3 Approaches to the Study of Political Theory – Liberal, Conservative Traditions

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan

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Political theory has been enriched with multiple approaches and traditions that tend to analyse and understand politics in different and often contradictory ways. Each of these approaches have certain core premises and postulates that define its identity. However, each of them is also extremely variegated and sometimes informed by the other traditions. This paper is a broad overview of major approaches/traditions in political theory- liberalism and conservatism.


Political theory involves systems of interpretation of political concepts-a system of political conceptions (Gaus 2000: 47). In this process, political theory also tries to link concepts (eg. liberty and equality) in ways not hitherto thought of. Gaus (2000) speaks of three “enduring political theories” in the past two centuries: liberalism, socialism and conservatism. Gaus clarifies that they do not entail monoliths; there is considerable diversity within each of these approaches. Alan Ryan’s suggestion of ‘liberalisms’ is a case worth mention (Ryan 2007). What is common to all these traditions is the wide diversity in each of them; however, all of them do have a set of ‘foundations’ that distinguish them from one another. That is, there are certain features that define each of them distinctively.




Waldron (2004) contends that liberals may show family resemblances, but otherwise they offer competing value conceptions. Yet these family resemblances are strong foundations of the liberal tradition. In fact, liberals have, despite their differences sought to define liberalism as distinct from conservatism and socialism (see Gaus 2000; Ryan 2007). Yet many identify different defining features for liberalism. A common feature which Gaus identifies with all strands of liberalism is the commitment to liberty- the debates about the nature of individual liberty (Gaus 2000: 46). On the other hand, John Gray (1995) identifies the modern perception of man (person) and society as the distinctive feature of liberalism. However, common to all strands of liberalism, Gray argues, are four ideas that demonstrate the modernist conception of personhood and society: individualist, egalitarian, universalist, and meliorist. The moral primacy of the individual against any claims of social collectivity makes liberalism an individualist philosophy; equal moral worth of all individuals is liberalism’s claim to egalitarianism; the moral unity of human species and the secondary importance of cultural and historic forms makes it a universalist theory; while the liberal belief in the improvability of institutions and social arrangements makes meliorism a core feature of the liberal tradition (Gray 1995: xii). Though Gray traces origins of the liberal political tradition to the seventeenth century- Hobbes and Spinoza- the ‘crystallization’ of liberalism is attributed to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Freedom of association, private property and limited government becomes the core of liberty in the Lockean tradition. Vincent (2009: 25) in a different vein contends that liberalism can be traced to constitutionalist tradition in Europe in the 19th century.


Despite these different perceptions in liberalism, liberal approach to political theory is premised on certain foundations.


Gray argues that a liberal perspective is based on universalism. Though liberalism emerged in different geographies as a response to specific historical backgrounds, liberals do not speak for any particular interest group or section of people (see Gray 1995). Liberals articulated their demands not as demands of a section of people or group but as demands of the humanity itself (ibid: 45).


Liberalism presupposes that every human being is a rational agent, autonomous and capable of choosing our own moral values and design of society- demonstrating its origins to Enlightenment philosophy. Rationality, autonomy and choice are therefore certain variables to approach liberal political theory. This also makes liberal political theory a non-teleological approach to the study of politics and life. That is, unlike Greek political theory that envisaged eudemonia or good life and happiness, along with deeply ethical overtones, a liberal approach does not pursue the idea of a telos or a final end; the idea of good life and society is a matter of individual choice in liberal approaches. This also explains the liberal commitment only to a ‘thin’ conception of common good as opposed to a ‘thick’ common good of communitarians (Kymlicka 2001). For example, the social contract in liberal traditions itself is based on individuals willingly entering into a contract that creates society and state. The creation of the state and civil society is based on individual’s rational choice as per this idea. Even when liberals use utilitarian logic to justify welfarism, they are today more compelled to reconcile the deontic and the utilitarian logics (see Gray 1995). Gray argues that the welfare logic basically makes a case for making available certain resources, power or capabilities so that individuals can exercise their autonomy and achieve self-realisation, indicating the centrality of individualism once again. The best example for this from contemporary liberal political theory is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) where Rawls focuses on the deontological individuals entering into social contract from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ to create a society that is based on justice and welfare of all. The principles of justice are chosen by individuals detached from their social and cultural identities; they are not prior to the individual.


For many commentators, liberalism is merely an ideology of capitalism. In this view, private property is the defining feature of liberalism (see Macpherson 1962). This approach however can be seen in some of the writings of liberals ranging from Locke in the 17th century to the more recent Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan, and Nozick. Indeed, libertarians like Nozick and Hayek treat any intervention into private property including taxation as a violation of freedom and individualism.


The core of all versions of liberalism could be individualism (see Gray 1995; Vincent 2009). In fact, Vincent argues that liberals are ‘formally’ committed to individualism; it is  the  ‘ontological  core’  of  liberalism  (Vincent  2009:  32).  A  crucial  feature  of individualism in liberal approach is that the individual is a priori– the individual is prior to society, naturally or morally, varying from thinker to thinker. Liberal individualism, however, is a diverse and complex philosophy. John Dewey draws our attention to ‘old liberalism’  based  on  abstract  individualism,  and  ‘new’  liberalism  based  on  a  more socially rooted individual. T. H. Green’s idea that society can be a means for individual self-realisation  represents  new  liberalism  (see  Vincent  2009:  36).  Similarly,  the


‘organised effort’ of society is vital for the individual to attain self-direction (Hobhouse, in Vincent 2009: 36). Hayek, in his idea of market liberalism puts forth the case that abstract individualism is not a reality. Hayek draws a distinction between rationalistic individualism (eg. J.S. Mill) and true individualism which caters to a market society.


Hayek subscribes to the latter notion of individualism. At another level, liberalism also has witnessed ‘possessive individualism’ that espouses the idea that an individual owns her or his body, desires and interests- the self-ownership thesis dominant in the works of Locke (),Gray (1986) and Nozick. In possessive individualism, property is also central, for it becomes an extension of bodily rights (see Vincent 2009: 37).


A core value of the liberal approach is also liberty. Michael Freeden contends that liberty is a fundamental idea in all liberals; however, there is no unified position on liberty in liberal  scholarship  (Freeden,  in  Vincent  2009:  37).  The  commitment  to  liberty  also defines the scope of state action; liberals favour a limited state, where individuals are protected against the arbitrariness of state by virtue of their status as rights-bearing individuals. However, liberalism is divided on the nature of the state, most commonly


represented as classical liberal or laissez faire state, welfare state and neoliberal state.1 A common distinction one sees in liberalism is the distinction between negative and positive liberty. While negative liberty connotes liberty as a mere absence of restraints or coercion, positive liberty denotes conditions and the ability to exercise liberty. Isaiah Berlin and Hayek contend that conditions like poverty and unemployment cannot be treated as restraints or coercion. On the contrary, Green, Laski and more recently Taylor2 argue that freedom is a positive power to do something.


Liberalism is  also committed  to the language of  rights and democracy. While  the Lockean tradition makes a case for natural rights that became the forerunner of human rights in the 20th century, the utilitarian logic emphasizes the legal basis of every right. Liberalism is also tied to the value of democracy, though in the recent past, new versions of democracy – strong democracy, unitary democracy, deliberative democracy- have been formulated to effectively respect the liberal underpinnings of democracy.


In a nutshell, a liberal approach to political theory therefore focuses on issues of liberty, rights, moral equality and conditions of individual flourishing freely chosen by the individual rather than pre-ordained by society or state. This also explains the liberal alliance with democracy and a freely operating market. Individual rather than social collectivity becomes the fulcrum of Approaches to the Study of Political Theory – Liberal,
Conservative Traditions


1 While laissez faire and neoliberal state see state intervention in economy as an infringement on liberty,

welfare liberals are in favour of state intervention in economy.

2 Taylor distinguishes between an ‘opportunity’ and ‘exercise’ concept of freedom.




Conservatism by its name implies that it conserves. “It recurrently said of itself, in a tone suitable for an axiom of politics, that it is against change” (Honderich 2005:6). Conservatism therefore is generally understood as a political tradition that is opposed to change or is skeptical of change; conservation of the existing order becomes the hallmark of conservative approach. Though conservatism has often been traced to Plato, Aristotle, Halifax, Hooker, Bolingbroke and others, “it reaches its maturity only with Edmund Burke’s tumultuous response to the French Revolution” (Quinton 2007: 291). On the contrary, Vincent (2009: 56) traces conservatism to the fourteenth century- the idea of conserving something. Vincent also acknowledges the roots of twentieth century conservative writers to the medieval period. Russell Kirk’s tracing of the conservative tradition to the ‘conservators’- guardians of medieval cities is one example.


The diversity within the technical usages of conservatism is explained in terms of five positions by Andrew Vincent (2009):


As the negative doctrine of the aristocratic class after the French Revolution. In this perception, conservatism is a temporary historical phenomenon from 1790 to around 1914 in the European societies. The development of Tory Party in England from late eighteenth century to around 1832 is an example.


A second view explains conservatism as a doctrine with no political content, a form of political pragmatism, simply absorbing the prevailing political, cultural and moral ethos.


A third view- situational or positional view- “reflects the self-conscious defensive posture of any institutionalized political doctrine” (Vincent 2009: 58). Conservatism here is not attributed to class, historical event or ideology. It is just part of any institutional order that defends the existing order. Thus we would find conservatives in liberalism and Marxism as well.


There is also a view of conservatism as a disposition. Hugh Cecil’s ‘natural conservatism’- a tendency of human mind o be averse to change, is one such example (ibid). Conservatism is again not an ideology but only a human disposition to stick to tested beliefs and practices.


Another dispositional view makes distinctions on the types of reasoning. Michael Oakeshott is a good example for this position. At one level, this view persuades us to believe that conservatism is opposed to abstract reasoning; it also gives us reasons as to why it should not believe in reasoning (see Vincent 2009: 58).


Finally, conservatism as also been perceived as an ideology- a body of ideas with a prescriptive content. Edmund Burke’s works on conservatism are exemplars of an ideology of conservatism (ibid). Burke cited the novelty of French Revolution in its emphasis on equality and perfectibility of human beings through reason and reform of institutions that was a cause of skepticism for him.


Vincent also identifies three distinct but overlapping approaches to the study of conservatism-the historical nation state, chronological and conceptual approaches. The historical nation state view contends that conservatism is specific- in a specific historical context. This is broadly agreed to by Noel O’ Sullivan and Karl Mannheim who speak of distinctive British, German, French and other nation state and history based conservatisms. The chronological approach classifies conservatism according to the timeline of Conservative parties, each phase marked by a dominant personality and exigencies of the period. Thus British Conservatism is marked by Robert Peel’s conservatism, followed by Disraeli, MacMillan and Thatcherism. The conceptual view has two strands: one denies the existence of different conservatisms. There could be different philosophical roots but no pure doctrine of conservatism. Antony Quinton and Roger Scruton subscribe to this view. The second strand views manifold diversities within conservatism. Vincent (2009) divides them into five- traditionalists, romantic, paternalistic, liberal and New Right.


Despite the diversity, Anthony Quinton (2007) argues that there are three central interconnected doctrines in conservatism- traditionalism, skepticism about political knowledge, and the organic conception of human beings and society. Traditionalism “supports continuity in politics, the maintenance of existing institutions and practices, and is suspicious of change, particularly of large and sudden change, and above all of violent and systematic revolutionary change” (Quinton 2007: 286). Conservatives favour change but only gradualist change: “Conservatives accept change as required by changing circumstances, but they insist that, to minimize its dangers, it should be continuous and gradual” (ibid: 288). Ted Honderich (2005: 9) highlights this as a difference drawn by conservatism between change and reform; they favour reform but not change. Change alters the basic essence or substance of something-something fundamental-whereas reform addresses only what is extrinsic or accidental to something (ibid: 10). Furthermore, conservatives like Michael Oakeshott make a case for retaining traditions not because they are merely traditions, but by virtue of the society’s familiarity with them (see Honderich 2005: 17). Noel O’Sullivan adds a new dimension to the notion of change in Burke, when he contends that what constitutes change/reform and indeed conservatism in different societies could be different. What constitutes reform cannot be said in advance; conservatism may range from defensive actions to initiating changes to ensure status quo (Honderich 2005: 22). Benjamin Disraeli’s act of extending suffrage to dish the Whigs is an example of the latter.


This gives conservatism an overall pessimistic colour. Changes bring not only possibilities but also bad consequences. The overall improvement of human condition is also fraught with negative impacts, and hence their skepticism to ‘progress’. The skepticism to change has led many to describe conservatism as the ‘politics of imperfection’ (see Quinton 2007). Kekes (2004) gives a different interpretation of this imperfection. Kekes argues that conservatism also assumes that human condition is all right as it is. Human nature is a mix of good and bad aspects; however, both individual and society have limited control to change human propensity to evil (Kekes 2004: 139). Unlike the liberals, conservatism does not perceive human beings as rational: “humans are not rational machines; they are a complex mesh of emotions, thoughts and often contradictory motivations” (Vincent 2009: 68). This vindicates their skepticism about reforming human beings –that inspired Peter Viereck to call conservatism as the ‘political secularization of the doctrine of original sin’ (Vincent 2009: 69).


Indeed, it is tradition that mediates between individual autonomy and social authority for the design of good life, in conservatism:


A tradition is a set of customary beliefs, practices, and actions that has endured from the past to the present and attracted the allegiance of people so that they wish to perpetuate it. A tradition may be reflective and designed, like the deliberations of the Supreme Court, or unreflective and spontaneous, ….. Traditions may be religious, horticultural, scientific, athletic, political, stylistic, moral, aesthetic, commercial, medical, legal, military, educational, architectural, and so on and so on. They permeate human lives (Kekes 2004: 136).


That is, individual’s idea of leading a good life consists in her participation in traditions given to society through history. The autonomous participation of individual in following social traditions is hence the key to reconciling individual autonomy and social authority in conservative theories. At the same time, conservatism also refutes traditions that violate the main requirements of human nature (see Kekes 2004). Who chooses these traditions then? Conservatives argues that the decisions should be taken by those legitimately empowered to do so by the political process; the decision should be on the basis of the contribution of the tradition to the society in terms of its past record- those that have positively contributed should be retained; negatively contributed traditions should be rejected. Conservatism hence is not a non-discretionary acceptance of tradition; it is a reasonable and reflective defence of durable traditional arrangements (see Kekes 2001; Honderich 2005).


Secondly, political wisdom is embodied in experience and established institutions and practices. Conservatism therefore opposes utopias and systemic proposals of change (ibid). Thirdly, conservatism is based on the idea that there is no universal human nature. The organic relations between individuals and society entail that they are not independent of social institutions and practices; human nature therefore changes from time to time and place to place. The corollary of this is the conservative argument that it is not possible to evolve abstractions or abstract theories characteristic of natural sciences. The hostility towards abstract theoretical political knowledge prompted Quinton to argue thus: “As an ideology conservatism is, then, procedural or methodological rather than substantive. It prescribes no principles or ideals or institutions universally and so falls outside the scope of its own rejection of abstract theory” (Quinton 2007: 288). Burke’s distinction between abstraction (metaphysical reason) and principles rooted in custom and tradition clarifies the conservative position on abstract theory. Oakeshott’s rejection of rational technical knowledge in favour of practical knowledge is another example. This makes conservatism hostile to not only utopias but also to social contracts and abstract categories including rights (see Quinton 2007; Kekes 2004). On the contrary, they draw from the history of their own society to decide their present and future (Kekes 2004). In other words, political arrangements should be based on history:


Conservatives agree that history is the appropriate starting point, but some of them believe that it is not a contingent fact that certain political arrangements have historically fostered good lives, while others have been detrimental to them (Kekes 2004: 131).


This prompts Kekes to argue that conservatism relies on a moral order in history, and it is thus political morality (Kekes 2004).


It is that history, rather than any metaphysical or utopian consideration, that is most likely to provide the relevant considerations for or against the political arrangements that present themselves as possibilities in that society (Kekes 2004: 135).


Thirdly, conservatism is based on an organic conception of society, also a society linked through hierarchy. The individual cannot be explained except through the organic whole. Society is thus a mutually interdependent interrelation of parts; it is not an artifice or a mechanism as the liberals would explain. This also implies that political order cannot be invented; it emerges from existing moral and political institutions. Except for the New Right within conservatism, political leadership and skills are for an exclusive few who also command special status. Burke, for example, referred to political leadership as a natural aristocracy (see Vincent 2009). This also explains conservatives’ hostility to democracy. Conservatives favour limited democracy, like the notion of ‘virtual representation’ in Edmund Burke.3 Human nature is imperfect; therefore government is needed to provide a framework of procedures and rules. Freedom, rights, liberty, property- none of them are moral values; they are tied to the ends of the community (ibid). This also brings to light a basic contradiction in conservatism especially in the works of Burke- except in the ideology of the New Right and more liberal conservatives, conservatism is characterized by a hierarchically ordered society but mostly a free market economy.


3 Burke argued that individuals can be represented in politics even without franchise.


Finally, the conservative tradition is also marked by its opposition to theory. Conservatism argues that no social theory can capture the complexities of society. It is a fallacy therefore to apply theory to society (Honderich 2005: 32). Russell Kirk’s denunciation of a priori notions as divorced from history and circumstances is an example (see Kirk, in Honderich 2005). Similarly, Oakseshott’s repudiation of rationalism in politics is another vindication of conservatism’s departure from Enlightenment rationality, moral philosophy and social engineering (ibid: 34). This has often been portrayed as conservatism’s anti- philosophy (see Vincent 2009). Honderich (2005) argues that the conviction of conservatism in time tested traditions and experiences implies that it denounces metaphysical abstractions and favours a form of empiricism.

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