What is Conservatism?

When Mitt Romney last year described himself as “severely conservative,” he was perhaps marking the nadir in the decline of conservatism as a potent, coherent political philosophy. In common usage now “conservative” means little more than “very enthusiastically Republican.” Thus a “moderate” is a so-so Republican and a “liberal” is an enemy of the party.

That loss of meaning comes in large part from a change in circumstances that conservatives have been slow to acknowledge. After the Cold War the alignments that defined conservatism for generations are gone like smoke. The powerful philosophical foundations that lay beneath those assumptions have for the most part been pasted over by bumper stickers and weakened by angst.

Conservatism stands on pillars far deeper than Karl Marx or Adam Smith. If conservatives can rediscover those traditions and come to terms with an evolving world, they will have a vital role to play in building a post-Cold War order.

The roots of conservatism stretch back to ancient understandings of human nature expressed by Plato and the later philosophers of the Roman Republic. The American and French Revolutions inspired the first modern efforts to define conservatism in the English-speaking world, best articulated at the time by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. The philosophy was probably best defined for our time by Russell Kirk in the 1950’s.

Kirk helped found the National Review along with William F. Buckley. Through his influence on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Kirk’s version of conservatism became the pole star of right wing politics in the late 20th Century.

In his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Kirk summarized conservatism in six central tenets:

1)   Belief in a transcendent order

2)   Respect for the complexity of human existence

3)   Civilized society requires orders and classes

4)   Freedom and property are closely linked

5)   Distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs

6)   Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions

Kirk believed that a natural order set in place by a transcendent power governs political life in much the same way that physics guides the stars. That natural order is imperfect and sometimes unfair, but it preserves us from the ravages of our animal instincts.

The more we try to distort natural inequalities or tear down traditional social roles with political or social schemes, the greater the risk of unleashing chaotic political forces that destroy freedom and property rights. That understanding, forged in the French Revolution, was reinforced with new vigor by the Russian experience.

This tradition of conservatism sees rights in a very different light from Liberals. Conservatives reject the notion of universal human rights. Rights in the Anglo-conservative philosophy are hereditary, rising from tradition and custom.

Rights are not merely personal; they are a bond that ties us to generations past and future. In this conception, rights are not merely what the state owes me, they are bonds that tie society together in a web of privileges and duties extending beyond my own lifetime.

Life, people, and societies, in this view, can be improved, but they cannot be perfected. Changes we pursue in order to improve the world will occasionally succeed, but the more boldly we tamper with the natural social order the greater the risk of unleashing horrors. Wise politics is always governed by an overriding respect for prudence, guided by the lessons of our ancestors. Conservatism places a greater emphasis on prudence than on progress.

Prior to the rise of Communism, conservatives had a very uneasy relationship to Capitalism. For Conservatives, a web of rights and duties governs moral behavior. Capitalism replaces those rights and duties with a profit ethic. It replaces values established by tradition or custom with values set by markets. Capitalism makes conservatives uneasy because it disrupts the natural order in ways far more powerful than any government.

Capitalism unleashes what Schumpeter described as “creative destruction.” Markets do not value social stability, organic change, traditional hierarchies, or religion. Capitalism unleashes permanent, accelerating cycles of socially disruptive change. Capitalism is not conservative.

To make matters worse, capitalism demands a central authority strong enough to provide needed infrastructure and manage the externalities that would otherwise blow free markets apart. Capitalism demands a governmental infrastructure that conservatives find threatening in order to perpetuate an economic system that destroys the traditional social order conservatives cherish.

In the 20th Century Conservatives found common cause with Capitalists in fighting to protect property rights against state ownership schemes. After the death of Communism, that very old tension between capitalism and conservatism is emerging with new force, but little coherence.

With the collapse of the their common Marxist enemy, conservatives and capitalists will find themselves increasingly at odds, creating strange tensions in the Republican Party. The confusing misalignment between conservatism and capitalism is best seen in the Neo-Confederate politics of the Tea Party, where the rhetorical affection for capitalism is offset by a confusing hostility to everything capitalism demands.

How do we enjoy the benefits of markets while preserving our finest traditions from the wrecking ball? How do we protect the weak, the old, the sick, the young – those who cannot produce market value, from a system incapable of granting them respect? By combining a respect for property rights with a passion for traditional order, conservatives could offer a vital guide through this dark forest.

Unfortunately, Conservatism is trapped in its own Cold War rhetoric, intellectually stunted and unable to reach deep to regain its footing on older foundations. Until conservatives shake loose from their increasingly embarrassing Communist ghost hunts and rediscover their roots, they will not be a factor in the wider efforts of our culture to build a more human Capitalism.

22 comments on “What is Conservatism?
  1. breakfastcondiment says:

    What in the hell are you talking about?

    “Conservatives reject the notion of universal human rights [it’s the complete opposite actually]. Rights in the Anglo-conservative philosophy are hereditary [whoever told you that was an idiot], rising from tradition and custom.”

  2. Creigh Gordon says:

    Given today’s Republican Party, it is important to distinguish between conservatism and authoritarianism. Conservatives dislike government interference in private affairs. Authoritarians welcome it.

  3. You must learn in your writing to back up statements with verifiable sources. I hate to sound like a Language Arts /Writing teacher (which I am-also Social Science) but, if you don’t incorporate this skill, it throws everything you’re saying into question.

    In addition, we must begin by stating the “core” values to which a TRUE Conservative adheres. These used to be synonymous with The Republucan principles as originally laid out in Lincoln’s era when the party was born. Now, in an effort to return to those roots, we gave the Principles of the New Conservative Movement

    These are the core ideals and principles that Conservatives belueve us strength and prosperity.

    1. Our basic rights are God-given. Every American is created equal and has the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    2. The fundamental purpose of government is to secure, not define, these rights for every member of our diverse society.

    3. We honor our Constitution. We must honor the Constitution and the rights it enshrines as written, including the freedoms of religion and speech. Any changes to the Constitution must be made through the amendment process it provides, not by Judicial or Executive action.

    4. Government power must be separated and balanced. The Constitution grants separate powers to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches. We must return lawmaking power to Congress, ending Executive and Judicial overreach. Federal activities must be limited to those granted by the Constitution and all other powers must remain with the States and the people.

    5. Our leaders must be honest and wise. They must put the public interest ahead of their own, acting with integrity, transparency, and good judgment.

    6. We share responsibility for service and civic duty. Every American has a responsibility to serve our communities and our nation. It is our civic duty to be informed and engaged on important issues, and seek out leaders who will uphold our rights and serve the people.

    7. Our leaders must be fiscally responsible. Our country cannot be secure and prosperous with uncontrolled debt and deficits.

    8. Our leaders must have the courage to reform entitlement programs and pay down debt, rather than accumulating more.

    9. Government must promote a free market. Big corporations should not be able to buy government favors. There should be a level playing field for all companies, large and small. Smart, narrowly-focused regulation must protect health and safety without stifling innovation.

    10. We must help people in poverty to overcome it. Government must provide a basic safety net for Americans unable to support themselves.However, its programs should help people to overcome poverty, rather than simply survive it.

    11. We must protect life from birth to natural death. Our respect for life is a true measure of our humanity. We must protect the lives of the most vulnerable from the unborn to the elderly.

    12. National defense is a primary federal government responsibility. Our national security requires unmatched military and economic strength, and a commitment to the cause of liberty.

    13. All Americans should have access to affordable, quality health care. The best way to improve Americans’ health care is to encourage competition and innovation. Our health care system must be responsive to patients, not simply insurers and bureaucrats.

    14. Our 2nd Amendment rights must be protected. We have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms, which the government must ensure.

    15. Healthy immigration is important to our future. We must secure our borders, enforce our laws and facilitate the legal immigration of those who will contribute to American prosperity, security, and culture.

  4. […] What is Conservatism? […]

  5. grandone says:

    The “conservative” clowns currently in Congress espouse #1 in the form of rabid religiosity and #6, in their glacial approach to social change. This, while collecting corporate political charity in the form of political campaign contributions. While these contributions are not deductible on taxes, their ROI is very high for those contributors doing business with the government that make contributions to winners. Indeed, conservative members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are most liberal in repaying contributors by adding amendments written by them to “must pass” bills. We can refer to this as the “Dark Politics” because it acts like Dark Matter in the universe. It is unseen, virtually unreported (invisible) and cannot be proved.Also like Dark Matter, Dark Politics makes up a significant portion of the federal government budget, just as Dark Matter makes up a big part of the universe.
    Perhaps some day, a news outlet will be created that enables us to see and prove that “Dark Politics” exists and, like a powerful telescope, will enable the people to see and the prosecutors can prove Dark Politics exist. Unfortunately, that also may result in its demise, as well as the end of many careers in Congress and the private sector.
    True “conservatives”would applaud such an eventuality because it will return them to be true to #3; the belief that civilized society requires order.

  6. Thomas Motley says:

    Why exactly is leaving not an option?

  7. I have liked your previous posts but this one shows a side I do not like

    Those six points are preposterous and truly evil

    1) Belief in a transcendent order
    I would say bollocks – but then I’m an unregenerate Scotsman

    2) Respect for the complexity of human existence
    OK – but irrelevant

    3) Civilized society requires orders and classes
    NO – and I would join my forefathers in Red rebellion against this madness

    4) Freedom and property are closely linked
    YES – too much property in too few hands massively diminishes the freedom of the poor

    5) Distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs
    Sounds like a typical American distrust of anybody who actually puts in the effort ot actually understand anything

    6) Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions
    Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward how well it is working and ensuring that people are not being unnecessarily hurt
    (Core social institutions can go hang)

  8. IAdmitIAmCrazy says:

    A very thoughtful description of conservatism but I’d argue that the author is a little too much focussed on a supposed problematic dependence of the anti-communist past of US conservatism. There is a very powerful article by Hayek on “Why I am not a conservative” (http://www.cato.org/articles/Why-I-am-not-conservative). Being European, Hayek makes the distinction between Conservatives and “Liberals” (in the European sense), the liberals being very much the defenders of capitalism. While Hayek acknowledges that there is considerable overlap in the US between thus understood “liberals” and conservatives, he still sees almost unsurmountable differences between them and – certainly disconcerting to many conservatives – quite a few of charcteristics shared by conservatives AND socialists.
    Furthermore, Hayek points the finger onto a deep flaw of conservatives when he says ” When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.” I think that pretty much sums up what is going on in the Republican Party right now.
    (Full disclosure: I am sort of a libertarian socialist.)

  9. I’ve read quite a bit of GOPlifer’s commentary with great interest, and for me, this essay on conservatism does not measure up to the clarity and logic of his other writings. Part of the problem seems to be his listing of Kirk’s six principles of conservatism, without elucidation, rather than taking up the issue on his own. And maybe I should go read Kirk before criticizing this approach, but it seems to me that a subject that is important enough to have a permanent link at the top of the home page should be better able to stand on its own.

    Also, I think that the relationship between conservatism and Republicanism could be better clarified. From other writings, it is clear that GOPlifer believes the Republican Party has gone off the rails, and a big reason is that they have abandoned conservative principles in important ways.

    It seems to me that conservatism is not a list of principles or tenets, as Kirk would have it, it is better thought of as an attitude towards life. For me, the very essence of conservatism is a respect for institutions and traditions that have served humanity well for generations, and an inclination to be cautious of changes to those institutions and traditions. I believe that a conservative view of the world acknowledges the imperfections of mankind, and looks skeptically at utopian schemes that do not take fallible human nature into consideration. I believe that it is conservative to acknowledge that we never know all the facts about the present and can only guess at the future, and therefore arguments and conclusions should be made with some level of humility.

    This idea of conservatism is separate from the idea of Republicanism – as it has been and as it could be – that GOPlifer describes so well in a companion essay. The essence of Republicanism, as he tells it, is an embrace of commerce as a benefit to society. And an advocate for the benefits of commerce could be either conservative or not conservative in their approach, but it seems to me that in his other writings, GOPlifer is advocating a conservative approach – one that never forgets that improving people’s lives is the point of commerce, and that commerce is not an end it itself.

    • goplifer says:

      I’m not advocating conservatism as the GOP’s necessary direction, but you can’t talk about the GOP’s direction without an effort to clarify what conservatism actually is. Everybody in the party claims the mantle of conservatism. The term does actually have a meaning. You can’t fit Mitt Romney, Ronald Reagan, and Ted Cruz under that same definition.

      I used Kirk because he’s the last major thinker to try to define conservatism at a level that’s both academically credible and popularly consumable. I noticed that you ended up requoting Kirk in your definition of conservatism. Just noting, found that interesting.

  10. Anonymous Jones says:

    I believe it was William Buckley believe it or not who said that a Conservative was someone who held a hand up to history and said: “Stop!”

    • Creigh says:

      I believe it was John Kenneth Galbraith who said “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

  11. Ted Hu says:

    I’d call this traditional traditional conservatism. quite magnificent explainer.

  12. Tony Sayer says:

    Decent thought here in that nowhere does it emphasis the Christian Right. Reagan for that matter either. We definitely are stuck in antiquated Cold War thought process. I admire Reagan but he’s gone and not running for anything anytime soon. I can agree with this post however I have always believed we need to also treat our friends of the Fundamentalist faction to a nice ocean cruise where, while at sea, we can disable the rudder.and hope the tide is in our favor.

  13. bubbabobcat says:

    “Kirk believed that a natural order set in place by a transcendent power governs political life in much the same way that physics guides the stars.”

    Chris, I believe this is where Kirk’s analogy fails miserably. The laws of nature are immutable and do not evolve. Our understanding of it does but the laws do not.

    Politics in its nature is human experimentation and subject to its human foibles and are not a “transcendent power” thus.

    As for Kirk’s premise that “the more we try to distort natural inequalities or tear down traditional social roles with political or social schemes, the greater the risk of unleashing chaotic political forces that destroy freedom and property rights”, that absolute insistence on the status quo would only have ensured we would still be fighting for racial equality or possibly even the end of slavery in this day and age as opposed to the next stage of LGBT equal rights.

    Imagine if the isolationist appeasers in the US and the world had prevailed in the fight against the Nazis and Japanese during World War II and we had attempted to negotiate a peace to stem their expansionist world domination aspirations?

    And to further the liberal agenda via an equivalent scientific analogy to Kirk’s, is social experimentation no different from scientific experimentation? We may have some false leads and failures in both but in the long run, aren’t we all better off for it?

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