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Victor Davis Hanson Explains the Difference between American and European Conservatism


Published June 7, 2022

The approach to conservatism is different in America than it is in Europe. This stems from different approaches to liberty, freedom, and equality. The American tradition views personal liberty within the confines of government, seeks freedom in people’s private lives, and expects a fair shot at success due to individual merit.

Additional Resources:

  • Watch “Diversity and Freedom” on PolicyEd. Available here.
  • Watch “Freedom and Equality” on PolicyEd. Available here.
  • Listen to “What the Greeks and Romans Can Teach Us, According to Victor Davis Hanson,” an episode of Secrets of Statecraft. Available here.
View Transcript

We know Americans' idea of conservatism is a little different from the European tradition.

From the founding of the West, there were three concepts that were associated with consensual governments and individual citizens—liberty, freedom, and equality.

Liberty was not always fully appreciated. It's from a Latin word, “libertas,” and means the ability to retain personal freedom within the confines of the state.

But freedom was a bit different. The word “free” had no classical Latin or Greek root. It was instead from Germany and arose from early German tribes living in open spaces who were naturally free without restraint. They didn’t worry about the formalized idea of liberty because they didn't have a state or concerns about preserving their natural freedoms within a government.

So liberty was this classical idea of emphasizing freedom within the context of protecting it from government—in contrast to enjoying freedom of choice in a natural landscape.

Equality was still another distinct ideal among the Enlightenment movement of our founders—and it was quite unlike the later French Revolution notion of an enforced equality of result, or what we now may call equity.

In the American tradition, we believe that the aim of society is not an absolute equality of result, but rather an equality of opportunity and the freedom to either succeed or fail on one’s own merits.

The notion of seeking rather than mandating fairness as a universal concept among the population would encourage that all citizens had at least some modicum of goods and services, security, prosperity, and property necessary for survival.

But there was no desire, to force everybody to become the same, because that equality of result would require, as we learned in the 20th century from various aspects of communism and socialism, a degree of government coercion, one that would be absolutely dangerous to both liberty and freedom.

The conservative in this country is a proponent of personal liberty within the confines of government, seeks freedom in his private life and expects a fair shot at success on his own merits.