Many commentators have pointed out that policies which are considered liberal in one era might be considered conservative in another. For example, one of my history professors some time ago mentioned that during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 English liberals recommended not directly aiding the Irish; instead they advocated that the best course of action was a hands-off approach which primarily allowed market forces to solve the crisis. Today, of course, such policies would be considered not just conservative (because doubtlessly even a great majority of conservatives would be appalled at such a plan) but ultra-conservative.
In 1845, however, the idea that only market forces could ultimately solve such a crisis was a novel idea–one still coming into its own. It was relatively innovative and cutting edge back then. (And evidence–if one needed any–that simply because something is cutting edge doesn’t mean it will pan out in the end.)
One definition of “liberal” is tending toward the new fix or approach as opposed to the old.
“Conservative,” on the other hand, can mean sticking with what we know, old approaches, the known quantity.
In all, I can think of three semi-distinct (semi-interrelated) definitions for conservative (and, hence, three definitions of liberal–its photographic negative, so to speak); they are as follows:
1. Favoring the old-fashioned way. Sticking with the “tried and true.” Not seeking the novel.
2. Believing that society can only be improved so much before we reach the point of diminishing returns. The raw material we have to work with—human nature—is not perfectable, and our innate imperfections have to be taken into account when formulating government policy.
So, for example, distribution of power (as opposed to centralization of authority) is one way of keeping a check on the dark side of human nature—as it effectively pits different people (each of which has a warped nature) against one another. The hope is that somehow in the battle justice can somehow be approximated. The alternative—absolute power—is viewed as absolutely corrupting.
3. Tending to favor one’s own group in conflicts over resources.
To generalize, conservative seems to involve keeping, bringing or retracting toward oneself, or settling for what one already has.
Yet these three definitions, because they are to an extent dissimilar, can clash with one another. Depending on the circumstances, an individual might be conservative by one definition and liberal by another definition, as the following example illustrates:
If a person were pro-choice on abortion, then his politics with respect to this issue would fall on the liberal side of the spectrum because of definition 1–since being pro-choice is associated with atheism (see my article on why Christians tend to be pro-life in the abortion category), and atheism is a relatively young phenomenon developing no earlier than the 1600s and really gaining traction among intellectuals in the 1700s and 1800s after 600 to 1,000 plus years in which belief in a monotheistic God was unquestioned among every grade of society throughout Europe. So being pro-choice is a new thing (in a sense), and hence it gets categorized (along with many other beliefs which track with atheism or against traditional religious beliefs) as liberal.
But this same person could belong to a people group (for example, African American, Asian American, Jewish American, Hispanic American, Native American, European American, etc.) with which he strongly identifies with and one in which he tries to bolster or support by advocating policy preferences which essentially boost the resources flowing toward his own group (above and beyond what what a basic level of fairness would dictate–obviously this determination is usually a sticking point in disputations). This person would be ethnically conservative by definition 3.
All in all, the above defintions of conservativism and liberalism do a fairly good job at helping people to understand why a particular person, group, or policy was or is considered to be to the left or to the right. However, as the example above shows, one needs to have a handle on the larger context of a situation if one wishes to explain seemingly contradictory outcomes.
By the way, I like to think I’m a liberal by the first definition, a conservative by the second, and a moderate or centrist by the third–meaning that I aim at taking no more and no less than I (or the groups I’m associated with) deserve. (Yes, yes, I know, Who doesn’t?)