In Switzerland a major right-wing political party calls itself defending "liberal conservative" views.

From what I know so far, "conservatives" desires to maintain old traditions, traditional family life and national identity.

On the other hand "liberals" desires minimizing state interventionism, let companies do whathever they want without any constraints, because they believe that serving companies is serving their employees, therefore serving the people as a whole. This typically go against conservatism because international companies do not want their employees to lead traditional family life and do not care about national identity, they want a globalized world of free trade and employees which are 100% devoted to their employer, rather than their family.

So in my opinion, liberalism and conservatism are strongly incompatible (at least in their modern forms), and a party that calls itself "liberal conservative" is incoherent, and somewhat ridiculous as they cannot even know what they desire. Is there something I missed ?

  • I'm voting to close because it's impossible for there to be a universal answer as to whether a particular position is coherent or not--especially in reference to words with very fuzzy and context-centric definitions.
    – user1530
    Dec 17, 2015 at 21:14
  • @blip You're probably right, nevertheless there is a very great answer (I guess I was just lucky).
    – Bregalad
    Dec 17, 2015 at 22:46
  • The catch with that answer is "I do not know in detail how "liberal" is used in Switzerland"...which is the specific context needed to actually answer the question.
    – user1530
    Dec 17, 2015 at 22:57
  • I agree that is a deficiency in my answer, but I think that Bregalad asking the question in a US-based forum with readers worldwide but skewing towards English speaking countries suggests that he or she is interested in more than just the Swiss situation. Since answering I have had a look at some Swiss sources, my search slowed down by limited language skills. I thought the fact that an article on 22/11/15 in the Swiss Le Matin described the centre-right Argentine politician Mauricio Macri as "un libéral" showed that the Swiss do use "liberal" in its old European sense. Nonetheless... Dec 18, 2015 at 11:05
  • @Lostinfrance You cannot make generalizations from a single instance. Especially considering Le Matin is one of the lowest quality paper you can possibly find here, they mostly copy/paste what they found on the net. I belive that like you describe, liberal can have several meanings depending on the context, but it definitely derive from the 19th century term in all cases.
    – Bregalad
    Dec 18, 2015 at 11:10

3 Answers 3


Before we can say whether "liberal conservative" is an oxymoron, we have to define the highly contentious word "liberal" and the somewhat contentious word "conservative". And that is no easy task.

What does "liberal" mean?

I do not know in detail how "liberal" is used in Switzerland, but I believe that, as in the English-speaking world, it is a word that several very different political groups have wished to use to define themselves because of its positive sound.

In 19th century Europe and America the word "liberal" would have been usually associated with support for laissez-faire economics and free trade, freedom of speech, extending the franchise, emancipation of women, ending of monarchical power, and opposition to the legal enforcement of religious rules. The common root, as the Latin derivation of the word implies, being liberty to do what you want. I wouldn't have said that 19th-century liberals necessarily opposed national identity (there are strong traditions of both liberal internationalism and liberal nationalism) but they certainly tended to oppose traditionalism and a patriarchal view of family life.

During the 20th century in the United States the word "liberal" kept the political associations above (and added others) but gradually lost its association with laissez-faire economics. Modern 21st-century US liberals now support a high degree of state involvement in the economy and actively oppose laissez-faire economics.

Because in Britain the word "liberal" was linked to the name of the Liberal Party, and later to the Liberal Democrats, it is not so often used to describe a general political philosophy.

In a further twist, the term "neo-liberal" has recently become a term of abuse (in contrast to the past history of everyone liking the word "liberal" so much that they all tried to take it for themselves). "Neo-liberal" is used by left wingers in both Britain and the US to describe in a hostile manner those who support the consensus that the best sort of economy is soft capitalist with state regulation.

My tentative impression is that in recent years the American meaning of liberalism has had an influence on mainland European usage, and that the older meaning of the word that you assume in your question (that of minimizing state intervention) has been diluted. European liberalism certainly seems less interested nowadays in matters of the economy and more interested in matters of personal behaviour.

What does "conservative" mean?

This ought to be straightforward. It means the people who want to keep things the way they are. The trouble is that the status quo that an early 19th century conservative wished to conserve was very different from the status quo an early 21st century conservative wishes to conserve. For instance the current UK Conservative Prime Minister fervently declares that he wishes to preserve the National Health Service, originally introduced by the Labour party and once seen by Conservatives as an undesirable socialist innovation.

There is a common thread within conservatism of respect for family, nation, religion and tradition, but how conservatives want to order the economy has varied almost as widely as it has for liberals. For instance the histories of both the UK Conservative and Liberal parties include multiple internal splits and see-saws over the issue of free trade versus protectionism.

Getting back to the liberal-conservatives, then, both parts of this term lack sufficient definition to contradict each other.

In practice it probably means a party that is "conservative" (in the sense of not socialist) on the economic front but wishes by the word "liberal" to signal that it is indifferent to traditional views about personal morality.

  • Great answer, thanks. It gives a large palette of what both terms can extend to beyond their original meanings.
    – Bregalad
    Dec 17, 2015 at 22:45
  • 1
    Any reference to the term "neo-liberal"? To the best of my knowledge, it was used to the "new wave" of liberals (in the classic sense of laissez-faire, minimal state intervention) brought up in the 80s with Reagonomics, Margaret Thatcher and later the collapse of the Soviet block. Of course, that does not contradict the fact that someone can see a given action, law, etc. as "savage neo-liberalism" while someone else interprets the same as "brutal communism".
    – SJuan76
    Dec 18, 2015 at 1:18
  • 1
    @SJuan76, Reading the readers' comments to political stories on the Guardian website, one sees every day many instances of the term "neo-liberal" (or "neoliberal" without the hyphen) used in a disapproving sense. Here is one from yesterday: "... The lesser educated are, in 2015, unemployed, skint and basically tossed aside by neo liberalism. [...] I believe they call it capitalism and some will tell you it is a fair way to distribute wealth. Some don't..including Jeremy Corbyn. I am with Mr Corbyn." Link: discussion.theguardian.com/comment-permalink/65274311 Dec 18, 2015 at 7:39
  • 1
    As explained above, you can use neo-liberal just to bash anything you do not want and seems pro-business, the same way you may use "nazi" or "communist" . That does not forbid the terms "neo-liberal", "nazi" or "communist" having a more standard, restricted definition. Particularly, some random comment by some anonymous blog reader does not usually qualify as "source".
    – SJuan76
    Dec 18, 2015 at 8:41
  • I said in my answer that "neo-liberal" has recently come to be used as a term of generalised anti-capitalist abuse. The example I gave was an example of that usage. I quite see that that does not preclude the same term being used in a neutral, descriptive way. I can't easily do links now, but the online Encylopedia Britannica has a good short description of the origin and original meaning of neoliberalism if you want a neutral source. Dec 18, 2015 at 9:09

I think @Lostinfrance's answer is very good, but I want to introduce a bit of an alternate explanation for that specific phrase. The liberal ideas of the 1800s, often called classical liberalism, emphasized such institutions as rule of law, limited government, civil liberties, and representative democracy. Back then, the political position of those who wanted to maintain some sort of monarchy was designated conservative; they wanted to conserve the existing societal order and they resisted change. Edmund Burke, in his work "Reflections on the Revolution in France," praises the existing societal order and starts to define a political philosophy of conservatism. He is not opposed to many liberal reforms in England, but he sees the revolutionary changes in France as too quick to destroy their society and inherently dangerous.

Since then, many thinkers have have developed the political philosophy of conservatism. One of my favorite definitions is Michael Oakshott's aphorism "To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss," from his excellent essay "On Being Conservative." These kind of conservatives see value in existing societal order and seek to maintain it and prevent revolutionaries and progressives from reshaping society with risky and quick changes. They are vehemently opposed to swift and drastic change, preferring incremental reform or maintenance of existing laws and liberties.

However, in many countries, especially continental European countries, conservatism still has strong associations with the aristocracy and the old order. A party would then use the term liberal-conservatism to indicate that they like the liberal reforms of the 1800's, with representative democracy and civil liberties for all (liberal), but they are wary of future changes, especially rapid ones (conservative).


LostinFrance has a very good answer, but like lazarusL I want to add something. Using the OP's definitions, it is possible to be conservative ("desires to maintain old traditions, traditional family life and national identity") and liberal ("desires minimizing state interventionism") because those definitions together describe mainstream "conservative" (the Republican party) ideology in America today. However most American conservatives would probably disagree with the assumption that "minimizing state interventionism" means allowing companies to destroy everything. Instead they would say they prefer that the state not intervene in their family, their religion, or their economic pursuits. Instead the state should protect their rights (life, liberty, property) property but mostly leave people free live their lives.

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