Defining & Understanding Conservatism

Defining & Understanding Conservatism


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.”

In his book The Politics of Bad Faith, David Horowitz writes: “Looking back on the two hundred year history now past, we can see that it is not simply a unitary conflict between revolution and ancien regime — the paradigm in which counter-revolution [or conservatism] would be synonymous with reaction, [and] revolution [or liberalism, would be synonymous] with social progress. It is the conflict of two distinct revolutionary traditions. The struggle that has shaped our age has not been between the old order and the new revolution, but between two revolutionary paths to the modern world — two different paradigms of the European Enlightenment that took root, respectively, in America and France…. To be conservative within a revolutionary tradition simply means to conserve the paradigm peculiar to that revolution. To be conservative in the context of the democratic West means to preserve the 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).

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.

In a 1993 piece titled “A Conservative Hope,” David Horowitz wrote at length about conservatism:

[C]onservatism is not an ideology in the sense that liberalism, or the various forms of radicalism are. Conservatism is not an “identity politics,” addressed before all else to the issue of what kind of people embrace it. It is not a politics whose primary concern is to place its adherents in the camp of moral humanity and thus to confer on them the stamp of History’s approval. Because conservatism is not a philosophy that seeks to enlist its adherents in an historical vanguard, it does not have a “party line.” It is possible for conservatives to question most positions held by other conservatives, including, evidently, the notion that they are conservatives at all, without risking ex-communication, expulsion from the community, or even a raised eyebrow. Of course this latitude has limits. No one would regard as conservative, for example, someone who embraced the leveling aspirations of contemporary liberalism or the utopian agendas of the socialist Left. Within such limits, however, the liberality of conservatism (or at least American conservatism) is a generally under-appreciated fact.

Although it is not an ideological faith, American conservatism is grounded in philosophical convictions…. It begins as an attitude, and only later becomes a stance, doing so from considerations that are ultimately pragmatic…. This is not to deny that conservatives themselves often claim religious principles as the ultimate basis for their convictions. But it is not any religious commitment that makes them conservatives. There are radicals and liberals who have similar commitments and make similar claims.

To say that conservative attitudes derive from pragmatic considerations is to state an obvious but important fact: What makes conservative principles “conservative” is that they are rooted in an attitude about the past rather than in expectations of the future.  It is this pragmatic foundation of conservatism that explains why it can be the common ground of such diverse viewpoints. Conservatives today operate from what are often profoundly different philosophical assumptions and entertain quite divergent expectations of what the future might be. It is, in fact, this indeterminacy about the future that is the crucial element that distinguishes conservatism from its ideological opponents.

Indeterminacy about the future does not mean that conservatives are indifferent to possible social outcomes. They would of course like to see a future that is relatively more benevolent and measurably more humane. But they can only endorse those principles, traditions and institutions that may serve as prudential guides through passages that are uncertain, and despite consequences that are unintended. 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 progressives 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.

Throughout the modern era, progressives have proposed a contract which guarantees that all of society’s members will be made equal in their economic and social conditions—or, at the very least, in their starting points. Futures based on this contract are designated, by progressives, “socially just.” Liberals and radicals differ among themselves about the degree of equality that might be achieved in the name of social justice, or the means acceptable for arriving at such a state. (The concession that liberals make when they refer to “leveling the playing field,” as opposed to leveling the players, results from their recognition of previous progressive failures). But the differences between liberals and radicals are confined to differences of degree in the results desired, and then to the means by which these results may be obtained. The agenda of “social justice” and of using the state to enforce desired outcomes, remains the same. It is this shared utopian agenda, that makes it appropriate to refer to both liberalism and radicalism as ideologies of the Left.

Since ideologies of the Left derive from commitments to an imagined future, to question them is to provoke a moral rather than an empirical response: Are you for or against the future equality of human beings? To demur from a commitment to the progressive viewpoint is thus not a failure to assess the relevant data, but an unwillingness to embrace the liberated future. It is to will the imperfections of the present order. In the current political cant of the Left, it is to be “racist, sexist, classist,” a defender of the oppressive status quo.

That is why not only radicals, but even those who call themselves liberals, are instinctively intolerant towards the conservative opposition. For progressives, the future is not a maze of human uncertainties and unintended consequences. It is a moral choice. To achieve the socially just future requires only that enough people decide to will it. Consequently, it is perfectly consistent for progressives to consider themselves morally and intellectually enlightened, while dismissing their opponents as immoral, ignorant, or (not infrequently) insane….

For 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 have been definitively refuted by the catastrophes of socialism in the 20th Century. The utopian quest for social justice and its redistributionist agenda 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 coercion and requires absolute coercion. Who wills the end wills the means.

Post-Communist conservatism, then, begins with the principle that is written in the blood of these social experiments. It was summed up by Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty more than thirty years ago: “It is just not true,” he wrote, “that human beings are born equal;…if 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.”  (emphasis added)

In other words, the rights historically claimed in the paradigm of the Left are self-contradicting and self-defeating. The history of the social experiments of the last 200 years describes the stark implications of that contradiction and the terrible price of those defeats. The regime of social justice, of which the Left dreams, is a regime that by its very nature must crush individual freedom. It is not a question of choosing the right (while avoiding the wrong) political means in order to achieve the desired ends. The means are contained in the ends. The leftist revolution must crush freedom in order to achieve the “social justice” that it seeks. It is unable, therefore, to achieve even that end. This is the totalitarian circle that cannot be squared. Socialism is not bread without freedom; it is neither freedom nor bread. The shades of the victims, in the endless cemetery of 20th Century revolutions, cry out from their still fresh graves: the liberated future is a destructive illusion. To heed this cry is the beginning of a conservative point of view.

That point of view is most succinctly summarized in Hayek’s observation that “the prevailing belief in ‘social justice’ is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.” The reason is that the idea of social justice is a chimera and that it incorporates the totalitarian idea. For the term “social justice” to have meaning, there must be an entity “society” that can be held responsible for perceived injustices like the unequal distribution of wealth. But there is no such entity. The unequal distribution of wealth flows from the free choices of individuals in the economic market.. The only practical meaning that complaints about social injustice have is that a system is tolerated in which individuals are free to choose their occupations and there is no power to make the results “correspond to our wishes.” In other words, the only remedy for “social injustice” is for a state to abrogate individual freedoms and organize the social order to correspond to its conception of what is morally right. In short, the demand for “social justice” is the demand for a command economy ruled by a totalitarian state….

On the other hand, while opposing the destructive chimera of socialist justice conservatives should 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. After all, conservatives are (or should be) 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. We would have to rip out our all too human hearts in order to achieve it. 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. It is the wisdom reaffirmed by the castrophes of the Left—of those who rejected this framework as a bourgeois concept and a mask for privilege—from the Jacobin Terror to the 20th Century gulags that Marxists built….

For the conservative, the Constitution is not a convenient discourse, but a repository of pragmatic and durable truths about liberty and prosperity in a social order….

While American radicals may have failed in their efforts to expropriate the means of material production, they have succeeded in appropriating enough of the means of cultural production to proclaim themselves “liberals” and to make the label stick. So ingrained have the premises of the Left become in the new liberal template, that conservatives now may be said to constitute a “counter-culture” in the American framework. And that is another reason why conservatives must not think only in “conservative” terms in confronting the challenges before them. They must think of themselves as heirs to Locke and 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, 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 conservers of the constitutional covenant against the forces of modern tyranny and the guardian state.

Additional Resources:

A Conservative Hope
By David Horowitz
February 26, 1993

The Meaning of Left and Right
By David Horowitz

What Is Conservatism?
By John J. Ray

Is the Status Quo Still Relevant to the Left-Right Divide?
By John J. Ray

Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism
By The National Center for Policy Analysis

Conservatism As Heresy: An Australian Reader
By John J. Ray

Ten Conservative Principles
By Russell Kirk

The Essence of Conservatism
By Russell Kirk

Explaining Conservativism II: Why the Left Hates It
By Dennis Prager
October 18, 2022

The Last Crusade: Rip van Con
By John C. Wright
February 2017

The Core Of Conservatism: Distinctions And Consequences
By Michael Medved
March 14, 2007

What Is a “Conservative”?
By Jonah Goldberg
May 11, 2005

William F. Buckley Jr. on Conservatism: An Interview
By Bill Steigerwald
November 19, 2007

There Are Two Irreconcilable Americas
By Dennis Prager
October 14, 2008

I Know Why I’m a Conservative. Do You?
By Steve Deace
February 22, 2017

A More American Conservatism
By Larry P. Arnn
December 2016

The Nature of Conservatism
By Mike Adams
May 18, 2009

Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism
By William F. Buckley
October 1963

Conservatives vs. Liberals: Two Paths to Power
By Michael Medved
April 1, 2009

Conservatives, Liberals and Reality
By George Will
May 31, 2007

Do Conservatives Oppose Change?
By Dennis Prager
March 28, 2023


Upside-Down Politics
By David Horowitz
July 27, 1998

Why I Am Not a Liberal
By Dennis Prager
August 12, 2008

The Evolution of the Term “Conservative”
By Thomas Sowell
September 16, 2010

“Fiscal” Conservatism Needs “Social” Conservatism
By Dennis Prager
January 22, 2013


The Inventor of Modern Conservatism
By David Gelernter
February 7, 2005


What Is Conservatism?
By The Heritage Foundation
May 2018

What Do Conservatives Wish to Conserve?
By Dennis Prager
October 27, 2022

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