What is Conservative?

A lot of people talk about being Conservatives on this site.  Most posters speak strongly of applying conservative principles to government.  However, there appears to be a varying understanding of what those principles are.  In particular, many people mistake positions for principles,  and some seem to define Conservatism as “all the positions I agree with.”  Certainly there is limited discussion of the underlying  philosophy of conservatism, and how it differentiates us from other political philosophies and groups.

So I thought it would be useful to start an discussion on Conservatism.  What do you consider the philosophy underlying Conservatism?  What are the core principles that derive from that philosophy?  How do you apply those principles to arrive at specific policy approaches and political positions?  How does Conservatism differ from other political philosophies?

I’ll go first.  I consider the underlying philosophy of conservatism to be the belief that society should be organized according to hard earned lessons and proven principles of governance.  Conservatives appreciate the limits of human capacity and we recognize the fundamental flaws in human character.  Therefore, we avoid radical change and mistrust the impulses of others to use government to improve society.  Conservatism is ultimately a pragmatic approach to governance, sticking with proven principles until new approaches have been thoroughly vetted.  We “conserve” that which works and put the burden of proof on those who would change it.

That respect for the past separates us from Liberals and Progressives, who believe that the imperative to improve society justifies radical change.  They are willing to accept error as the price of progress.  Conservatism prioritizes outcomes while Liberalism prioritizes intentions.

From this philosophy, I see a group of core principles:

  1. Limited Government.  The biggest lesson of history is that government cannot be trusted with excessive power.  People are simply too vulnerable to the impulse to control others.  Further, centralized government control is ineffective, and centralized funding means centralized control.   Therefore, government authority should be constrained to the minimum necessary for a functioning society, and government activity should be funded at the lowest possible level of community.  These principles form the basis of our Constitutional system of government, a system proven by 235 years of success.
  2. Economic Freedom.  History contains 3 major economic lessons:  A – Capitalism is the only economic system proven to increase standards of living.  B – Absent profit motive and self interest, the only way to increase productivity is coercive power. and C – Government intervention always leads to unintended consequences and usually makes things worse.
  3. Respect for social institutions.  The family is the strongest and most enduring social institution in human history.  Anything that weakens the family weakens all of us.  Churches have likewise been a force for social good for thousands of years, and their place in society should be respected.  Finally, our common moral code is the source of our strength as a society, and should be respected.
  4. National defense and law enforcement.  History has shown that only those people strong enough to defend their freedom will keep it, and that allying with other free peoples makes us stronger.  Ignoring or appeasing evil only allows it to become a greater threat.  And civilization must have some base level of rules and order, otherwise chaos thrives.  These lessons apply abroad and at home.
One interesting challenge is how to differentiate Conservatives and Libertarians.  Obviously there is a good deal of overlap on principles, which is why we often make common political cause, but ultimately the two groups are different.  Conservatives look at the history of civilization and realize that, while individual freedom is critical, it must be balanced against some degree of social order.  Experience teach us that pure self interest does not work in the long run, and that absolute freedom is not possible.  Libertarians appear unwilling to apply any degree of pragmatism to the application of their principles.
How doe these principles translate into positions?  Well, obviously that could be a very long list, but here is a sampling of my views on issues:
  • Taxes and spending: threat to limited government and economic freedom.  Must always be constrained.
  • Education:  No federal funding.  Schools are too important.
  • Abortion: violates our common moral code – Thou Shalt Not Kill.
  • Drug laws:  drug abuse causes incredible destruction in our society and must be combatted with the full capacity of government at all levels.  Sorry Libertarians, you’re clueless on this.
  • Immigration: legal immigration is a source of economic and social strength and should be fostered.  The history of the US proves this.  But illegal immigration brings chaos and weakens society, and is a national security issue.
  • Health Care: government mandates and health care spending are threats to limited government and economic freedom.  But people without medical care violates our common moral code and weakens our society. “Let them die” is not Conservative, and the market is broken (probably because of government intervention in the tax code).   This is an area where common cause could have been found.  Unfortunately Liberals chose to ram a one sided solution down our throats instead.  After ObamaCare is repealed, it should be replaced with a more considered solution.
  • Foreign Policy: the best way to ensure our own liberty is to support it elsewhere in the world, with force in extreme cases.
Well, this was helpful for me.  Articulating your thoughts makes you clarify them and question the assumptions they are based on.  I invite you to do the same.