Classical Liberalism vs. Conservatism in Denmark

The debate is swirling again between classical liberals and conservatives. But the two camps actually need each other. Without conservatism, liberalism is a travesty. And without liberalism, a conservative society is repressive.

By Ryan Smith

I myself am a classical liberal, but I admit it: Looking at the last twenty years of major policy issues in Denmark, namely EU membership as well as the package of problems relating to the non-Western immigration, it’s mainly conservatives who have been right, while we liberals have been far too optimistic.

For example, we were many classical liberals who believed that even though the non-Western immigrants immediately created problems for the existing order, these immigration evils would soon blow over. All we needed was for the immigrants to make their entrance on the labor market. More hands in the labor market meant a bigger economic pie, and on the whole “people are ultimately steered by economic (rather than cultural) interests”, said the liberal logic. For the same reasons we were many who gladly welcomed any further strengthening of the EU-node: Every step towards a closer union was of course also a step towards greater free trade – or so we thought.

Many years later, we can see that the non-Western immigrants cannot simply be integrated and that they still show up in all the wrong statistics. And the EU, which many liberals once saw as a hope in the fight against regulation and monopolies, has now ended up as its very own brand of postmodernist regulatory hell. In both areas, it was the conservatives who were first to say no, and in both areas it was the conservatives who were right.

Although I am a classical liberal, I recognize that conservative thinkers and conservative politics historically have had a great deal of the credit for the ‘liberal’ success like the Netherlands, the UK, and the USA, as these have unfolded in the best periods of these countries. Liberalism without conservative moderation all too easily becomes a parody of itself, a kind of right-wing utopianism, where people want to abolish national borders, police, military and taxation. A mirage that – somewhat like communism – looks good on paper, but is guaranteed to lead to death and destruction if implemented.

I therefore recognize that liberalism needs conservatism. Yet I am still a classical liberal. For a purely conservative society is not a society that I personally would like to live in. If liberalism without conservatism becomes a right-wing utopianism, then a conservative society that does not have a liberal gadfly to keep it on its toes tends to stagnate and become repressive: To become a strict ‘father state’ which discriminates ruthlessly against religious, sexual, and political deviants.

A purely conservative society resembles those found in antiquity, where even a democratic state like classical Athens ended up condemning a deviant like Socrates to death for presenting the city’s young people with ideas other than those of the establishment. Contrary to what many of my contemporaries seem to believe, democracy is not in itself a guarantee against the unnecessary discrimination of misfits, which the disgraceful treatment of homosexuals in contemporary America proves to the fullest.

In addition to continuously challenging the existing order, the liberal opposition can also play a crucial role for the Conservatives, as classical liberals like to remind anyone who will listen that the state is too large (always too large) and that state power should be constitutionally limited. Briefly stated, the liberal reminds the powers that be that the preferred civil values of the state should not be enforced by the police power, which ultimately is what conservatives argue for when they want to ban certain symbols or items of clothing from the public sphere.

I’m not saying that all conservatives need to be reminded of this lesson, simply because they are conservatives. Within the conservative ranks there is an excellent tradition in which conservatives fight, first and foremost, for the right of free people to choose, of their own free will, to honor and live by their traditional values. But against this tradition, there is also a more state-friendly conservative tradition, which has an unfortunate tendency to want its preferred values enforced by law.

The conservative intelligentsia in Denmark is troubled by the fact that this country does not (any longer) have a strong conservative tradition that is of the people in the same way that it once had. After half a century of socialist majority governments, we know that the people have been accustomed to think of civil society as something that the state is in command of and that the individual does not need to take responsibility for his own life. This development makes it inherently difficult for today’s conservatives to win support for their views by appealing directly to the public. Hence they compensate by succumbing to the intellectually lazy solution: To get the state to enforce the value policies they happen to like best.

No matter how many laws you manage to force through, you do not foster a genuine conservatism that way. You cannot create a public sentiment of conservatism from above, by means of the state. A true conservative society is the opposite of a society in which all decisions regarding civil life emanate from parliament. This also means that the more conservative commentators help to politicize civil society, the more they also counteract their own long-term goals, as they leave more and more up to a future socialist majority.

So dear conservatives: Get to work. Get out of the armchairs and drop the idea of introducing the ‘right’ values per government decree. The real conservative work is to raise a conservative culture among the population in this country after 50 years of social democracy. And you have to start from the bottom.