What Conservatism Is
Someone mentioned recently that they had not been able to find any sources that defined conservatism as a political philosophy. Though merely an enthusiast of the subject, I thought I’d sketch out some of the more common strands of the ideology. In compiling this list, I made reference to my notes in Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Neither the list nor the sources are by any means comprehensive, obviously. I welcome any thoughts or comments.
1. Conservatism, as opposed to liberalism, is a bottom-up political theory: It depends that there first be an underlying social order. Government is transitory; society is permanent. Society makes some claim of man’s relationship with the transcendent. If a political theory does not make some provision for who man is and what he is for, it has little hope of making any provision for what the state is and what it is for, other than an agglomeration and exercise of raw power. For purposes of law and politics, society defines the morality of the people. (This is not to suggest that conservatism embraces moral relativism, only that judges and legislators in a conservative framework would make no resort to sources external to the people for reviewing or dictating society’s norms and values.)
2. Further, with respect to the characteristics of the social order underlying the political, the social order must establish the dualism of the material and the transcendent, must ground the world of ought, and enforce the notion that the apparent does not exhaust the real. “All the aspects of any civilization arise out of a people’s religion: its politics, its economics, its arts, its sciences, even its simple crafts are the by-products of religious insights and a religious cult. Fur until human beings are tied together by some common faith, and share certain moral principles, they prey upon one another.” Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order. “For men, their acts must have significance. Men are miserable unless they find ‘a disposition or arrangement of equal and unequal things in such a way as to allocate each to its own place.’ They must have purpose in their existence.” Id. at 161. Without a telos, the faculties of reason and rationality employed by the lawmaking function of a political order would be directionless. “Reason alone fails to justify itself. . . . We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we have shown by our primary volition that we approve some aspects of the existing world. The position is arbitrary in the sense that here is a proposition behind which there stands no prior. We begin our other affirmations after a categorical statement that life and the world are to be cherished.” Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences at 19. “The ways of society are not the ways of reason, but of the customary experience of the species, beginning with small family-groups and growing upward into the state. It is perilous to meddle, on principles of pure rationality, with valuable social institutions that thus are natural developments, not logical schemes. . . . It is quite possible to reason ourselves out of virtue and social enjoyment.” Kirk at 361, 364.
3. Conservatism is based on concepts of natural law. Thus, just as society precedes the state, morality precedes society. “Man must order his soul in conformity with divine laws, Plato said; only thus can order in society be obtained.” Kirk at 81. Conservatism thus assumes the universality of human nature across culture and geography and the objectivity of certain rights, duties, and norms. Contrast this with liberalism, which takes bohemianism as the ultimate realization of man, whose destiny is mere activity. Society, as the natural enemy of bohemianism, is thus at odds with the liberal state. Liberalism, then, as a top-down political theory, assumes a strong political order make weak the underlying social order so as to pave the way for bohemianism.
4. Similarly, the conservative construction of liberty is defined and limited by the natural law and man’s telos defining what sort of creature he is and what he is for. Thus, even certain private, consensual activity is beyond the bounds of natural liberty, and thus may, in appropriate cases, be censured by the state.
5. Rights and liberties are metaphysical and dogmatic, and thus do not depend on any test of social usefulness for their recognition and enforcement.
6. Though political conservatism recognizes and accommodates the normative and cultural views of the society, it is itself neutral with respect to these ends. “Ordinarily a people do not choose one constitutional form or another: they find themselves necessarily under the sort of government which is suited to their social circumstances. In a sense, any people obtain the kind of government they deserve—or, at any rate, the kind of government which their history and their conditions of existence have brought upon them.” Kirk at 354. Thus, while a conservative political system may reflect normative and cultural values, it does so at the behest of the society, and not for the purpose of reaching any ends of bound up in the nature of the political system itself. Contrast this with liberalism, which stridently takes positions on political questions concerning the summum bonum, fragmented and schizophrenic though these views may be.
7. Law is an articulation of the social order of a people. Good law, thus, flows from the assent of the people. “Stable government grows out of law, not law out of government. If the political power decrees positive laws without reference to general consent, those laws will be evaded or defied, and respect for law will diminish, so that force must be substituted for justice.” Kirk at 189.
8. In recognition of and deference to the natural law, conservatism is decentralized. The purpose of a centralized government, such a liberal political ideology, is to correct for “errors” and “injustices” worked by nature, equalizing what is by nature unequal, fortifying what is by nature weak, and dissolving what is by nature strong. Such a planned and centralized government puts the fate of each citizen in the hands of men, whereas before he was at the mercy only of nature. Conservatism acknowledges that nature is not always “fair” as we understand it, but that it is always more pernicious for man to purport to right what nature has set in place for each on his own to overcome. The rightness of this position does not depend on whether nature or the state is the better arbiter of justice, but on the understanding that man is fundamentally at odds with any personified arbiter of his fate, and thus for the state to take the place of nature and nature’s God is to invite its own destruction. For a man to reject nature and nature’s God is lamentable, but it has little effect on the social order. Were nature and nature’s God to be replaced by the state, it would only be a matter of time before man will have cause to lose faith in the state just as he previously lost his faith in the transcendent. This time, however, the apostasy will cause the social and political order to fracture and ultimately be torn asunder. The concern here is about the legitimacy of a political order when it purports to replace the transcendent, and especially, when its outcomes are objectionable. Churches may align the people’s will to God’s and make peace for the inequities of nature. What will reconcile the people’s will to the state’s for its inequities?
9. Collectivism is antithetical to conservatism in ways other than how it is antithetical to libertarianism, since conservatism embraces community and holds that man cannot be understood if not with respect to his nature as a social being acting as part of a culture. Instead, the threat of collectivism is its capacity to divorce man from his mortality and his relationship with nature.
10. Equality, too, is of little concern under conservatism. The political order cannot be expected to do better than to afford the protection of the laws in equal measure to all people. While certain moral values concerning readjusting the lot of the poor, the sick, or the aged may be expressed through the law, it is generally beyond the proper scope of the political order to pursue equality for its own sake. “Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased. In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty. People do not know what to expect of one another. Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.” Weaver at 43.
11. Conservatism seeks the preservation of the established order not primarily because that order is the greatest that might be devised, but so that the laboriousness of effecting the changes that, due to human nature, would be all too frequently desired, might expose the errors in such desires and to thus reveal the permanently true. No less important is its effect to establish continuity of the human experience, to permit the father to communicate ideas to the son and make the realness of his experience evident. “[T]he chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.” Weaver at 176.