An attempt to define “conservatism” from Jonah Goldberg, back in 2015:
There are any number of definitions of conservatism out there on the Interwebs, though my sense from googling around is that at least half of them are invidious; caricatures plucked from the imaginations of anti-conservatives looking for convenient enemies, sort of like Apollo Creed handpicking Rocky Balboa out of obscurity because he thought Rocky fit a convenient, and easily defeatable, stereotype.
I like some definitions better than others. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln famously asked, “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” That’s pithy, but it’s less a definition than a rhetorical flourish.
Russell Kirk who, despite his brilliance and erudition, was never my cup of tea, offered “Six Canons of Conservatism.” (I’ve edited them down, but you can follow this link to read them in their entirety.)
1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. . . . True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.
3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.
4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.
6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
I agree with all of these in the context of the Anglo-American tradition. But that’s hardly pithy. One of the problems with the term “conservative” is that unlike, say “socialist” or even “progressive,” it can mean wildly different things in different cultures. Samuel Huntington made this point in his brilliant 1957 essay “Conservatism as an Ideology.” A conservative in America wants to conserve radically different things than a conservative in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or France does. Even British conservatives — our closest ideological cousins — want to preserve the monarchy, an institution we fought a revolution to get rid of. In the Soviet Union, the “conservatives” were the ones who wanted to preserve and defend the Bolshevik Revolution.
America’s founding doctrine is properly understood as classical liberalism — or until the progressives stole the label, simply “liberalism.” Until socialism burst on the scene in Europe, liberalism was universally understood as the opposite of conservatism. That’s because European conservatism sought to defend and maintain monarchy, aristocracy, and even feudalism. The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.
It’s also why I have no problem with people who say that American conservatism is simply classical liberalism. As a shorthand, that’s fine by me.
But philosophically, I’m not sure this does the trick. There are many, many, rooms in the mansion of classical liberalism and not all of them are, properly speaking, conservative. Anarcho-capitalists are a blast at parties and Randians always make for an interesting conversation if you sit next to one on a flight, but they are the first people to tell you that they’re not conservatives. John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith were among the founding fathers of classical liberalism, but there are plenty of libertarians who don’t share their piety or reverence for tradition.
Defining conservatism is actually very, very, hard. When Frank Meyer asked my old boss to define it for the seminal collection What Is Conservatism? Buckley submitted an essay titled “Notes towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.”
Bill was no shrinking violet philosophically, so it says something that it was like pulling teeth to get him to offer a definition of the cause that animated his life’s work. And yet, at the end of the day, all he could muster were some “notes” towards one.
I think this is because conservatism isn’t a single thing. Indeed, as I have argued before, I think it’s a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.
This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite meditations on conservatism from my friend Yuval Levin:
To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.
Gratitude captures so much of what conservatism is about because it highlights the philosophical difference between (American) conservatism and its foes on the left (and some of its friends among the libertarian camp). The yardstick against which human progress is measured shouldn’t be the sentiments and yearnings that define some unattainable utopian future, but the knowable and real facts of our common past.
So-called liberals love to talk about how much they just want to do “what works,” but it’s amazing how often “what works” doesn’t. Even more remarkable is how the mantra of “what works” is almost always a license to empower the “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.”
In contrast, the conservative belief in “what works” is grounded in reality, not hope.
Gratitude is just one facet of love, which is why conservatism is so inextricably bound up in patriotism. To be patriotic, one must love one’s country for what it is, not what it can be if only the right people are put in charge and allowed to “fundamentally transform” it. We love people for what they are, not what they could be. If you think you love someone or something not for what it is but solely for what it could be, that’s not love, it’s lust.
COMFORT WITH CONTRADICTION
I’ve argued before that conservatism properly understood demands “comfort with contradiction.”
I mean this in the broadest metaphysical sense and the narrowest practical way. Think of any leftish ideology and at its core you will find a faith that circles can be closed, conflicts resolved. Marxism held that in a truly socialist society, contradictions would be destroyed. Freudianism led the Left to the idea that the conflicts between the inner and outer self were the cause of unnecessary repressions. Dewey believed that society could be made whole if we jettisoned dogma and embraced a natural, organic understanding of the society where everyone worked together. This was an Americanized version of a German idea, where concepts of the Volkgeist — spirit of the people — had been elevated to the point where society was seen to have its own separate spirit. All of this comes in big bunches from Hegel who, after all, had his conflicting thesis and antithesis merging into a glorious thesis. (It’s worth noting that Whittaker Chambers said he could not qualify as a conservative — he called himself a “man of the right” — because he could never jettison his faith in the dialectical nature of history.)
Man is flawed. This world is imperfect. Youth is fleeting. Life isn’t fair. Conservatives are comfortable acknowledging all of these things. That doesn’t mean we are complacent or opposed to change. But we are humble about the kinds of change that are possible and grateful for the progress we’ve already achieved.
Liberals love to talk about diversity, but they are constantly at war with any meaningful forms of diversity that conflict with their worldview. As I keep saying, “right-wing” has simply come to mean “non-compliant.”
EVERYONE MARCH IN STEP
Yuval Levin notes that all of Edmund Burke’s metaphors about politics are about space while Thomas Paine’s (the progenitor of American progressivism, according to Levin) are all about movement. This strikes me as a really brilliant insight into the philosophical differences between Left and Right generally. The Left wants us all to march together towards its collective understanding of happiness.
The defining rhetorical trope of Barack Obama’s presidency has been this ancient idea that “we’re all in it together.” This warmed-over moral equivalent of war talk is simply another way of saying that everybody needs to fall in line and follow him to the sunny uplands of History. Here’s Hillary Clinton in her do-over announcement speech last weekend: “President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered.”
No, they didn’t. And while some were no doubt reassured or inspired by FDR, most people showed up for work not for his benefit but for their own.
FREEDOM FOR ME & FREEDOM FOR THEE
Conservatives champion the idea enshrined in our founding document that we have an individual right to pursue happiness. This isn’t mere rhetoric. The pursuit of happiness isn’t possible collectively, because one man’s joy will always be another man’s misery. Similarly, one community’s definition of the good life will necessarily be another’s definition of tyranny. Conservatism — or at least my brand of it — is not only comfortable with this kind of contradiction, it celebrates it.
In my book, conservatism is simply a partial philosophy of life that describes how the system should be set up for humans to flourish within it. That flourishing requires freedom, including the freedom to be wrong. Which reminds me of this line from Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics:
But what I hope I have made clear is that it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity. And, in my opinion, there is more to be learnt about this disposition from Montaigne, Pascal, Hobbes, and Hume than from Burke or Bentham.
WHAT ABOUT THE MARKET?
This points to one of my greatest peeves with the liberal caricature of conservatism. We’re constantly told that conservatives are opposed to change. And, to be sure, we’re opposed to some changes. But conservatives embrace change more passionately and eagerly than liberals ever do in the realm of life that most directly touches the most people: the market. The free market is constantly transforming society in profound ways. And who stands athwart history yelling “Stop” at this unceasing tide of change? The Left. The entire left-wing economic agenda is geared towards slowing or stopping economic change. Just look at their opposition to free trade, Uber, GMOs, fracking, and now driverless cars.
No conservative worth the name would say that every product of the free market has been an advance for humanity, but we understand that a free society isn’t free without a fundamentally free market. Liberals resent the free market and are constantly trying to argue that free enterprise isn’t a freedom like, say, free speech (not that they’ve been too keen on free speech either of late). The reasons for this animosity could fill libraries, but among them is the fact that free markets must generate material inequalities and material egalitarians think that’s a crime. Conservatives are for the most part comfortable with material inequalities — so long as the system that produces them is fair and open — because we understand that’s how life works. Indeed, it’s how life should work. If you put in the work, if you have the great idea, you should do better than someone who doesn’t. We’re comfortable with this contradiction.
Philosophically and psychologically, this fact is offensive to the socialist mind. Philosophically, because it seems unfair. Psychologically, because it is un-fun. In a socialist economy, the socialist intellectuals and bureaucrats have the power (and, truth be told, the wealth). In a free economy, the socialist intellectual is a performance artist and the socialist bureaucrat has to work for a living.
“No political philosopher has ever described a conservative utopia,” Samuel Huntington writes. That’s because there is no such thing as a conservative utopia — because there’s no such thing as a utopia (the very word means “no place”). The socialist cannot accept this and he spends his days arguing that it is better to constantly try to kill the two birds in the bush with one stone than to be grateful for the one bird he already has in his hand.