The Relationship between Liberalism and Conservatism: Competitive, Symbiotic or Parasitic?

Bousfield, Ann (2002). The Relationship between Liberalism and Conservatism: Competitive, Symbiotic or Parasitic? PhD thesis The Open University.



The thesis argues that the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is closer than is commonly supposed. Though the 'triumph of liberalism' - whether intellectual or political - is a commonplace it in fact rests on a conceit: liberalism's claim to be able to provide a publicly justified morality founded on the ideas of rationality, tolerance and autonomy. That is the root of, to quote MacIntyre, 'the spectre haunting contemporary liberal theorists [which] is not communitarianism, but their own irrelevance'. I shall argue that this irrelevance is neither the result of liberal theorists' inadequacies nor a corollary of the exigencies of contemporary politics. Rather, it is a structural inevitability. For liberalism can justify its values only by resorting to a conservative axiology. The thesis delineates three strands of liberalism, classical liberalism, libertarianism and perfectionism. I argue that the problem that all these liberalisms have in common is that they all need to use a conservative form of argument to justify liberal norms of rationality, autonomy and tolerance.

The origin of this dilemma lies in the nature of liberalism itself. Since liberalism's emergence as a self-conscious form of political discourse it has been founded on a particular view of how people are. Liberal doctrines about the social and political obligations of individuals are derived from the view of man (sic) as a rational choosing individual. However, such individuals are historical artefacts and their flourishing depends on a precise set of historical circumstances. I argue, therefore, that the various species of liberalism examined in this thesis all advocate - to a greater or lesser extent - conservative political prescriptions in defence of the matrix of institutions, laws, manners and mores which allow liberal individuality to flourish.

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