the expansion of definitions like marriage and notions of rights to accommodate homosexuals in the former and immigrants/minorities in the later.
The differences between both ideologies can be summarized under two headings; affinity for change and governmental involvement. While conservatives have a very low affinity for change, preferring to stick instead to tried and true notions and ideas, the reverse is true for liberals. With governmental involvement however, liberals seek more government while conservatives seek less.
Conservative ideas have an uphill battle to be persuasive in a sport dominated by liberalism. I believe doing this successfully requires 3 steps. They are; challenging the liberal fiat, establishing intersubjectivity of ideologies & winning the ideological comparative.
Challenging the liberal fiat
The first thing a conservative must do to have a chance in a debate against a liberal is to challenge liberalism’s monopoly of liberty. It is not true that all illiberal ideas (like those borne out of religion or devotion to community) are antithetical to individual liberty. For example:
- Religion’s injunctions prohibiting certain acts and conduct might reduce the amount of liberties a person enjoys, but such limitations can only exist where liberty is recognized. Therefore, (some element of) free will is an integral part of many religions. So, a person can choose to abide by or ignore the injunctions if they wish, however their choice will have consequences. Thus, religion freely opted into doesn’t erode liberties, it is the exercise of liberties that allow people join and adhere to the dictates of religions.
- The deprecation of utility for the individual to maximize the social good by policies like banning/criminalizing drugs or pornography or mandating care for one’s elderly relatives etc. are supported by social conservatives while opposed by liberals. However, even though the individual liberty is not maximized here, liberty like all concepts is not absolute and liberals (the economic kind) often call for the deprecation of private property rights because of the greater good as liberalism defines. Religion or tradition are equally pressing concerns for the many, therefore respecting them is doing the greater good in the eyes of most of the world.
Bottom-line, the maximalization of individual rights can be a conservative argument -even if it seems like conservative ideals often require restrictions to individual liberties-, if the individual is at liberty to make that choice (opt into the religion or society). Also, to the extent no principles are absolute, conservative calls for deprecating liberty and individual actualization are as valid as liberal claims to do the same if one can show the benefits of such action. Put differently, a religious reason to curtail freedoms can be as valid as a liberal one.
All things are inter-subjective, nothing is objective nor beyond challenge
Across the public discourse space, it is increasingly the norm that liberal orthodoxy is seen as unchallengeable. Few will venture the notion that democracy, sexual liberalism, feminism et cetera are not just flawed but wrong. Most challenges to these liberal views often come -if they’re presented at all- from the margins, with some slight critique of these ideas made in a bid to improve, but not contradict them. Conservative ideas diametrically opposed to liberalism can’t win with such marginal critiques, so this next step is necessary.
Unlike natural law (Gravity, Evolution, Thermodynamics…), social ideas are not based on absolute/objective truths, they instead rely on an acceptance in the minds of the populace of the validity of their premises. For example, “rights” are not an objective fact of nature humans possess, a lion, dictator, or a primitive tribe (with no previous encounter with the notion of universal rights) will violate one with abandon, caring not for the opinions of the United Nations. This shows that the concept of rights is one only powerful in a society where the preponderance of people accepts it. In fact, you can say “rights are true (and powerful) because we wish them to be”. The modern rise of liberalism is based on the rise of individualism which historically is a Western principle. Most other societies argued that the individual is an inconsequential node in the hive that is society and like the bee hive or ant colony such communitarian philosophies privileged societal wellbeing. Now which is right? Individualism or collectivism. It doesn’t matter, because with sociological conceptions, the concepts of right & wrong are not empirically determinable as they are in the sciences. What this means for the conservative arguing against the liberal orthodoxy is that you need not start from a position of conceding things like equality, individual liberty, or rights (concepts part of the liberal orthodoxy) being correct. One can instead push as equally plausible, social stratification, restricted actualization and society granted privileges as the way the world ought to work.
A better paradigm, but for who?
Having established that your conservative idea does not violate liberties and even if it does, that it does so either by the free consent of the victims or for the greater good. And having established that the liberal ideals you oppose are not immutable laws of nature, thus are neither objectively right nor wrong but are joint delusions we indulge because of the benefits of such a societal belief. You need to engage directly in a comparative between your ideas and those they oppose. Here, it is key to note one important weakness of liberalism and this is its universalism. Whereas conservatism tends to take on the unique characteristics of the local culture, liberalism is predicated upon universal notions like equality and liberty. This is a weakness that must be exploited because issues are seldom discussed in a universal sense, that is, a debate cannot be had without factoring in the peculiarities of the society that the issue concerns. Thus, you might concede that in an idealistic world liberalism’s case would stand, however in a conservative society, in a developing country, in a narcissistic society etc. adamant insistence on liberal ideals fails to engage the nuance and liberalism is therefore the inferior paradigm. For example, in the debate, This House Would legalize hard drugs, if set in America (or most Western Liberal democracies), you can make a case about the society’s already hedonistic character and how such makes the excessive consumption of drugs likely (with its attendant consequences), also engaging how drugs allow for escapism which can further the social detachment already observable in such a society (again to destructive consequences). If the debate is set in a conservative society, then there is a lot to be said about how drugs violate the mores and are incompatible with the sort of practice such societies find ideal. The liberal case is usually hinged on maximizing the individual’s happiness, but if you have followed the two steps earlier outlined, you would have established how the notion of individual prioritization is not an absolute and can -depending on what society prioritizes- be unimportant. Bottom-line, to win the comparative between your conservative ideals and the liberal ones, you must engage the nuances of the society in question and show how that makes the conservative line the superior path.
It is important to note that what makes debating a worthwhile enterprise is the fact that it is useful in the seeking of answers for our societies. To believe liberalism has the monopoly on solutions is to shutoff an entire realm of possibilities. We fail to find the best solutions and liberalism itself stagnates -due to the lack of a challenge- when we do otherwise. In Jainism there exists the doctrine of Anekantavada which posits that there are many truths. Nowhere does this have the possibility of being truer than in debating, but to actualize this ideal, we must be open to all truths.