by the Editor of The Constitution Club
Conservative principles are timeless, and will outlast any politician.
- Alfred Regner
Man is a being capable of subduing his emotions and impulses; he can rationalize his behavior. He arranges his wishes into a scale, he chooses; in short, he acts. What distinguishes man from beasts is precisely that he adjusts his behavior deliberately.
- Ludwig von Mises
Conservatism is a thinking mans ideology. It requires understanding and wisdom, research and knowledge, and the ability and willingness to judge right from wrong. It requires a moral compass, a fortitude for righteousness, and above all a love of liberty. To be a true conservative the value of the individual must be nourished and a fierce independence cultivated that can withstand the petty criticisms, persecutions, and mockeries of those who have yet to see the light.
Conservatism has innumerable subsets. Generally speaking, one can safely divide conservatism into Classical or institutional conservatism, Ideological conservatism or right-wing conservatism (typified by three distinct sub-ideologies: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and economic liberalism), Neo-conservatism, and Cultural conservatism.
Feel free to pick your poison, definition, and faction.
Despite the attempts at labeling and hairsplitting many of us fail to easily fit into any one particular category but yet we are undoubtedly a member of the Right. I like to use the label “common-sense conservative” for myself as I believe that common sense and logic form the firm foundation that all of the various conservative sects are based upon. They are more alike ideologically than they often wish to admit and invariably share the same roots and basic principles. More likely than not, these differences are based more on priority and focus than anything else. They are allied by necessity against their shared ideological enemies that has arisen from modern-day liberalism to do battle for the heart and soul of not just America, but Western Civilization as well.
Conservatives do tend to be more inclusive than exclusive and tend to overlook the various ideological eccentricities of their fellows as long as they are fighting in the same trenches. I move easily among the various factions and issue-specific movements that make up conservatism and over a lifetime of activism I have seen the common threads of thought and ideas that do, in the end, make them more alike than they are different.
In many ways, the various elements of the Right are merely traveling different intellectual pathways to reach the same destination. If conservativism can be compared to a mighty oak, its myriad of “cons” and divisions are merely the various branches and leaves of the tree itself. The roots of conservatism branch back through history drawing sustenance and wisdom from a wide variety of philosophies, people, and traditions resulting in the towering ideological tree that has played such an important role in the modern age.
The best, most passionate, and intellectually stimulating debates and discussion I have ever had in regards to ideological issues have been with conservatives, not liberals. Conservatives prize the intellect and independence of the individual in sharp contrast to liberalism which practices collectivism and demands ideological conformity from its adherents. The contrast is stark and abundantly clear.
Every political philosophy is a result of a process of cherry-picking the political philosophers and philosophies that have come before it. My own personal definition and concept of conservatism is no different and will undoubtedly be disputed by even some of my fellow conservatives. Each persons personal version of an ideological philosophy will be different from any other persons if they are indeed intellectually honest with themselves. At the same time I believe that the ideology of modern, common-sense American conservatism free from authoritarianism, racism, or radicalism will find common ground with the views that I express here.
My own ideological influences come from a wide array of people; from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; from John Stuart Mill and John Locke to Edmund Burke and Adam Smith; from the Founding Fathers to the Biblical patriarchs; from Martin Luther to John Wycliffe; from Plato to Spartacus and Cicero to Cato the Elder. In the end, the balance has to be found between individual freedom and the obligation of the community, the concept of personal liberty and the restraints of morals and values, common sense and the passion of righteous indignation, the need for a Republic and the dangers of democracy, and the embracing of needed chance while respecting the hallowed reverence of tradition.
Conservatism strives for these delicate balances and its underlying principles, though not perfect, have blessed this nation and countless millions across the globe and throughout history with its wisdom, concept of liberty, and value of the individual. It teaches the immortal principles that consequences have actions, freedom comes with responsibility, the individual has intrinsic value, and that there must be stringent restraints on power. Understanding these principles is the key to understanding the conservative ideology and how I view the world.
The conservative ideology is based on the concept of Natural Law and the rights and sovereignty of the individual. It is the idea that men have inherent, God-given, natural rights and that from the moment of his birth a man is a free and sovereign citizen. The fundamental rights of man are not granted by other men or by laws, but are organic in nature and are self-evident. When government or an ideology attempts to take away these basic rights then they must be opposed or abolished. That is the inherent heart of the conservative ideology and the fertile ground from which springs the concept of liberty.
At the same time the conservative understands the difference between “natural” (animal) liberty and “civil” (societal) liberty. Man is a social entity and therefore cannot always just do whatever he pleases whenever he pleases but instead he is required to exercise his liberties within certain parameters and personal restraints. This is civil liberty. The freedom to do what you ought, not necessarily what you want. It is the fundamental basis for a successful and orderly society.
Rejection of “natural right” in favor of “the historical sense,” relativism, or conventionalism ultimately only results in disaster. We must be capable of choosing what is truly good or just. Otherwise, the result of all options being equally good or permissible is nihilism, alienation, and ultimately chaos.
Government exists only to protect these fundamental rights and freedoms and to provide the framework for these rights to be fully exercised. It is there to protect the citizenry from those who would deprive a person of their rights through violence or force. Government is necessary, but should be severely limited. It exists to preserve liberty, not to infringe upon it. Through cooperation government allows the citizenry to do things they could not otherwise do like build roads and provide effective law and order while creating a climate of peace that protects the lawful from the lawless, the weak from the strong, and the rule of Law from the forces of anarchy, chaos, and despotism.
The pre-PC 1973 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica lists six Principles of Conservatism which I have taken the liberty of abridging and reprinting here:
1. The principle of natural law.
Most conservatives have held, with Plato and Cicero, that there exists a natural law, of an origin more than human, to which any society ought to conform. The object of the political philosopher is to ascertain as best he can this norm of justice, of which man-made law is at best a bad copy. A divine intent, however dimly discerned, is at work in men’s lives and in their society. This point of view contrasts strongly with the liberal’s utilitarian view of the state and with the radical’s detestation of theological politics.
2. The principle of continuity.
Order and justice and freedom are the artificial products of a very long and painful human experience, the products of many centuries of trial and error and reflection. It is of the first importance that the continuity, the lifeblood, of a society must not be interrupted. As the human body casts off old tissue and takes on new, so human society, too, must alter. Burke’s model of a statesman was one who combined a disposition to preserve with an ability to reform. But necessary change ought to be gradual and reluctantly undertaken, lest the delicate constitution of a society, the essential continuity of human relationships, be badly disturbed.
3. The principle of prescription.
“The wisdom of our ancestors” is one of the most important phrases in the writings of Burke. Conservatives feel that modern man are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than their ancestors only because of their ancestor’s high stature. Thus the conservative emphasizes the importance of what Burke called “prescription” – ancient rights, moral precepts, and customs. Society is more secure when its members are accustomed to refer to inherited wisdom, the legacy of civilization, rather than to weigh every ephemeral issue on the basis of private judgments and private rationality. In politics, we will do well to refer often to precedent and precept and even prejudice, for “the great mysterious incorporation of the human race” has learned truths about the soul and about community living that no single man can hope to attain unaided in his few brief years of life.
4. The principle of prudence.
Any measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely temporary advantage or popularity: this is the real statesman’s art, according to the conservative. Liberals and radicals, the conservatives thinks, are imprudent, for they dash at their objectives without considering that their reforms may bring in their train abuses worse than the evils that reformers aspire to abolish. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be effective. The conservative declares that he acts only upon due reflection and after weighting the consequences; sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
5. The principle of variety.
The philosophic conservative feels affection for the proliferating variety and intricacy and mystery of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of most radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must be various orders and classes, differences in economic condition and many kinds of inequality. The only true equality is equality before God’s judgment; all other attempts at leveling lead to stagnation, at best. Society longs for able leadership, and if natural and institutional distinctions among men are destroyed, presently some tyrant fills the vacuum. Similarly, the conservative upholds the institution of private property as productive of human variety; without private property, liberty is almost impossible and society becomes a life-in-death.
6. The principle of imperfectability.
Human nature suffers irremediably from certain great flaws or faults, which the Christian calls original sin. Men being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of man’s native restlessness, indeed, mankind would grow restive under any utopian domination and once more break out in violent discontent – or else expire of boredom. To aim for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative reasons: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, free and just society, in which there must always be some evils and maladjustments and suffering. By proper attention to prescription and prudence, we may hope to preserve and even to improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are forgotten in an impatient snatch at perfection, then the anarchic and violent impulses in man break loose, and the fabric of a high civilization is in imminent peril.
Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher who is widely regarded as the philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism. The economist Adam Smith remarked that Burke was “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.”
It was Edmund Burke who gave us the following quotes.
-All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
-But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restrain.
-Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.
-People crushed by laws, have no hope but to evade power. If the laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to the law; and those who have most to hope and nothing to lose will always be dangerous.
-The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts.
-There is but one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity – the law of nature and of nations.
-Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, -— in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, -— in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, —- in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
-When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
-Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed.
-When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.
-The body of all true religion consists, to be sure, in obedience to the will of the Sovereign of the world, in a confidence in His declarations, and in imitation of His perfections.
-Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.
-Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Upon such foundational concepts the conservative ideology is built. It is a sturdy foundation built upon rock and not upon sand. The ideas and principles are timeless, but it took Edmund Burke to articulate them for the modern conservative.
Two contrasting assessments of Burke were offered long after his death by Karl Marx and Winston Churchill. Karl Marx, not surprisingly, was a radical opponent of Burke’s thought. In Das Kapital, he wrote:
The sycophant—who in the pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of the North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy—was an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.
According to Winston Churchill’s Consistency in Politics:
On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.
Edmund Burke is essential reading for understanding the principles of the conservative ideology.
In the modern era four great conservative minds have been recognized. Two were politicians and two were ideological philosophers, but all were instrumental in defining and shaping what we now recognize as the modern-day conservative ideology. They were Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk. They didn’t necessarily agree on every issue, but they each left their own distinctive mark on how we view conservatism today. These four men are the great pioneers of the modern conservative movement. One can easily add to this list but each of these men had a momentous historical impact on the conservative ideology.
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can. – Barry Goldwater
Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism. – Barry Goldwater
Let us beware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination over all the peoples of the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world…. I urge you to beware the temptation …, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of any evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. – Ronald Reagan
Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom. What brought America back? The American people brought us back — with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free. – Ronald Reagan
Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us that they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy “accommodation.” And they say if we only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he will forget his evil ways and learn to love us. . . . We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, “Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.” – Ronald Reagan
An opportunity society awaits us. We need only believe in ourselves and give men and women of faith, courage, and vision the freedom to build it. Let others run down America and seek to punish success. Let them call you greedy for not wanting government to take more and more of your earnings. Let them defend their tombstone society of wage and price guidelines, mandatory quotas, tax increases, planned shortages, and shared sacrifices. We want no part of that mess, thank you very much. We will encourage all Americans—men and women, young and old, individuals of every race, creed, and color—to succeed and be healthy, happy, and whole. This is our goal. We see America not falling behind, but moving ahead; our citizens not fearful and divided, but confident and united by shared values of faith, family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom. – Ronald Reagan
Are you willing to spend time studying the issues, making yourself aware, and then conveying that information to family and friends? Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community? Realize that the doctor’s fight against socialized medicine is your fight. We can’t socialize the doctors without socializing the patients. Recognize that government invasion of public power is eventually an assault upon your own business. If some among you fear taking a stand because you are afraid of reprisals from customers, clients, or even government, recognize that you are just feeding the crocodile hoping he’ll eat you last. – Ronald Reagan
At age 29, William F. Buckley launched National Review with this founding statement: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
And a couple more from this wise man…
Well, there’s something known as American conservatism, though it does not even call itself that. It’s been calling itself ‘voting Republican’ or ‘not liking the New Deal.’ But it is a very American approach to life, and it has to do with knowing that the government is not your master, that America is good, that freedom is good and must be defended, and communism is very, very bad. —William F. Buckley Jr.
I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and Liberals at bay. And the nation free. – William F. Buckley Jr.
Russell Kirk developed six canons of conservatism and advocated the idea of “ordered liberty.” The canons are described as follows:
- A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
- An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;
- A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions;
- A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
- A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
- A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.
Lee Edwards Ph.D. of the Heritage Foundation expounded on the contribution of Kirk to modern conservatism.
However, the intellectual pedigree of American conservatism goes much farther back in time than the 18th century. Russell Kirk wrote that the roots of American order were first planted nearly three thousand years earlier.
Kirk used the device of five cities–Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia–to trace their development. The roots first appeared in Jerusalem, with the Hebrew perception of a purposeful moral existence under God. They were strengthened in Athens, with the philosophical and political self-awareness of the Greeks. They were nurtured in Rome, by the Roman experience of law and social awareness. They were intertwined with the Christian understanding of human duties and human hopes, of man redeemed. They were joined by medieval custom, learning, and valor.
The roots of American order were then enriched by two great political experiments that occurred in London, the birthplace of parliaments and the guardian of common law, and in Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written. The miracle of Philadelphia was that the delegates were able to resolve, for the most part, the conflicting demands of freedom and order. They created a true national government but not an absolute government. They designed something new under the political sun–a federalism which carefully enumerated, separated, and restrained the powers of the national government.
Despite the protestations of our friends on the Left, conservatives actually have an ideology. When it is correctly expressed in a person it is inspiring to see.
Conservatives believe in common sense, patriotism, tradition, morals and values, free enterprise, victory in any war, conservation (not to be confused with environmentalism) the family, honoring our Judeo-Christian heritage, individual and personal responsibility, limited and small government and the innate value of human life, justice, and liberty while sharing a distinctly palpable distaste for totalitarianism and the concept of the nanny-state. This list is by no means exhaustive or all-inclusive. You will find differing interpretations and emphasis on these issues among the conservative factions but there is a general consensus on the core values of the conservative philosophy.
Once you get beyond the political philosophers, conservatism can be distilled down to some very basic concepts. It is a political philosophy that seeks to stand on the shoulders of wise men and the tried-and-true principles of the past while seeking to bring hope and wise change to the future. Conservatives reject the concept of governing by the whims of the moment, the passing fads of popular opinion or the panic of momentary crisis.
Metrospy.com distributes a bumper sticker that shows the silhouettes of a cross, a traditional family holding hands, an unborn baby, an American flag, and a pistol.
Courtesy of Metrospy.com:
Five simple symbols that represent the values that we conservatives stand for. What’s ironic is that these same five symbols represent everything the humanistic, self-important, liberals are against.
That about sums it up. God, Grandma, Guts, and Guns. Throw in some apple pie and you’ve just about got it covered.
I have often been asked why I am a committed advocate of the conservative ideology. The answer is that I believe it to be the last refuge for logic, common sense, decency, morality, respect for tradition, and understanding of the role history has to play in current events.
Part and parcel of both Christianity and conservatism is the simple concept that actions have consequences. The concept of the prohibition of sin was not to somehow squash your “fun” but to warn one about the repercussions of certain actions. It was to protect us, not to be “mean” to us. The same idea is contained within the conservative ideology. Conservatives dare to mention the fact that “sex-without-consequences,” the destruction and dilution of the family unit, an every growing and all-powerful government, uncontrolled immigration, socialism, the destruction of gender roles and the welfare state may all “feel good” in the short run but have devastating consequences in the long run that should not and cannot be ignored.
Liberals hate those who dare to mention that the “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy is childlike in its intellect and spiritually, emotionally, ideologically and culturally destructive. Conservatives rain on their parade and spoil their fun by merely pointing out the truth.
Russell 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.”
Not every Christian is a conservative, and every conservative is not a Christian. But there is no denying that the principle bedrock beliefs of conservatism are derived from, and pay homage to, the Judeo-Christian tradition and value system. Even secular conservatives admit the role religion has played in the strength and freedom of Western Civilization and pay tribute to the fact that Christian principles are at the heart of their own political ideology. There is no separating the two.
The Judeo-Christian tradition at the root of Western civilization is doubly important because it provides the fullest, most coherent understanding available concerning human nature and the proper goals of man and society. The West inherits from the Israelites, to whom God gave the Ten Commandments through Moses, the understanding that religious norms are superior to those of politics – that we should kneel before God, not Caesar, and that religious, higher law norm must be enunciated and put forward vigorously by religious leaders who are institutionally separated from political leaders. Our civilization owes to Christianity the understanding that the character of each individual is crucial, that each of us is created in the image of God and is capable of salvation as an individual, seeking communion with the creator. Thus conservatives, in keeping with their tradition, value each life as sacred, free, and responsible, with duties, rights, and a central goal of leading a life as much in accordance with the will of God as is humanly possible. – Bruce Frohnen
Liberalism on the other hand has only waged a full-scale culture war on anything and everything even remotely connected to Christianity, the Bible, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Right has always been accused of “legislating morality” even as the Left cheerfully “legislates immorality” while criminalizing traditional values. Rather ironic don’t you think? When “they” are so wrong, then “we” must be right. And if what conservatives advocate for and believe in is the truth, then what the liberals advocate for and believe in are simply lies.
Liberal and conservative worldviews often collide for this reason: Disciplined conservatives put God first, family and country second and themselves third, while liberals tend to put themselves first, their country last, and serve gods made in their image. This is the most defining philosophical distinction between these two groups. – Mark Alexander, PatriotPost.com.