The Encyclopedia Britannica defines conservatism as “a preference for the historically inherited rather than the abstract and ideal,” explaining that “conservatives prefer institutions and practices that have evolved gradually and are manifestations of continuity and stability.” But without a historical, political, and cultural frame of reference, this definition tells us little about the principles that conservatism upholds. The established traditions of different cultures vary greatly, and thus “conservatism” means something unique in each culture. As the author and syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg has pointed out:
“To say a conservative is someone who wishes to conserve is technically correct but practically useless. 'Liberals' these days are in many respects more conservative than 'conservatives.' American conservatives want to change all sorts of things, while liberals are keen on keeping the status quo (at least until they get into power). The most doctrinaire Communists in the Soviet Politburo were routinely called 'conservatives' by Kremlinologists.”
To be conservative within a revolutionary tradition simply means to conserve the paradigm peculiar to that revolution. In the United States, the libertarian ethos of the American Revolution inspired a tradition based on individual rights, free markets and democratic constitutions. To be conservative, or on the “right,” in the context of the democratic West means to preserve the classical liberal, individualist and free-market framework that is its historic achievement. Among the highest values of this framework are:
- individual rights and freedoms (as opposed to group rights, group privileges, and group-identity politics);
- the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of men, as manifested in judicial activism and the view that the Constitution is a "living," and therefore infinitely malleable, document);
- private property (as opposed to the communality of property that is apportioned "equitably" by a central government);
- free markets (as opposed to an economy that is managed and controlled by bureaucrats); and
- limited government (as opposed to a massive, omnipotent government that micromanages virtually all aspects of people's lives).
Jonah Goldberg expands upon this theme:
“[A] conservative in America is a liberal in the classical sense — because the institutions conservatives seek to preserve are liberal institutions. This is why Hayek explicitly exempted American conservatism from his essay 'Why I am Not a Conservative.' The conservatives he disliked were mostly continental thinkers who liked the marriage of Church and State, hereditary aristocracies, overly clever cheese, and the rest. The conservatives he liked were Burke, the American founders, Locke et al.”
Conservatism (in its current sense as a phenomenon in Western culture) denies the perfectibility of humanity; it rejects the optimistic notion that human beings can be morally improved through social and political change. Unlike the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who characterized the political institutions of his day as “chains” hindering man’s expression of his natural goodness, conservatism assumes that human beings are naturally flawed; that they are prone to such vices as selfishness, anarchy, irrationality, and violence; and that to curb the base and destructive instincts that are part and parcel of the human condition, we must rely upon traditional political and cultural institutions -- without whose restraining power there could be no ethical behavior and no responsible use of liberty.
This brand of conservatism began to develop as a distinct political attitude and movement in the late eighteenth century, in reaction to the upheavals caused by the French Revolution. The term “conservative” was coined in France after 1815 by supporters of the newly restored Bourbon monarchy. Fifteen years thereafter, the British politician and writer John Wilson Croker used the term to describe the British Tory Party. John Calhoun, a staunch defender of states’ rights in the United States, used the term in the 1830s.
The recognized father of modern conservatism (though he never used the term himself) is the British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke, whose 1790 treatise Reflections on the Revolution in France rejected the violent, untraditional methods of the French Revolution. But Burke was not opposed to social change as a matter of unwavering principle. Indeed, he supported the American Revolution (1775–83), which he considered a justified defense of traditional liberties against King George III’s tyranny.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore such topics as:
- the meaning of conservatism, the premises upon which it is founded, and its political and social objectives;
- the phenomenon of black conservatism, and the writings and ideas of its most notable exponents;
- the origins and policies of neo-conservatism;
- strategies by which conservative values and principles may be advanced;
- the issue of who is more inclined to donate money to charitable causes -- conservatives on the one hand, or liberals/leftists on the other; and
- conservative criticisms of certain self-identified conservatives who engage in faulty scholarship or covertly advance anti-conservative agendas.