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What is conservatism?

An online publication asked me to write a column on “what is a conservative,” so I put together a draft. It’s a conservative news site in South Carolina, rather well edited, and they’ve just been through an election in which there was a lot of discussion what a “true conservative” is.

Any comments?

What is a Conservative?

We’re all convinced there’s something called conservatism that opposes something called liberalism. Nonetheless, people who call themselves conservatives can disagree with each other in basic ways. What’s it all about?

The answer, I think, is that conservatism—like liberalism—is less an opinion than a way of forming opinions. It’s not so much what you think as how you think that makes you conservative. That’s one reason conservatives can disagree among themselves, and it’s why there are two great opinion blocs, liberals and conservatives, that continue to confront each other in the same way regardless of how the issues change.

Basically, a conservative is someone who accepts the way ordinary people think about things in daily life, while a liberal today is someone who believes in experts. That doesn’t mean conservatives are dumb and liberals are smart, although miseducation can lead people to believe that. Instead, it means that liberals and conservatives have different ideas what it is to be reasonable. Intelligence is not the distinction. Most academics are liberal, but great literature is based far more on everyday thought and experience than on the findings of experts.

Since liberals believe it’s most reasonable to trust experts, they believe in social programs. Experts need a vehicle for exercising their expertise and giving it influence over society, and that’s what social programs are for. As believers in social programs liberals are tolerant of taxes, bureaucrats and centralized government, and they downplay things like family, religion and personal morality that can’t be planned or administered. They look upon society from the standpoint of a top bureaucrat whose job it is to run everything, and so view it as a collection of interchangeable individuals with no important ties to each other. What happens to people they explain by reference to an overall system that ought to be managed and made the same for everyone.

In contrast, conservatives take their cues from the things that define the ordinary daily life of ordinary people—family, business, church, neighborhood, kinship, personal integrity and so on. For conservatives the attitudes and loyalties that make those things work are what life’s all about. They look upon a man’s happiness or unhappiness not as a product of the grand system of society in general but as the result of far more specific things—his individual skill, integrity and effort, his connections to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, and sometimes his luck. Those things can’t possibly be made equal for everyone, and an attempt to make them so would wreck far more than it helped.

These differences in basic outlook explain the differences in opinion. Conservatives favor religion and family values because those are the things that keep daily life together and give it its purpose and value. They emphasize reducing taxes and regulation because they believe people make their own decisions better than experts and bureaucrats. They are patriotic and law-abiding because they believe loyalty and integrity make the world go round, and because they feel an obligation to the country that lets their family and community exist in peace and safety. In comparison with liberals they downplay equality. It’s not that they favor inequality, but they think it’s stupid to force the issue. And they note that liberals themselves can’t solve the problem, since the bureaucrats who force everyone to be equal can’t themselves be equal to the people they control.

But what is ordinary life? Someone might object that it is different in different times and places, in the Old South and in present-day San Francisco, so that conservatism might include anything from slavery to gay marriage depending on the situation. That kind of objection contributes to arguments about “true conservatism”. If someone is fiscally conservative but soft on social issues is he a true conservative who’s just adapting to changed circumstances, or is he on his way to liberalism?

To my mind the answer is that conservatism can’t be simply a matter of how things happen to be at the moment. The “ordinary life” to which it appeals has to include a notion of the normal functioning of human nature under free institutions. Otherwise it could take any distorted form, and why use it as a standard? Slavery is therefore out, because it’s not a free institution. But so is the current tendency to redefine marriage—the enduring union of one man and one woman for mutual support and the rearing of children—so that it can mean anything or nothing.

The attack on marriage, on the rights and obligations it involves, and on the customs and attitudes that support it destroy the ability of ordinary people to carry on their lives and raise the next generation without government involvement in all the affairs of life. That can’t be acceptable on a view that takes as its standard the free functioning of the ordinary human arrangements of ordinary life. The “social issues” are therefore an essential part of any coherent conservatism.