What do conservatives conserve?

Lakshmi wants to know (6th comment) why Republicans are called “Conservatives” and Democrats “Liberals” and how, if at all those labels can be applied to India.

Unfortunately Lakshmi, it has been some time since the label “conservative” or “liberal” made literal sense anywhere in the world. In the 19th century Europe and USA, a “conservative” was someone who wanted to conserve the existing order. The then existing order was mostly capitalist, but in many respects, it was illiberal. Women could not vote, the poor could not vote, blacks could not vote. Workers weren’t allowed to form unions, there was no welfare, etc.

Those who were opposed to Conservatives were Radicals. But the word “radical” could very easily take on negative connotations (“Hey he is a radical! He wants to overturn our entire way of life!) So those who supported reforms in the existing order called themselves “Liberals”

Now here’s where things get complicated.

If we’d stuck with “Conservative” as a generic term for those people who want to continue the existing order, then there would have been no problem. In the US in the 19th century and early 20th century, capitalists were the conservatives. In the US after FDR, those who supported “liberal” policies would be called conservatives. In the USSR, the communists wold be the conservatives. In India, supporters of traditional Indian society and now, supporters of Nehruvian socialism would be conservatives. But alas, that was not to be. The terms began to be identified with certain sets of policies and lost all links to their literal meanings. People have made attempts to link those terms to their literal meanings, (see for example this valiant attempt by my erstwhile coblogger) but there is really no way to do it. There is no reason why Reagan and Thatcher, who made such radical changes in their country’s policies should be called “Conservatives”.

It is pointless to expect internal consistency in those ideas. It would have been possible in the 19th century to support both universal franchise and free markets, but who would have voted for you if you did? Those positions are just names for baskets of policies designed to appeal to certain coalitions of voters. If you want to understand what a politician stands for, see whom he stands with.

Addenda: 1) I should also point out that “Conservative” and “Liberal” weren’t always terms that coincided with Republicans and Democrats. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Till a complete switchover happened during the 1950s, the Democratic party was the party of racists. But they were always the party of more government intervention (I think, but I am not sure. )

2) There is also the added complication that in Europe “Liberal Economics” actually meant Free Market Economics.

3) I wanted to write about how the terms are misused in India, but here the situation is so much more complicated that it is a story for another post some other day.

6 thoughts on “What do conservatives conserve?

  1. Another term that seems to have lost intrinsic meaning as well as its negative and positive connotations is “secular”. In the US now secular is being associated with non- spirituality by the Right. Secular at some point meant civil law being higher than any religious law in a state. Then it also included government not preaching any religion whatsover. Then it included any body that has any government support or patronage couldn’t preach or practise any religion. Practise of religion itself was then subjected to scrutiny. Rituals were out but pricinples were OK. Then principles were out as well including some that were arguably basic to human society like equality etc. Argument was that anything that was basic was encoded in civil law any way obviating the need for religion in public sphere.

    anyway just a thought no time to explain away this…..

  2. “There is also the added complication that in Europe “Liberal Economics” actually meant Free Market Economics.”

    This is what “liberal” meant to me before I went to America (Hayek uses it thus in A Road to Serfdom as well).

    Any clue how we arrived at this geo-specific dichotomy?

  3. I tried to clarify a similar point in a post at AnarCapLib a year ago. Ofcourse the thrust of that post was the difference or similarity between Liberals and Libertarians.

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