Conservatism is today a somewhat uncertain word and idea. In the last century it was used as a term of abuse for such figures as Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In our current century it is still used this way, against Ann Coulter, Robert Bork, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Dinesh D’Souza.
As interesting as popular political figures are, I do not wish to tread that ground as yet. Popular political positions are frequently lacking in the depth needed to sustain or explain them. There are many classical liberals in America, but how many know the works of John Locke, John Mill, Ludwig Von Mises or Freidrich Von Hayek? Progressives seldom seem to even be aware of their own history in John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson or Edward Bellamy. So too conservatives, of various stripes and strands, often do not seem aware of their own history, blind to their connection with Edmund Burke, John Adams and Irving Babbitt. So putting this aside, let’s look at the underpinnings of what conservatism was, and ought to be.
The central part of conservatism is that it is not a thing of precise doctrines or exact dogmas. It’s roots and carriers are many and different. Whereas a Catholic conservative may prefer the Middle Ages and the Catholic tradition a Protestant may prefer the traditions handed down by the Reformers and the great modern conservatives and a conservative humanist may look even farther back to Cato, Cicero and Aristotle. In all these types there is a common way of looking at the human condition, of explaining how human life ought to be lived, which as Aristotle saw, is the purpose of political philosophy.
The great American conservative Russell Kirk laid down what he held to be most common among conservative thinkers. Since his canons are the most succinct summary I’ve yet found, I will repeat them.
1. The Principle of Moral Order. Conservatism, often based in a religious mind, holds that there is a moral order, and often a Moral Lawgiver, which provides the guide for men and society.
2. The Principle of Social Continuity. Society is not a machine to be meddled with or drastically altered, its formation requires long ages and often much pain.
3. The Principle of Prescription, this principle is what may differentiate conservatism from other political philosophies the most. Conservatism stands by the wisdom of Fathers, Councils and Founders. Knowing that men are weak and unable to acquire wisdom without much pain and at great cost, conservatism holds that what Burke called ‘the wisdom of our ancestors’ is of lasting value.
4. The Principle of Prudence. Hasty action and legislation is the conservatives bane. Vast projects of legislative and social change, in the name of good intentions and reform, are not often put forward by a conservative statesman, who will most likely prefer judicious change over time.
5. The Principle of Variety. Men are equal in the eyes of God, but to try to level human life to a common standard is to ignore that equality is not sameness. To try to make all the same is to violate the image of God in men, Who made all men different.
6. The Principle of Imperfectibility. Kirk has written “Men being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.” This idea, part of what Thomas Sowell has called the ‘constrained vision” separates a conservative from all manner of naive dreamers and charlatans who offer use a perfect social order, at the cost of our freedom.
Conservatism, more than being a social ideal or goal is a way of looking at the world, a way of greater humility than is fashionable in our age. Even as liberalism is a product of men who sought a better way of life for others, conservatism is often product of those who prefer old ways to new.