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What is Liberal? What is Conservative?

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I began studying this issue because my heart breaks when I see relationships fall apart because of political beliefs or wild accusations made about people without even knowing who they really are. I am a conservative who has learned to really appreciate the talents and strengths liberals have. Please consider what I have learned.

What is liberal?

“Liberal” is a term that conservatives throw around loosely to describe anyone who disagrees with or opposes “conservative” ideals. I believe this term is used incorrectly and falls short of truly describing what it means to be liberal.

The word liberal comes from a 14th century word meaning “generous, selfless, magnanimous, admirable, willing, zealous, munificent, or gracious.” From the 12th century, it also has a slight negative connotation: “extravagant, unrestrained.” Also, “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person” and “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.”A liberal is someone who sees social injustice and asks themselves, “What can I do to solve this problem as quickly as possible, whatever means necessary?” When a liberal sees suffering, poverty, sickness and disease, malnutrition,  or any other combination of wicked problems, they are motivated to develop solutions. This is why liberals dominate the field of social innovation or social entrepreneurship, the industry of solving world problems. These liberals love what they do and their whole heart is in the work because it is deeply connected to their compassion and desire to serve and lift others.

Conservatives would be surprised to learn that the word liberal comes from a word suggesting “freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” and “tending in favor of freedom and democracy.” This essentially means that liberals want to free a person from the chains of poverty, abuse, injustice, or other debilitating conditions, and that they are willing to give of themselves freely to make this happen. Liberals are willing to give the shirts off their backs to help those in need. They make change happen. Jesus Christ was the perfect example of a true liberal.

However, the most extreme liberals are actually willing to cause social injustice to solve what they consider to be a greater social injustice, and this is what has conservatives scared. These radicals give liberals a bad name and cause conservatives to retaliate violently against this new and direct assault on justice.

Here is the danger in “unbridled” or “unchecked” liberalism: emotionalism without direction is a threat to freedom. Ideas that seem like good, sound solutions may actually make problems much worse.

What is conservative?

The term conservative comes from a 14th century word meaning “tending to preserve or protect, preservative, having the power to keep whole or safe,” and “to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard,” as well as “keep watch, maintain.” Additionally, conservative meant “disposed to retain and maintain what is established, opposed to innovation and change.”

When confronted with a proposed solution to a problem, a conservative is someone who asks themselves the questions, “What is this going to do to our rights and our resources? Can we afford this in the long run? Would this ‘solution’ actually create more periphery problems as we try to solve this single problem? Is this the right way to solve the problem, or is there a better way of doing this? Do we trust the people who are initiating this proposed solution, or do they have ulterior motives?” The questions go on and on.

Conservatives experience paralysis by analysis. They are often so afraid of “breaking” things further that they would rather deal with a broken system than rally together to make a change and risk making things worse. Conservatives have a serious trust issue. This is why conservatives will disunite over the smallest difference while liberals unite over the slightest similarity.

I know conservatives who recognize problems with the current system but are so afraid of change that they resist any efforts to pass amendments to restore checks and balances. They preach that the original Constitution was inspired by God but resist all efforts to restore it to it’s original strength.

The most radical or extreme case of conservatism may be Ebenezer Scrooge who, when confronted with the proposition that people would rather die than go to the Union workhouses, heartlessly said, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” A 100% conservative is  insensitive, unconcerned for others, harsh, cruel, and exclusively concerned about retaining resources. I sure hope this does not describe any of us.

One reason conservatives are slow to promote change is because they don’t necessarily consider all change truly progressive, good, or beneficial. They do want to promote good change but struggle identifying truly innovative solutions that they believe would produce the desired impact.

Comparing the Two

I believe true liberals are always the first to serve and sacrifice for others, including those they don’t know. If you are a conservative who considers yourself quick to serve, then I submit you are much more liberal than you have previously thought. If you are a liberal who considers yourself someone who acts with wisdom and foresight and avoids making problems worse by really considering the long-term effects of proposed changes, then I submit you are much more conservative than you have previously thought.

Using these definitions of conservatives and liberals, while I generally agree with conservative values and policies, I would not be surprised if there are “more liberals in heaven,” because I believe that God really cares about whether we have loved and served one another and whether we have actually put action behind our words and our intentions to do good. I believe conservatives have many of the right ideas but are too dang complacent and don’t put their hands where their mouths are.

A liberal, who is motivated by compassion, is more likely to say, “Will you just listen and try to consider what it must be like for [people who are suffering]? When will you stop and feel some compassion for [people who are suffering]? If you really cared, you really would listen more.” A conservative might act like the dispassionate husband who with a stubborn, matter-of-fact attitude said, “It IS about the nail!”


I am convinced that the liberals’ Achilles heel is that they almost place too much trust in the nature of man. A true liberal is so full of love that it almost seems beyond their capacity to believe that someone could exercise power in such awful and wicked ways. Conservatives, always mindful of past experience, believe that “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39) and they instinctively resist trends towards giving anybody more power, particularly the government.

Liberals are “free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions,” which makes conservatives defensive and nervous. Conservatives are of the opinion that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While liberals want to progress towards “bigger and better” solutions, conservatives believe attempts to “improve” the system are attempts to reinvent the wheel and have only moved us away from the best system for solving problems.

When we talk about what is liberal or conservative, we should first consider what that means about our nature before we have specific policies come to mind. For example, if you believe with me that we need to heal the Constitution by restoring vertical and horizontal checks and balances and the balance of powers, then you are, in one sense, a liberal because you see a problem and you want to work towards making a change. If you see problems in the current system but are afraid or slow to make any changes, then you are taking a conservative position, at least in that circumstance. Here is a quote to illustrate this point:

Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, but rather a way of looking at the civil order. The conservative of Peru … will differ greatly from those of Australia, for though they may share a preference for things established, the institutions and customs which they desire to preserve are not identical. [Russell Kirk (1918-1994)]

So a person living in Jordan who is passionately working to establish a constitutional republic patterned after the original American system would be considered a liberal, since conservatives would be working to preserve the royal kingdom. A liberal in Jordan and a conservative in the USA could essentially be promoting the exact same policies. This demonstrates that “liberal” and “conservative” are relative terms that mean different things when considering different locations and periods of time.

If we don’t understand what a true, or classical, liberal is, conservatives are inclined to think that liberals are the real political enemy, and vice versa. Perhaps some of the greatest enemies of freedom happen to be liberal, but being liberal doesn’t inherently make a person an enemy of freedom. In fact, I am convinced that some of the worst people in the world live in the United States and call themselves Republicans. In the truest sense of the word, liberals actually want to promote freedom, possibly even more than conservatives who want to maintain the status quo and are slow to act to bring about positive change.

I believe the greatest enemy to freedom is the uninformed person on either side of the political spectrum who acts based on emotionalism, unwilling to listen, learn from, love, or consider the things others have to say.

In the 5,000 Year Leap, W. Cleon Skousen taught that the founders believed America would survive as long as conservatives and liberals balanced one another. He uses the three-headed eagle to demonstrate their relationship. The left wing represented liberals and the right wing represented conservatives. In order for the eagle to soar, both wings must be strong. If either wing became either dominant or weak, the nation would suffer and potentially fall.

So what does this analogy look like in real life? Since the founders intended for only the Legislative Branch to create legislation, or laws, they designed Congress to incorporate both energy and wisdom.

The founders of the Constitution designed the House of Representatives to be liberal. There are provisions in the Constitution that specifically ensure that the House remains liberal, regardless of what party “controls” (can we start saying “leads”?) the House. Representatives are to be elected directly through the democracy of the people for a term of 2 years. There are more representatives than Senators and they are designed to represent the people and the issues that the people care about at a given time. They are closer to the people and more sensitive to the passion and emotions of the people, by design. Since they only serve for 2 years, they are under a lot of pressure to make things happen quickly, and hence, the liberal nature of the House of Representatives.

The Senate was designed to be conservative. “George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea” according to Senators were originally elected, or hired, by the state legislatures to represent them in Congress. The people who elect the Representatives in the House want change to happen quickly, but that energy is liable to be reckless. So the Senate was designed to bring wisdom and foresight into the equation. They are elected for a term of 6 years and are supposed to be less concerned about making change happen quickly. Rather, they temper the emotionalism of the House. They are to be the primary protectors of state’s rights. The states hired them to represent them in Congress to make sure the people don’t give away states rights to the federal government as they attempt to solve problems. This balance has been obliterated by the 17th Amendment.

To save this nation, conservatives must learn to appreciate the compassion and energy that true liberals have, for that is their greatest talent, and liberals must learn to value the wisdom and foresight of informed conservatives. Healing America won’t be done exclusively be either side of the spectrum. It will take a coalition of conservatives willing to support and work with and benefit from the energy and motivation of liberals, and liberals who are willing to listen to and honestly consider the perspectives and lessons learned by conservatives.

Where do you stand?

I hope that each of you reading this post recognize that although you will certainly lean one direction and resonate more with one side than the other, you are likely much more liberal or conservative than you previously thought. I consider myself a classical liberal, or a liberal conservative, in the sense that I’m willing and motivated to work to make change happen, but I want my energy and emotion to be guided by conservative judgement, wisdom, and foresight.

I believe the insanely massive problems facing America today can only be solved as we learn from one another and work together to promote measures that solve huge problems in sustainable ways while protecting rights and resources.

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Things that matter to me

I use this site to share ideas and insights about things that matter to me. It’s an archive of my favorite content and a place to share great information about politics, religion, and science.

About Jacob

Obsessed with learning new things. Trying to learn and defend truth.

Living in Idaho, graduated in Financial Economics from BYU-Idaho, and getting ready to launch several civic education projects.

I own a website and marketing business called ArcFires. Keep an eye out for my upcoming civic education projects: Liberty Library and the American Center for Civic Training.

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