“Conservative liberalism” isn’t a term commonly used in the United States. Indeed, to American ears, it seems positively oxymoronic.
In Europe, however, it constitutes a venerable tradition of political thought and embraces figures ranging from the French thinkers Alexis de Tocqueville and Raymond Aron to economists such as the primary intellectual architect of the German economic miracle, Wilhelm Röpke, and the French monetary theorist Jacques Rueff.
As a political tradition, the “liberal” part of conservative liberalism concerns the commitment to freedom. The “conservative” part reflects recognition that the preservation and growth of liberty relies heavily on institutions such as religion and tradition as well as a commitment to natural law—all of which order the freedom of individuals and groups.
An updated explanation and defense of conservative liberalism was recently published in Spain by a professor of legal philosophy at the University of Seville, Francisco José Contreras. This is important because conservative liberalism has never been especially strong in Spain or the Spanish-speaking world more generally.
Entitled Una defensa del liberalismo conservador [A defense of conservative liberalism] (2018), this short book provides a concise outline of the fundamentals of conservative liberalism in a context in which populists and supranational bureaucrats are engaged in a continent-wide struggle for power. For Contreras, conservative liberalism begins with the thought of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith but acquired a distinctly American flavor throughout the twentieth century.
If there is another way to describe this tradition, the phrase “ordered liberty” fits very nicely. It brings together a commitment to free markets with what might be broadly called social conservatism, but, as Contreras shows, in a way that avoids all the ambiguities of what was once called fusionism in the United States.
The biggest contemporary danger to this tradition, Contreras argues, is neither economic nor social. In his view, it is a spiritual challenge. By this, Contreras means the breakdown of a commitment to the idea that there is an objective moral order: a disintegration which accelerated in the 1960s and from which much of the West have never really recovered. In the process, ideas such as rights have become corrupted and ethical relativism now characterizes wide swathes of European society, especially its political class.
In that sense, Contreras’ book is a way of suggesting another path for Europe: one that avoids jingoism but also repudiates the political correctness that is presently strangling serious discussion of pressing questions such as immigration, low economic productivity, the ever-growing bureaucratization and centralization of political life, and an apparent unwillingness on the part of some Europeans to replicate themselves.
The real question, it might be argued, is whether enough Europeans are even willing to listen.