Conservatism FAQ

This is the February 1, 2005 revision of a summary of questions and objections regarding conservatism. Additional questions and comments are welcome. The conservatism discussed is traditionalist American conservatism. Other varieties are touched on in section 6, and their adherents are urged to draft additional FAQs. For further discussion and relevant links, see the Traditionalist Conservatism Page; for a spoken introduction to the issues (requiring RealPlayer) click here. The issues presented here can be discussed in our forum, and your participation is welcome. You can also add a comment at the foot of this page.

A non-hypertext version of this document is posted monthly as the Conservatism FAQ to a number of newsgroups including news.answers. You can also get a copy by sending the message “send usenet/news.answers/conservatism/faq” by email to The FAQ is also available in Dutch, Polish and Portuguese, and is included in the anthology 21 Debated Issues in American Politics (Prentice Hall, 1999).


1 General principles

1.1 What is distinctive about conservatism as a political view?

1.2 Why is tradition a source of greater wisdom?

1.3 Why isn’t it better to reason things out from the beginning?

1.4 What’s the difference between following tradition and refusing to think?

1.5 Why can’t tradition be an accumulation of ignorance, error and vice as easily as of wisdom?

1.6 How can anyone know his own tradition is the right one?

1.7 What about truth?

1.8 There are conflicting traditions even within a single society. Which gets treated as “ours?”

2 Tradition and change

2.1 Why not just accept change?

2.2 Isn’t conservatism simply another way of saying that people who currently have wealth and power should keep it?

2.3 Wouldn’t we still have slavery if conservatives had always been running the show?

3 Social and cultural issues

3.1 What are family values and what is so great about them?

3.2 Why can’t conservatives just accept that people’s personal values differ?

3.3 Why are conservatives such theocrats?

3.4 Why do conservatives always want to force their values on everybody else?

3.5 What role do conservatives think government should play in enforcing moral values?

3.6 Aren’t conservatives racist sexist homophobes?

3.7 What happens to feminists, homosexuals, racial minorities and others marginalized in a conservative society?

3.8 What about freedom?

3.9 And justice?

4 Economic issues

4.1 Why do conservatives say they favor virtue and community but favor laissez-faire capitalism?

4.2 Why don’t conservatives care about what happens to the poor, weak, discouraged, and outcast?

4.3 Shouldn’t the government do something for people for whom the usual support networks don’t work?

4.4 What about welfare for the middle classes?

4.5 If conserving is a good thing, why isn’t ecology a conservative issue?

5 Conservatism in an age of established liberalism

5.1 Why do conservatives talk as if the sky is about to fall and all good things are in the past?

5.2 Isn’t conservatism essentially nostalgia for a past that never was and can’t be restored?

5.3 What’s all this stuff about community and tradition when the groups that matter these days are based on interests and perspectives rather than traditions?

5.4 Why are most people seriously involved in studying and dealing with social issues liberals?

5.5 How can tradition do anything but endorse the way things happen to be?

5.6 Shouldn’t conservatives favor things that are as well-established as the welfare state and steady expansion of the scope of the civil rights laws?

5.7 I was raised a liberal. Doesn’t that mean that to be conservative I should stay true to liberalism?

6 The conservative rainbow

6.1 How do libertarians differ from conservatives?

6.2 What are mainstream conservatives?

6.3 What are neoconservatives?

6.4 What are paleoconservatives?

6.5 What are paleolibertarians?

6.6 What are Frankfurt School Neopaleoconservatives?

6.7 Where do the pro-life movement and Religious Right fit into all this?

6.8 What are the differences between American conservatism and that of other countries?

6.9 What do all these things called “conservatism” have in common?


1 General Principles

1.1 What is distinctive about conservatism as a political view?

Its emphasis on what has been passed down as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated.

1.2 Why is tradition a source of greater wisdom?

It is a network of commonly accepted attitudes, beliefs and practices that has grown up through strengthening of things that have worked and rejection of things that have led to conflict and failure. It therefore comprises a collection of habits that have proved useful in a huge variety of practical affairs, and a comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and thought. Through it we know subtle and fundamental features of the world that would otherwise escape us, and our understanding of those things takes on concrete and usable form.

The usual alternative to reliance on tradition is reliance on theory. Taking theory literally can be costly because it achieves clarity by ignoring things that are difficult to articulate. Such things can be important; the reason politics and morals are learned mostly by experience and imitation is that most of what we need to know about them consists in habits, attitudes and implicit presumptions that we couldn’t begin to put into words. There is no means other than tradition to accumulate, conserve and hand on such things.

Other considerations also support the wisdom of relying on tradition, if not specifically the wisdom of tradition itself. For example, tradition typically exists as the common property of a community whose members are raised in it. Accordingly, it normally unites more than divides, and is far more likely than theory to facilitate free and cooperative life in common.

1.3 Why isn’t it better to reason things out from the beginning?

Our knowledge of things like politics and morality is partial and attained slowly and with difficulty. We can’t evaluate political ideas without accepting far more beliefs, presumptions and attitudes than we could possibly judge critically. The effects of political proposals are difficult to predict, and as the proposals become more ambitious their effects become incalculable. Accordingly, the most reasonable approach to politics is normally to take the existing system of society as a given that can’t be changed wholesale and try to ensure that any changes cohere with the principles and practices that make the existing system work as well as it does.

1.4 What’s the difference between following tradition and refusing to think?

Conservatives do not reject thought but are skeptical of its autonomy. They believe that tradition guides and corrects thought, and so brings it closer to truth, which has no special connection with any private view.

While truth is not altogether out of reach, our access to it is incomplete and often indirect. It can not be reduced wholly to our possession, so conservatives are willing to accept it in whatever form it is available to us. In particular, they recognize the need to rely on the unarticulated truth implicit in inherited attitudes and practices. Today this aspect of our connection to truth is underestimated, and conservatives hope to think better and know more truly by re-emphasizing it.

1.5 Why can’t tradition be an accumulation of ignorance, error and vice as easily as of wisdom?

Since tradition is a human thing it may reflect human vices as well as virtues. The same, of course, is true of relying on autonomous reason. In this century, anti-traditional theories supported by intelligent men for reasons thought noble have repeatedly led to the murder of millions of innocents.

The issue therefore is not whether tradition is perfect but its appropriate place in human life. To the extent our most consistent aim is toward what is good, and we err more through ignorance, oversight and conflicting impulse than through coherent and settled evil, tradition will benefit us by linking our thoughts and actions to a steady and comprehensive system in which they can correct each other. It will secure and refine our acquisitions while hampering antisocial impulses. To the extent we consistently aim at what is evil, then tradition can not help us much, but neither can anything else short of divine intervention.

1.6 There are lots of conflicting traditions. How can anyone know his own is the right one?

Comprehensive certainty is hard to come by. Our own tradition (like our own reasoning) might lead us astray where another’s would not. However, such concerns can not justify rejecting our own tradition unless we have a method transcending it for determining when that has happened, and in most situations we do not. If experience has led us astray it will most likely be further experience that sets us right. The same is true of tradition, which is social experience.

Putting issues of truth aside, the various parts of a particular tradition are adjusted to each other in a way that makes it difficult to abandon one part and substitute something from another tradition. A French cook will have trouble if he has to rely on Chinese ingredients and utensils. Issues of coherence and practicality accordingly make it likely that we will do better developing the tradition to which we are accustomed than attempting to adopt large parts of a different one.

1.7 But what about truth?

Most conservatives are confident comprehensive objective truth exists, but not in the form of a set of propositions with a single meaning equally demonstrable to all. The world is too big for us to grasp as a whole in a clear systematic way. We apprehend truth largely through tradition and in a way that cannot be fully articulated. Even if some truths can be known with certainty through reason or revelation, their social acceptance and their interpretation and application depend on tradition.

1.8 There are conflicting traditions even within a single society. Which gets treated as “ours?”

The question is less serious than it appears, since it cannot be discussed without assuming a community of discourse and therefore an authoritative tradition.

Any collectivity that deliberates and acts has a tradition—a set of commonly-held habits, attitudes, beliefs and memories that is reasonably coherent over time—that enables it to do so. A society consists of those who at least in general accept the authority of a common tradition. “Our” tradition is therefore the tradition that guides and motivates the collective action of the society to which we belong and give our loyalty, and within which the relevant discussion is going forward.

It is worth noting that no society is perfectly unified; each has elites and subordinate societies with their own traditions and spheres of action. A society may also harbor resident aliens and dissident or criminal groups. Which groups are treated as subordinate societies legitimately belonging to the larger one and which are treated as resident aliens, criminals or foreign oppressors is itself determined by the traditions that define the society as a whole and make it what it is.

2 Tradition and Change

2.1 Society has always changed, for the better in some ways and for the worse in others. Tradition itself is an accumulation of changes. So why not accept change, especially if everything is so complicated and hard to figure out?

Changes have always involved resistance as well as acceptance. Those that have to make their way over opposition will presumably be better than those that are accepted without serious questioning. Tradition is reliable because it reflects the overall weight of experience and reflection. That means that traditions that have long endured, and so presumptively reflect extended experience, should change only in response to something equally weighty.

In addition, conservatism is less rejection of change as such than of intentional change of a peculiarly sweeping sort demanded by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophies like liberalism and Marxism. It is recognition that the world is not our creation, and there are permanent things we must simply accept. For example, the family as an institution has changed from time to time in conjunction with other social changes. However, the current left/liberal demand that all definite institutional structure for the family be abolished as an infringement of individual autonomy (typically phrased as a demand for the elimination of sex roles and heterosexism and the protection of children’s rights) is different in kind from anything in the past, and conservatives believe it must be fought.

2.2 Isn’t conservatism simply another way of saying that people who currently have wealth and power should keep it?

Every political view promotes the particular advantage of some people. If political views are to be treated as rationalizations of the interests of existing or would-be elites, then that treatment should apply equally to conservatism and all other views. On the other hand, if arguments that particular political views advance the public good are to be taken seriously, then the arguments for conservatism should be considered on their merits.

It’s worth noting that liberalism istself furthers the interests of powerful social classes that support it, and that movements aiming at social justice typically become radically elitist because the more comprehensive and abstract a political principle, the smaller the group that can be relied on to understand and apply it correctly.

2.3 Wouldn’t we still have slavery if conservatives had always been running the show?

Experience suggests otherwise. Slavery disappeared in Western and Central Europe long ago without need for self-conscious attempts at social reconstruction. It lasted much longer in the new and less conservative societies Europeans founded in America.

While conservatism as such doesn’t guarantee there will be no oppression, neither do attempts at autonomous rational thought. It has been under radical and not conservative regimes that brutal forced labor and other gross forms of oppression have made a comeback in recent times. That is no paradox. Radicalism is far more compatible than conservatism with tyrannical institutions because by emphasizing theory and downplaying stable consensus it destroys reciprocity and mutual accommodation between rulers and ruled.

Conservatism arose not from a desire to freeze everything exactly as it is, but from recognition of the necessity of continuity, the difficulty of forcing society into a preconceived pattern, and the importance of things, such as mutual personal obligation and standards of right and wrong not reducible to power and desire, for which ideologies of the Left have trouble finding a place. Those recognitions make conservatives more reliable opponents of tyranny than progressives.

Conservatism recognizes that moral habits evolve with experience and changing circumstances, and social arrangements that come to be too much at odds with the moral feelings of a people change or disappear. It’s not self-contained; recognition of existing practice as a standard does not mean denial that there is any other standard. It recognizes that there can be improvements as well as corruptions, and that there are rational and transcendent standards as well as those that exist as part of the institutions of particular peoples.

3 Social and Cultural Issues

3.1 What are family values and what is so great about them?

They are habits and attitudes that maintain a society in which people’s most basic loyalties, and the relationships upon which they rely most fundamentally, are relationships to particular persons rather than to the state.

Family values are basic to moral life because it is primarily in relationships with particular persons that are taken with the utmost seriousness that we find the degree of concrete knowledge and mutual responsibility that is necessary for our obligations to others to become realities for us. In addition, the knowledge and habits necessary for the good life mostly have to do with the day-to-day activities of ordinary men. Such things lose coherence if everyday personal relations are unstable and unreliable, as they will be if law, habits and attitudes do not support stable and functional family life.

Family values are rejected to the extent the necessity of practical reliance on particular persons is viewed as something oppressive and unequal that the state should remedy. Conservatives oppose that rejection. They view tyranny as the likely outcome of weakening family values, since reducing personal and local responsibilities is likely to make state power unbalanced and overly predominant.

3.2 Why can’t conservatives just accept that people’s personal values differ?

Liberals, conservatives and others all recognize limits on the degree to which differing personal values can be accommodated. One reason such limits arise is that personal values can be realized only by establishing particular sorts of relations with other people, and no society can favor all relationships equally. No society, for example, can favor equally a woman who primarily wants to have a career and one who primarily wants to be a mother and homemaker. If public attitudes presume that it is the man who is primarily responsible for family support they favor the latter at the expense of the former; if not, they do the reverse.

3.3 Why are conservatives such theocrats?

They aren’t, in any sense that doesn’t turn most pre-60s Western states into theocracies. “Theocracy” normally means a state (an Islamic republic would be an example) in which civil law and authorities are formally subject to religious law and authorities. There have been very few such states in the West, and conservatives aren’t interested in breaking new ground on the matter. They do tend to recognize that government is based in the end on accepted understandings of what man and the world are, and that strict secularism, which insists that all social and moral order must be based on human desire and choice, lacks the resources to sustain free government or even rationality. They therefore find it quite in order for government to follow accepted religious understandings in appropriate cases.

3.4 Why do conservatives always want to force their values on everybody else?

Conservatives aren’t different from other people in that regard. Anyone with a notion of how society should work will believe that other people should follow the program he favors. For example, if Liberal Jack thinks the government should be responsible for the well-being of children and wants to support the arrangement through a system of supervision, record-keeping and taxation that sends people to jail who don’t comply, and Conservative Jill thinks there should be family responsibility supported by a system of sex roles enforced by informal social sanctions, each will want what the public schools teach to be consistent with his program.

Both will object to a school textbook entitled Heather Has Two Mommies Who Get Away with Paying No Taxes Because They Accept Payment Only in Cash. Liberal Jack will object to the book Heather’s Mommy Stays Home and Her Daddy Goes to the Office, while Conservative Jill will object to other well-known texts. Even Libertarian Jerry might have some problems with Heather and Her Whole Family Organize to Fight for Daycare and against Welfare Reductions. There is no obvious reason to consider any of the three more tolerant than the others.

At present, the issue of social tolerance comes up most often in connection with sexual morality. For a discussion from a conservative perspective, see the Sexual Morality FAQ.

3.5 What role do conservatives think government should play in enforcing moral values?

Since conservatives believe moral values should be determined more by the traditions and feelings of the people and by informal traditional authorities than by theory and formal decisions of an administrative elite, they typically prefer to rely on informal social sanctions rather than enforcement by government. Nonetheless, they believe that government should recognize the moral institutions on which society relies and should be run on the assumption that they are good things that should not be undercut. Thus, conservatives oppose public school curricula that depict traditional moral values as optional and programs that fund their rejection, for example by subsidizing unwed parents or artists who intend their works to outrage accepted morality. They believe the state should support fundamental moral institutions like the family, and oppose legislation that forbids discrimination on moral grounds. How much more the government can or should do to promote morality is a matter of experience and circumstance. In this connection, as in others, conservatives typically do not have very high expectations for what government can achieve although they do view government as important.

3.6 Aren’t conservatives racist sexist homophobes?

That depends on what those words mean. They are often used very broadly.

“Racist”—Conservatives consider community loyalty important. The communities people grow up in generally have some connection to ethnicity. That’s no accident, because ethnicity is what develops when people live together with a common way of life for a long time. Accordingly, conservatives think some degree of ethnic loyalty and separateness is OK. Ethnicity is not the same thing as “race” as a biological category; on the other hand, the two are difficult to disentangle because both arise out of shared history and common descent.

“Sexist”—All known societies have engaged in sex-role stereotyping, with men undertaking more responsibility for public affairs and women for home, family, and childcare. There are obvious benefits to such stereotypes, since they make it far more likely that individual men and women will complement each other and form stable and functional unions for the rearing of children. Also, some degree of differentiation seems to fit the presocial tendencies of men and women better than unisex would. Conservatives see no reason to give up those benefits, especially in view of the evident bad consequences of the weakening of stereotypical obligations between the sexes in recent decades.

“Homophobes”—Finally, sex-role stereotyping implies a tendency to reject patterns of impulse, attitude and conduct that don’t fit the stereotypes, such as homosexuality.

For extended discussion from a conservative perspective of issues relating to the liberal demand for “inclusiveness”, see the Anti-Inclusiveness FAQ and the Anti-Feminist Page.

3.7 What happens to feminists, homosexuals, racial minorities and others marginalized in a conservative society?

The same as happens in a society based on the liberal conception of inclusiveness to religious and social conservatives and to ethnics who consider their ethnicity important. They find themselves in a social order they may not like dominated by people who may look down on them in which it is made difficult to live as they prefer.

In both kinds of society, people on the outs may be able to persuade others to their way of thinking, practice the way of life they prefer among themselves, or break off from the larger society and establish their own communities. Such possibilities are in general more realistic in a conservative society that emphasizes local control, federalism, and minimal bureaucracy than in a society that demands egalitarian social justice and therefore tries to establish a universal homogeneous social order. For example, ethnic minorities in a conservative society may be able to thrive through some combination of adaptation and niche-finding, while in an “inclusive” society they will find themselves on the receiving end of policies designed to eliminate the public importance of their (and every other) ethnic culture.

One important question is whether alienation from the social order will be more common in a conservative or a liberal society. It seems that it will be more common in a social order based on universal implementation of a bureaucracy’s conception of social justice than in one that accepts the moral feelings and loyalties that arise over time within particular communities. So it seems likely that a liberal society will have more citizens than a conservative society who feel that their deepest values and loyalties are at odds with the values of the institutions that dominate their lives, and so feel marginalized.

3.8 What about freedom?

Conservatives are strong supporters of social institutions that realize and protect freedom, but recognize that such institutions attain their full value as part of a larger whole. Freedom is fully realized only when we are held responsible for the choices we make, and it is most valuable in a setting in which things can readily be chosen that add up to a good life. Accordingly, conservatives reject perspectives that view freedom as an absolute, and recognize that the institutions through which freedom is realized must include principles of responsibility and must respect other goods without which freedom would not be worth having.

In addition, conservatives believe there is a close connection between freedom and participation in public affairs. Since how we live affects others, freedom includes taking part in making society what it is. Accordingly, the conservative principles of federalism, local rule, and private property help realize freedom by devolving power into many hands and making widespread participation in running society a reality. Respect for tradition, the “democracy of the dead,” has the same effect.

3.9 And justice?

Justice between man and man is respect for concrete obligations and individual responsibility. Conservatives take both very seriously.

Social justice involves the ordering of social life toward the good for man. Social injustice involves systematic destruction of the conditions for that good. Because the good for man cannot be fully known, because it includes respect for each of us as a moral agent, and because human affairs are infinitely complex, social justice can never be fully achieved, nor achieved at all through imposition of a preconceived overall design on society. Attempts to do the latter have led to degradation of social and moral order and, in several modern instances, horrendous crimes such as the murder of millions of innocents. Social justice must therefore evolve rather than be constructed, and its furtherance therefore requires acceptance of the authority of tradition. The two cannot be separated.

Social justice is sometimes thought to mean promotion of equality through comprehensive government action. That view cannot be correct since men differ and what is just for them must also differ. In addition, the goods which that view is concerned to divide equally—wealth, power and the like—are not the ultimate human goods and therefore can not be considered the ultimate concerns of justice. Finally, a system guided by such a conception must defeat its own purpose because it puts enormous and uncontrollable power in the hands of those who control the government. Possession of such power, of course, makes them radically unequal to those they rule.

4 Economic Issues

4.1 Why do conservatives say they favor virtue and community but in fact favor laissez-faire capitalism? Doesn’t laissez- faire capitalism promote the opposite?

Conservatives typically are not fans of pure laissez-faire, although they view economic liberty as one of the traditional liberties of the American people that has served that people well. Many are skeptical of free trade and most favor restraints on immigration for the sake of permitting the existence and development of a reasonably coherent national community. Nor do they oppose in principle the regulation or suppression of businesses that affect the moral order of society, such as prostitution, pornography, and the sale of certain drugs.

Conservatives do favor free markets when the alternative is to expand bureaucracy to implement liberal goals, a process that clearly has the effect of damaging virtue and community. Also, they tend to prefer self-organization to central control because they believe that overall administration of social life is impossible. They recognize that like tradition the market reflects men’s infinitely various and often unconscious and inarticulate goals and perceptions far better than any bureaucratic process could.

In any event, it’s not clear that laissez-faire capitalism need undermine moral community. “Laissez-faire capitalism” has to do with limitations on what the government does and only indirectly with the nature of society as a whole. While social statistics are a crude measure of the state of community and morality, it is noteworthy that in England crime and illegitimacy rates fell by about half from the middle to the end of the 19th century, the heyday of untrammelled capitalism, and that the rejection of laissez-faire has in fact been accompanied by increasing social atomization.

4.2 Why don’t conservatives care about what happens to the poor, weak, discouraged, and outcast?

Conservatives do care about what happens to such people. That’s why they oppose government programs that multiply the poor, weak, discouraged, and outcast by undermining and disrupting the network of habits and social relations that enable people to carry on their lives without depending on government bureaucracy.

Moral community declines when people rely on government to solve their problems rather than on themselves and those to whom they have some particular connection. It is the weak who suffer most from the resulting moral chaos. Those who think that interventionist liberalism means that the weak face fewer problems should consider the effects on women, children, and blacks of trends of the past 40 years. That period has featured large increases in social welfare expenditures, as well as increased crime, reduced educational achievement, family instability, and slower progress reducing poverty.

4.3 What about people for whom the usual support networks don’t work? Shouldn’t the government do something for them?

The fundamental question is whether government should have ultimate responsibility for individual material well-being. Conservatives believe that it should not; giving it that responsibility means despotism, since material well-being is a result of a complex of things that in the end extends to the whole of life, and responsibility for each individual case requires detailed control of the whole complex.

Government responsibility for specific cases also means that what happens to people, and therefore what they do, is the business of no one in particular. If there’s a serious problem, the government will take care of it. Such an outlook destroys social ties and promotes antisocial behavior. If an understanding of the role of government weakens self-reliance and the moral bonds that give rise to community, and cannot be made to work without an elaborate system of compulsion, in the long run it will increase suffering and degradation and so is the wrong understanding.

Conservatives are therefore suspicious of social welfare programs, and especially demands that the government make sure there’s an answer for every case. Suspicion has rational limits. Some government social welfare measures (free clinics for mothers and children or local systems of support for deserving people) may well increase social welfare even in the long term. However, because of the obscurity of the issue, the difficulty in a mass democracy of limiting the expansion of government benefit programs, and the value of widespread participation in public life, the best resolution is likely to be keeping central government involvement strictly limited, and letting individuals, associations and localities support voluntarily the institutions and programs they think socially beneficial.

4.4 What about welfare for the middle classes, like social security, medicare, the home mortgage interest deduction, and so on?

The most consistent conservatives want to get rid of them. Social security and medicare, they say, are financially unsound, and are socially harmful because they lead people capable of saving for their own retirement and supporting their own parents to rely on the government instead. They could better be replaced by private savings, prefunded medical insurance, greater emphasis on intergenerational obligations within families, and other arrangements that would evolve if the government presence were reduced or eliminated.

Other conservatives distinguish these middle-class benefits from welfare by the element of reciprocity. People get social security and medicare only if they have already given a great deal to society, and the mortgage interest deduction encourages people to become homeowners, and so aquire a definite concrete stake in the local society, and in any event the benefit consists only in the right to keep more of one’s earnings. Still others try to split the difference somehow. As a practical matter, the reluctance of many conservatives to disturb these arrangements is likely motivated in part by the electoral power of their supporters.

4.5 If conserving is a good thing, why isn’t ecology a conservative cause?

Conservatism is concerned more with relations among men than those between man and nature, so ecology is not one of its defining issues. There is, however, nothing in conservatism intrinsically at odds with ecological concerns. Some conservatives and conservative schools of thought take such issues very seriously; others less so. There are, of course, conservative grounds for criticizing or rejecting particular aspects of the existing environmental movement, such as overemphasis on central controls.

5 Conservatism in an Age of Established Liberalism

5.1 Why do conservatives talk as if the sky is about to fall and all good things are in the past? People have been bemoaning the present for a long time but things don’t seem so bad today.

Conservatives don’t predict more disasters than liberals, just different disasters. Like other people they see both hopeful and hazardous trends in the current situation. Post-communist societies display the disastrous social consequences of energetic attempts to implement post-Enlightenment radicalism. Less energetic attempts, such as modern American liberalism, do not lead to similar effects as quickly. Nonetheless, social trends toward breakdown of affiliations among individuals, centralization of political power in irresponsible elites, irreconcilable social conflicts, and increasing stupidity, brutality and triviality in daily life suggest that those consequences are coming just the same. Liberalism seems to make up in thoroughness what it lacks in brutality. Why not worry about it?

5.2 Isn’t conservatism essentially nostalgia for a past that never was and can’t be restored?

In substance, the objection is that the goals of conservatism are neither serious nor achievable. That objection fails if in the end conservatives are likely to get what they want.

Conservatism involves recognition that moral community is required for the coherence of individual and social life, and that a reasonably coherent way of life is a practical necessity. Current trends toward radical individualism, egalitarianism and hedonism destroy the possibility of moral community. Conservatives are therefore confident that in some fashion existing trends will be reversed and in important respects the moral and social future will resemble the past more than the present. In particular, the future will see less emphasis on individual autonomy and more on moral tradition and essentialist ties.

The timing and form of the necessary reversal is of course uncertain. It plainly can’t be achieved through administrative techniques, the method most readily accepted as serious and realistic today, so conservatives’ main political proposal is that aspects of the modern state that oppose the reversal be trimmed or abandoned. Those who consider modern trends beneficial and irreversible therefore accuse conservatives of simple obstructionism. In contrast, those who see that current trends lead to catastrophe and that a reversal must take place expect that if conservatives aren’t successful now their goals will be achieved eventually, but very likely with more conflict and destruction along the way and quite possibly with a less satisfactory end result.

5.3 What’s all this stuff about community and tradition? The groups that matter these days are groups like yuppies, gays, and senior citizens that people join as individuals based on interests and perspectives rather than tradition.

Can this be true in the long run? When times are good people imagine that they can define themselves as they choose, but a society will not long exist if the only thing its members have in common is a commitment to self-definition. The necessity for something beyond that becomes clearest when the times require sacrifice. Membership in a group with an identity developed and inculcated through tradition becomes far more relevant then than career path, life-style option, or stage of life. One of Bill Clinton’s problems as president was that people saw him as a yuppie who wouldn’t die for anything; at some point that kind of problem becomes decisive.

5.4 If conservatism is so great, why are most people seriously involved in studying and dealing with social issues liberals?

Conservatives believe it is impossible to define and control the considerations relevant to social life accurately enough to make a technological approach to society possible. They reject efforts to divide human affairs into compartments to be dealt with by experts as part of a comprehensive plan for promoting goals like equality and prosperity. Academic and other policy experts are defined as such by their participation in such efforts. It would be surprising if they did not prefer perspectives that give those efforts free rein, such as welfare-state liberalism, over perspectives that are suspicious of them.

5.5 How can tradition do anything but endorse the way things happen to be—which at present means established liberalism?

If traditionalism were a formal rule to be applied literally it could tell us nothing: the current state of a tradition is simply the current practices, attitudes, beliefs and so on of the community whose tradition it is. The point of tradition, however, is that formal rules are inadequate. Tradition is not self-contained, and not all parts of it are equally authoritative. It is a way of grasping things that are neither merely traditional nor knowable apart from tradition. One who accepts a religious tradition, for example, owes his ultimate allegiance not to the tradition but to God, who is known through the tradition. It is that allegiance to something that exceeds and motivates the tradition that makes it possible to distinguish what is authentic and living in the tradition from nonessentials and corruptions.

5.6 Shouldn’t modern conservatives at least favor things that are as well-established as the welfare state and steady expansion of the scope of the civil rights laws?

Yes, to the extent they are consistent with the older and more fundamental parts of our social arrangements, such as family, community, and traditional moral standards, and contribute to the over-all functioning of the whole. Unfortunately, the things mentioned fail on both counts. Existing welfare and civil rights measures make sense only as part of a comprehensive centrally managed system that is adverse to the connections that make community possible, and is designed perpetually to reorder society as a whole through bureaucratic decree. It is impossible for conservatives to accept anything like such a system.

5.7 I was raised a liberal. Doesn’t that mean that to be conservative I should stay true to liberalism?

How can you be bound to a viewpoint that does not value loyalty and can therefore survive only if it is not accepted by most people? For someone raised a liberal, the conservative approach would be to look for guidance to the things on which the people with whom he grew up actually relied for coherence and stability, including the traditions of the larger community upon which their way of life depended. Those things will always include illiberal elements that enabled the community to function as such.

6 The Conservative Rainbow

6.1 How do libertarians differ from conservatives?

In general, libertarians emphasize limited government more than conservatives and believe the sole legitimate purpose of government is the protection of property rights against force and fraud. Thus, they usually consider legal restrictions on such things as immigration, drug use, and prostitution to be illegitimate violations of personal liberty. Many but not all libertarians hold a position that might be described as economically Right (anti-socialist) and culturally Left (opposed to what are called cultural repressiveness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on), and tend to attribute to state intervention the survival of things the cultural Left dislikes.

Speaking more abstractly, the libertarian perspective assigns to the market the position conservatives assign to tradition as the great accumulator and integrator of the implicit knowledge of society. Some writers, such as F.A. Hayek, attempt to bridge the two perspectives on that issue. In addition, libertarians tend to believe in strict methodological individualism and absolute and universally valid human rights, while conservatives are less likely to have the former commitment and tend to understand rights by reference to the forms they take in particular societies.

6.2 What are mainstream conservatives?

People who mix the traditionalist conservatism outlined in this FAQ with varying proportions of libertarianism and liberalism. Any conservative who gets elected or otherwise hits the mass market (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) is likely to be a mainstream conservative.

Mainstream conservatives often speak the language of liberalism, especially classical liberalism. Their appeal is nonetheless conservative, at least in the sense that they reject more highly developed forms of liberalism in favor of earlier forms that retain more traces of non-liberal traditions.

6.3 What are neoconservatives?

A group of intellectual conservatives most of whom were liberals until left-wing radicalism went mass-market in the sixties, and whose main concern on the whole is to preserve and extend what they see as the accomplishments of older forms of liberalism. Their positions continue to evolve; some still have positions consistent with New Deal liberalism, others treat an idealized “America” as a sort of world-wide evangelistic cause, and still others have moved on to a more complex and principled conservatism. Many of them have been associated with the magazines Commentary and The Public Interest, and a neopapalist contingent (now at odds with many other neoconservatives over the relation between religion and politics) is associated with the magazine First Things. Their influence has been out of proportion to their numbers, in part because they include a number of well-known Northeastern and West Coast journalists and academics and in part because having once been liberals or leftists they still can speak the language and retain a certain credibility in Establishment circles.

6.4 What are paleoconservatives?

Another group of conservatives most of whom were never liberals and live someplace other than the Northeastern megalopolis or California. The most prominent paleo publications are Chronicles and Modern Age. They first arose as a self-conscious group in opposition to neoconservatives after the success of the neos in establishing themselves within the Reagan administration, and especially after the neos helped defeat the nomination of paleo Mel Bradford as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in favor of one of their own, Bill Bennett. The views set forth in this FAQ are broadly consistent with those of most paleoconservatives.

6.5 What are paleolibertarians?

A group of libertarians, notably Llewellyn Rockwell and the late Murray Rothbard, who reject mainstream libertarianism as culturally libertine and often squishy-soft on big government, and on most issues share common ground with paleoconservatives. Their center on the web is, and a sampling of their views expressed in popular form can be found at

6.6 What are Frankfurt School Neopaleoconservatives?

A group (so named for the first time in this FAQ) that has come by way of Frankfurt School cultural criticism to a position reminiscent of paleoconservatism emphasizing federalism, rejection of the therapeutic managerial state, and (most recently) liturgy. Their publication is Telos, which now includes paleocon Paul Gottfried on its editorial board and publishes Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming as well as writers such as Alain de Benoist associated with the European New Right (and for that matter the author of this FAQ.)

6.7 Where do the pro-life movement and religious right fit into all this?

Like conservatism, both movements reject hedonism and radical individual autonomy and emphasize the authority of traditionally-based institutions like the family and religion in opposition to that of the modern managerial state. Their general goals can usually be supported on conservative principles, but they tend to base their claims on principles of natural law or revelation that are sometimes handled in an antitraditional way. As popular movements in an antitraditional public order they often adopt non-conservative styles of reasoning and rhetoric. Thus, these movements have strong conservative elements but are not purely conservative. It should be noted, however, that pure conservatism is rare or nonexistent and may not even be coherent; the point of conservatism is always some good other than maintenance of tradition as such.

6.8 What are the differences between American conservatism and that of other countries?

They correspond to the differences in political tradition. In general, conservatism in America has a much stronger capitalist/libertarian and populist streak than in other countries. European conservatism once emphasized support for throne, altar and sword as hierarchical bearers of authoritative traditions. When those things collapsed European conservatism mostly disappeared, while in America those hierarchies never existed so their collapse had less effect. The national differences seem to be declining as other countries become more like America and many American conservatives become more alienated from their country’s actual way of life and system of government. Especially in recent years conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic has emphasized opposition to new antitraditional hierarchies of formal expertise and bureaucratic position. However, American conservatism continues to have a stronger religious streak than present-day European conservatism and also has much broader and deeper support.

6.9 What do all these things called “conservatism” have in common?

Each rejects, through an appeal to something traditionally valued, the liberal tendency to treat individual impulse and desire as the final authorities. Differences in the preferred point of reference give rise to different forms of conservatism. Those who appeal to the independent and responsible individual become libertarian conservatives, while those who appeal to a traditional culture or to God become traditionalist or religious conservatives. Depending on circumstances, the alliance among different forms of conservatism may be closer or more tenuous. In America today libertarian, traditionalist and religious conservatives find common ground in favoring federalism and constitutional limited government and opposing the managerial welfare state.

5 thoughts on “Conservatism FAQ”

  1. I really like how everything

    I really like how everything about conservatism is explained in detail. As we are approaching the election (i am going to be eligible this year), i would liek to inquire on how the conservatism philosophy feels about war. If you could e-mail me back i would appreciate it, thank you.

  2. I used to write conservative

    I used to write conservative articles, but after reading just some sections of this webpage, I don’t think they even compare. I thought at first, however, that this was a liberal page after I looked at the questions, but when I started reading the articles, ready to get extremely aggrivated, when I realized that you rebutting the arguements. Excellent work.

  3. Damn you Conservatives are stupid!

    Damn you Conservatives are stupid! Could you please speak normal English? What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you know you are contradicting yourselves? Down with Bush, down with Conservatism!

    Smoke Drugs.

  4. I find it ironic that

    I find it ironic that you are calling this guy stupid, Cameron. And anyway, he doesn’t contradict himself, he’s just incredibly repetetive and his use of language is overly florid. Which is probabaly why you didn’t bother reading what you’re posting a bitch about.

  5. How refreshing to understand conservatism

    How refreshing to understand conservatism “properly understood.” It is nice to know that there is a website devoted to traditional conservatism instead of the classical liberalism/libertarianism and populism which passes for conservatism in the United States. Thanks to this site, Chronicles magazine, and the arguments of Pat Buchanan and other paleoconservatives I see the folly of American foreign policy and the dangers of free trade. As a consequence I will be witholding my vote from President Bush this fall.

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