“He is a conservative,” we hear of a candidate, public figure, spokesman, or writer. It either flows as a validation from the mouth of the like-minded, or sneered from the curled lips of a philosophical foe. We hear it a lot these days, as conservatives appear to be on the ascent and as the word “conservative” has become a litmus test of acceptability by citizens tired of government intrusion, taxation, over-spending, and mismanagement.
But just what is a conservative? Someone who is not a liberal? A person who believes in small government and free markets? Or someone who favors a strong defense?
The first established use of the term in a political context was by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819, following the French Revolution. Most credit 18th century British politician Edmund Burke with many of the ideas now called conservative. In America, the conservative tradition of Burke was perhaps best articulated by political theorist Russell Kirk (1918 –1994). His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the post-World War II conservative movement. (Here’s a blog dedicated to that connection).
Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition and the strong Christian faith of his later years. Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are “unimaginable apart from one another” and that “all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief.” This is a fair measure of post-Christian societies that continue to benefit from a foundation of Christian principles even after they have rejected Christian faith.
He considered libertarianism—an increasingly popular notion among today’s conservatives of the Tea Party variety—to be out-of-step with traditional conservatism.
In an essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians “chirping sectaries,” adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common. He called the libertarian movement “an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating.” He said a line of division exists between believers in “some sort of transcendent moral order” and “utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct.” He included libertarians in the latter category.
- The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.” Human nature is constant and moral truths are permanent.
- “The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” This enables peace and harmony under a body of law to reign over and among a people, and links generation to generation.
- “Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.” That is, “things established by immemorial usage.” For example, “there exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity — including rights to property” and more.
- “Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.” Edmond Burke agreed with Plato that “…in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequence, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.”
- “Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.” Inequality is part of all life and societies.
- “Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility.” Conservatives know that human nature is not and never will be perfect…seeking utopian domination or a perfect society is to end in disaster. Kirk asserts that “The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”
- “Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.” Without the foundation of private property, there is no civilized freedom.
- “Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” America has a rich past in a people who strive for and contribute to the spirit of community where decisions are made by private organizations or local political bodies.
- “The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraint upon power and upon human passions.” Constitutional checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, and the old intricate system of restraints upon will and appetite — are instruments of law and order.
- “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” The permanence of a society is formed by interests and convictions that create .stability and continuity. Without that permanence, society slips into anarchy. The progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that progression, a people stagnate.”
To remain an enduring and productive force in American political life, modern conservatives will be well served to ground their passions in the “prudent restraint” and transcendent moral order of traditional conservatism.