Unlike leftism and progressivism, conservatism is not an “identity politics” focused on the issue of what kind of people embrace it. Nor is it a politics whose primary concern is to place its adherents in the camp of moral superiority and thus to confer on them the stamp of History’s approval. Consequently, conservatism does not have a “party line.” It is possible for conservatives to question most positions held by other conservatives without risking ex-communication – a stark contrast to the left's intolerance of divergent viewpoints.
Conservatives do not pretend to be able to shape the social future; they do not offer plans designed to induce human beings to act in ways that are dramatically different from how human beings have acted in the past. The “first principles” of conservatism are propositions about the existing social contract, about human nature in a social context. They are propositions about limits, and the imposition of limits, and what they both make possible. It is this practicality, this attention to experience and to workable arrangements, that explains why conservatism can be liberal and tolerant towards its opponents in ways that progressivism cannot.
In contrast to the conservative outlook, liberal and radical ideologies are about desired—and therefore determinate—futures. The first principles of the left are the principles of politically constructing a “better world.” Such a future must be consciously designed by enlightened intelligence. It is thus an essential characteristic of progressivism that it proposes a sharp break with the experience of the past; that its visions entail a rejection of existing social contracts. For more than two centuries the left has attempted to “complete” the French Revolution by extending political and civil freedom into the social realm in the form of redistributionist claims to economic wealth. “Socialism” is the ideological umbrella for this project.
Modern conservatism begins with the recognition that this agenda and the progressive paradigm that underpins it, are bankrupt. They were definitively refuted by the catastrophes of socialism in the 20th Century. The utopian quest for social justice and its redistributionist agendas are implicated in those catastrophes as root causes of the totalitarian nightmare. To propose a “solution” that is utopian -- in other words impossible -- is to propose a solution that requires absolute coercion by government.
Post-Communist conservatism begins with the principle that was summed up by Friedrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty: “It is just not true that human beings are born equal;... [I]f we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position;...[thus] the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different but in conflict with each other.”
But while opposing the destructive chimera of socialist justice, conservatives do not indulge a utopianism of their own. The conservative vision does not exclude compromise; nor should it condemn every attempt, however moderate, to square the circle of political liberty and social welfare. Conservatism does not require that all aspects of the Welfare State be rejected in favor of free market principles. Conservatives are the first to recognize the intractable nature of the human condition. The perfectly free society is as untenable as the perfectly just society, and for the same reason. Some economic re-distribution may be compassionate and necessary, even though (as Hayek has shown) it can never be “just.”
In short, within conservatism there is room for a “liberal” argument as to how far we need to go in following the logic of liberty and how widely we can extend the social safety net, or best shape the contours of a welfare-intending state. But for conservatives, it is the limits of such endeavors that must be recognized at the outset; the bankruptcy and menace of the socialist paradigm that must be understood.
It is in the constitutional founding that American conservatism finds its true philosophical ground. American conservatives define themselves first of all as conservers of the constitutional framework; the philosophy of that framework informs their outlook. This philosophy itself originates in a conservative appreciation of limits as the foundation of rights, a system of ordered constraints as the basis of freedom (“That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men”). In the constitutional philosophy, the possibilities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are attainable only through a framework of neutral restraints -- in economics, the discipline of the market; in politics, popular consent and the rule of law.
This is the formula of liberal conservatism: the individual constrained by a government of laws; government limited by negative liberties and the consent of the governed. It is the formula of the constitutional founding.
For the conservative, the Constitution is a repository of pragmatic and durable truths about liberty and prosperity in a social order. The truths embodied in the principles of the Constitution were validated for the founders by the experience of previously existing states. They have been confirmed by the end-results of the two-hundred-plus-year war of the left against the philosophical and political framework of “bourgeois” freedoms—against the idea of negative liberties and the practice of limited government; and by the left’s establishment of societies based on its own radical principles of positive freedoms, which include affirmative “rights” to food, shelter, clothing, employment, and equality; and by the catastrophes they created.
Conservatives are the heirs to Locke, Burke, and Madison, who faced a similar challenge from the left of their time. Conservatives are the reformers demanding a universalist standard of one right, one law, one nation for all; they are the champions of tolerance;they are the opponents of group privilege and of communal division; they are the proponents of a common ground that is color-blind, gender-equitable and ethnically inclusive—a government of laws that is neutral between its citizens, and limited in scope; they are the defenders of the free market against the destructive claims of the socialist agenda; and they are the preservers of the constitutional covenant against the forces of modern tyranny and the guardian state.
The chief concern of conservatives is not an opposition to change per se, but rather the preservation of their rights and liberties from governments that would take those rights and liberties away. As John Jay Ray writes:
“Historically, the core of conservatism has always been a suspicion of government power and intervention -- and conservatives therefore accept only the minimum amount of government that seems needed for a civil society to function. So it is no wonder that there is no authoritarian version of conservative ideology. If it were authoritarian it could not be conservative. Leftism, on the other hand, is intrinsically authoritarian and power-loving and will always therefore tend in the direction of government domination.”