What is conservatism? What makes one a conservative? Today there is a vast host of media available to those wishing to convey a message and it is not at all uncommon to stumble across websites proclaiming themselves to be “conservative.” Add to that the immense popularity of “conservative” talk radio, “conservative” cable news programs, and best-selling conservative authors and it would be easy to assume that there are many intellectual guardians of the conservative worldview. Yet many of these self-proclaimed conservatives are seemingly ignorant of what constitutes authentic conservatism and what values mark a true conservative.
This confusion is furthered by a seeming disconnect between Republican lawmakers and their conservative constituents. Republican legislators and politicians champion bailout bills and big government programs and seem all too eager to compromise with their liberal peers in Congress on matters ranging from taxes and foreign policy to judicial appointments and education reform. Intra-conservative turmoil and tension between different conservative political factions also muddy the waters.
The average American might look at all this and wonder what being conservative is all about. Does it mean supporting subsidies and economic-leveling as objectives or appointing judges who can interpret the Constitution however they wish? In other words, is being conservative merely a sort of liberalism-lite? In the current political climate these questions, once unthinkable, can be understood.
It has become essential, then, to define what conservatism is before proceeding. After all, what good is a website dedicated to defending conservative principles if there is confusion about what the terms “conservative” and “conservatism” mean? Abraham Lincoln once attempted to answer this very question, “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” Whittaker Chambers
“an inclination to cherish the permanent things in human existence.”
Both Lincoln and Chambers come close to the heart of conservatism, but fail to capture it completely. The great twentieth century conservative thinker, Russell Kirk
, wrote a landmark essay, “Ten Conservative Principles
” in which he attempted to briefly outline general principles that mark conservatism and characterize a true conservative. These general principles (which I have consolidated down to nine) are probably the best attempt to comprehensively and concisely define conservatism.
Russell Kirk’s Conservative Principles
1) The conservative believes in the existence of an enduring moral order. There is no denying that the vast majority of conservatives believe in a code of ethics or law that transcends societies and cultures. This is why the vast majority of religious Americans naturally align themselves with conservative political parties. Conservatives believe moral truths are permanent and not subject to the whims of the majority. Kirk writes:
A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
2) The conservative adheres to custom, convention and continuity. Conservatives believe in tradition, not because all things are worth continuing, but because the consequences of doing away with the old to usher in the new need to be carefully considered. The esteemed British philosopher G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time…Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to object to men being disqualified by birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion , even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.
It is hard to overstate the importance of tradition. Winston Churchill got it right when he said, “A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril.” The liberal’s belief that all things new are inherently better than all things old is summarily rejected by the conservative who holds fast to tradition and convention as a measuring stick for present times and a guide for the future.
3) Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription. A prescription is basically the right to something established by its long use. Conservatives believe mankind has acquired a vast sum of knowledge through generations of learning by trial and error and think it would be foolish to throw out the wisdom of our ancestors based solely upon inadequate-by-comparison individual reasoning.
4) Conservatives are guided by the principle of prudence. What is prudence? The great Roman philosopher Cicero defined it as “the knowledge of things to be sought, and those to be shunned.” Conservatives believe the liberals’ rush for “change” is often reckless and is done without giving heed to the long-term consequences of such actions. Kirk states:
Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away… The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
5) Conservatives are fond of variety. Kirk sums this principle up best when he states conservatives “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.” Conservatives recognize that inequalities will always exist in society and that any attempts at economic leveling (e.g. “spreading the wealth”) or other types of leveling are doomed to failure. We also understand the merits of letting local political bodies govern over regions rather than letting a distant centralized government set the same rules and laws over a number of diverse regions and areas.
6) Conservatives understand humans are imperfect creatures and suffer irremediably from certain grave faults. Conservatives understand that to seek to create a perfect government, or utopia, is a fool’s quest. Humans, far from perfect, are sinful (to use an antiquated term for our culture) and, thus, mankind needs a system of checks and balances to control our vices and shortcomings. One of the things that makes the United States’ Constitution such a brilliant political document is that it separates the powers of the government into three separate branches: the executive, legislative and judicial. This is meant to ensure that a tyrannical, despotic or oligarchic government never assumes power in America. Kirk writes:
The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.
Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.
The concept of separation of powers has been held as one of America’s most sacred tenets throughout its history, but in recent decades it has been seriously undermined by power plays in our courts. This unprecedented power grab by the judicial branch in recent years has led to a near oligarchic rule in regard to some decisions and, not coincidentally, to some of the most controversial decisions in American legal history. Referendums, state amendments and laws passed by elected officials have all been overturned by judges who have no accountability to the voters; thus, the will of the American people is often thwarted by what amounts to a virtual oligarchy.
7) Conservatives understand freedom and private property are closely linked. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall once said, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” When one is enabled to accumulate wealth without repercussion, this provides a motive for the individual to be responsible, industrious and innovative. This is why the conservative believes that government should tax individuals as little as possible – just enough to pay for necessary government functions and duties. Kirk writes:
For the institution of several property—that is, private property—has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.
The greatest potential tragedy of the twentieth century could very well be that we didn’t learn this most important lesson: socialism and communism do not work.
8) Conservatives uphold voluntary community and oppose involuntary collectivism. Conservatism believes government should be localized as much as possible and is rooted in the belief that a centralized government composed of benevolent civil servants and engineers cannot possibly govern a community as effectively as its local leaders and residents.
9) Conservatives understand that permanence and change must be reconciled in a vigorous society. Conservatives understand that change must occur but believe it must be done carefully and only after much thought and deliberation. Russell Kirk best articulated this when he stated:
Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.
Taken as a whole, these nine principles offer one of the better working definitions of conservatism yet articulated. While conservatives often hold differing opinions about different issues and ideas, I believe one will find that these characteristics are almost universally held within conservative ranks.
The conservative worldview, as defined above, is best equipped to handle the problems society faces today, while we are still at the beginning of a new century. When applied consistently, these principles have worked for centuries as proven guidelines for governing and guiding nations and other political entities. It is this philosophy, this worldview, we hope to defend and articulate on this site.