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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Defining Conservatism


I am frequently asked to define conservatism. My first inclination is always to quip, "The business of pointing out the idiocy of liberalism."

I've made a point on this blog of sticking to what I refer to as "Intellectual Conservatism," that is, conservatism which refuses to rely on religious dogma. This is not because I'm an atheist (I'm a Southern Baptist) or because I lack the knowledge to defend Christianity. It's because I have a firm belief that conservatism can and should stand on its own merit, without relying on principles of faith which others may or may not share. I submit that a political philosophy must withstand (if not rely on) the tests of science, logic, legality, reason and history.

That said, I recently had a friend of mine point out that he understood my distinction of Intellectual Conservatism and strict Evangelical/Social Conservatism, but he still wanted a full explanation of what conservatism, as a political philosophy, is. I had explained the "Intellectual" part of the distinction, but not the "Conservative."

And so, I will here attempt to explain my account of conservatism (Evangelicals and Social Conservatives, stick with me! I'm not throwing you under the bus, I promise; we're going to end up at the same conservative station, we're just taking different trains to get there).

The definition of conservatism used in academia too often reduced it to a blind and ignorant adherence to past principles and ideologies. The root of the word - conserve - is used in an attempt to characterize the conservative world view as a stubborn opposition to progress. This is inaccurate.

For my own part, conservatism is a political philosophy which contends that the U.S. government must never violate the Constitution. Within that belief is the staunch conservation of personal liberties and rights from the government.

Conservatives will always favor liberty over forced equality. This is the dichotomous choice of politics. While Americans love to tout liberty and equality, we cannot have both in their fullest extent at the same time. Conservatives have a steadfast faith in the individual and hold firm to the belief that a man has a right to keep what he earns, just as he has a right to reap what he sows.

Conservatism contends that the government need not and ought not be a nanny state. In the words of Barry Goldwater:

"A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away."
Conservatism contends that, perhaps above all else, the individual and community's ability to tend to themselves and, for better or worse, accept responsibility for their own actions is paramount in their own success or failure. As Thomas Jefferson once said:
"That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves."
It is within this personal accountability that conservatives advocate for social and moral standards - not legislated, but assimilated. As the name "conservatism" suggests, conservatives understand that these moral and social standards were not manifested over night. They are the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution and by the principle of natural selection ought to be respected and, if changed, changed gradually and with great care. As Will and Ariel Durant once noted:

"Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for those are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history."
Conservatism also holds firm to the understanding that peace in our time is fragile and that evil must be confronted when it rears its head. It makes very little sense to have a reactionary foreign policy.

However, conservatism holds true to America's founding principles by suggesting that the United States ought not meddle in the political affairs of other nations (i.e. advocating one candidate over another). That said, conservatives so value the rights and liberties to which they have laid claim that they oppose the violation of such rights abroad. Thomas Jefferson epitomized this position when he said:

"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Essentially, Conservatism stands diametrically opposed to the suggestion that government can do anything positive against the will of it's people because conservatism contends that government 's only role is as an extension of the people's will.

It should also be noted that Edmund Burke, widely considered the "father" of American conservatism, launched a seven year-long prosecution of the former Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, for abuses committed by the East India Company against its Indian subjects. In fact, it was Burke who coined that famous phrase:
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
John Stuart Mill held a similar position as Burke and Jefferson on war and tyranny:
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
Margaret Thatcher would add:

"Conservatives have excellent credentials to speak about human rights. By our efforts, and with precious little help from self-styled liberals, we were largely responsible for securing liberty for a substantial share of the world's population and defending it for most of the rest."

It cannot accurately be said that conservatism is tantamount to isolationism. This is an inherently false suggestion.

Here are some other attempts to define conservatism with which I generally agree:
"Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.

Now this leaves room, of course, for deposition, and there is deposition — the Civil War being the most monstrous account. But it also urges a kind of loyalty that breeds a devotion to those ideals sufficient to surmount the current crisis. When the Soviet Union challenged America and our set of loyalties, it did so at gunpoint. It became necessary at a certain point to show them our clenched fist and advise them that we were not going to deal lightly with our primal commitment to preserve those loyalties. That’s the most general definition of conservatism."
-William F. Buckley
"Conservatism is the antithesis of the kind of ideological fanaticism that has brought so much horror and destruction to the world. The common sense and common decency of ordinary men and women, working out their own lives in their own way—this is the heart of American conservatism today. Conservative wisdom and principles are derived from willingness to learn, not just from what is going on now, but from what has happened before. "
- Ronald Reagan
"I define Conservatism, as I believe it is fit, on four categories of principle: Respect for the Constitution, Respect for life, Less government
and Personal responsibility...

Conservatism is not an ideology of feelings - a romanticism as some people like to say. It is an Ideology of protecting the people and the people's rights."
-Jonathan Krohn
It would seem odd that I would include the words of a (then) 13 year-old amongst such Conservative titans, but I find his definition to be the most concise yet encompassing of all - despite his age. I defend conservatism from libertarianism because I believe, as our founding fathers did, that tyranny abroad is not to be ignored. I also believe in societal standards insofar as no constitutional rights are infringed upon. These are beliefs which cannot be reconciled with hard-line libertarianism/classical liberalism/anarchism/individualism.

That said, I understand, as William F. Buckley did, that conservatives and libertarians must work in an alliance against the common enemy of liberalism. Where this common enemy seeks collectivism, socialism and perhaps even communism, we seek individual liberty and personal responsibility. Which brings us back to the dichotomy I pointed out earlier: you either support forced equality or natural liberty and personal responsibility. You needn't support 100% of either, but I think it can safely be said whichever way you lean determines whether you are liberal or conservative.

If you combine this understanding of conservatism with my earlier accounts of "Intellectual Conservatism," you have a political philosophy, framed by empirical knowledge, which aims at personal liberty and responsibility. Whether speaking about domestic or foreign policy, conservatives are devout defenders of liberty. In terms of governance less is more, but when the government is needed, it must always function within its Constitutional limitations.

This is how one defines conservatism - at least as I've come to know it - and it seems to me that these principles have an irrefutable bond with American culture. Perhaps that's why there are more self-identified American conservatives than liberals or independents. Conservatism is inclusive and productive in nature, if only politicians would truly embrace it and leave the chicanery for dead.
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