Recently I was asked to explain what demarcates conservatism as a political philosophy from other political philosophies. As a disclaimer, I must admit that I am not a conservative. This is not a defense of conservatism. Nor is it an attack on conservatism. I find that the best way to evaluate a political philosophy is to catalog it as accurately and objectively as possible before deciding whether I agree with it wholesale or not, and to what extent I might accept some of its claims.
When I take a cold hard look at conservatism, I can identify what we might think of as two sets of markers we can ascribe to conservatives. One is necessary for conservatism and the other is sufficient for it, though accidental rather than necessary. The first is the set of philosophical assumptions, and the second is the set of policies.
Let’s take a look at the philosophical assumptions first. Conservatism has a few lines of thought within it which are needed to reach the sorts of conclusions they generally reach, at least in any kind of coherent fashion. These are not always explicitly stated.
- We are not any better than our ancestors in an innate sense because human nature is more invariant than malleable, and thus their experiences and practices do not deserve an out-of-hand dismissal.
- We should respect very highly what has been handed down to us by our ancestors and thus should not change or destroy it without grave cause.
- We should prefer tried and tested ideas and practices which have their problems over untried and untested ideas and practices which may or may not solve them and probably will have unexpected problems of their own.
- We should be guided by the evidence of history rather than by pure reason in our decision-making.
Of course, this approach doesn’t get us to any particular policy platform. For that, we need a baseline rooted in a particular society. One of the difficulties inherent in identifying conservatives (or progressives, for that matter) with any specific policy perspective in the abstract is that their political philosophy does not exist in the purely abstract realm. It exists in concrete societies relative to a baseline in that society. Conservatives in a matriarchal culture would be loathe to give up their matriarchal social structures. Conservatives in a society which had historically valued the arts and farming over heavy industry and hunting would be loathe to give up their culture of arts and farming. Conservatives in a society which was profoundly multicultural and integrated would be loathe to switch to policies of segregation and monoculture.
If you really want to understand conservatives, my suggestion is to look to the principles underlying their perspective and understand those prior to evaluating whether or not you like it. Understanding their principles before performing the evaluation makes it a lot less likely that you will evaluate them incorrectly and assign views you don’t like to them over-broadly because they happen to disagree with you substantially on many issues in a particular time and place.
Not to mention that even in this particular time and place, conservatives vary considerably in their views as to where the baseline is located and what is most worth conserving. The typical difference in views between conservatives in their 20s and conservatives in their 60s serves to illustrate that quite well. Also, consider that what is conservative in one nation is not infrequently progressive in another. What is conservative for one generation is not infrequently unthinkable and terrifying for another.
Related: Is conservatism nationalistic and authoritarian?
Certainly, in various times and places conservatives have been quite nationalistic and authoritarian. I could say the same of many of their ideological opponents on the economic left and be empirically justified in doing so. It’s demonstrably the case that socialists have tended towards authoritarianism and nationalism as well. Even progressives in the U.S. are quite authoritarian, though they tend to be authoritarian on issues which are different from those on which conservatives tend to be authoritarian.
For example, contemporary conservatives tend towards authoritarianism partially because of their respect for existing social structures which are currently fairly authoritarian. (Those being increasingly authoritarian because of paternalism in both the progressive and conservative movements in recent history, perhaps being exacerbated by demographic trends.) In a society that was more libertarian, conservatives would be reluctant to abandon those libertarian modes of thought and practice. There is a fairly strong correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism, but that’s mostly because the majority of societies have a fair bit of authoritarianism already in them. There is nothing inherent in conservative principles which would favor authoritarianism, which we can easily see if we simply change the baseline set of ideas and practices from which they judge other ideas and practices.
And that’s useful to note in a world where that baseline can and does change fairly quickly due to globalization.
Related: Do conservatives oppose change?
A lot people seem to think that conservatives are simply opposed to change. This is not the case, though it is an understandable conclusion given how the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism tends to influence conservative policy positions.
Let’s consider an example. We’ll look at a conservative living in a small town where the policies of the town are decided in town hall meetings. The facilitator of the meeting is selected randomly from names drawn out of a hat each month in the interest of fairness. Each person attending the meeting has one vote, and those votes each count equally. Because the facilitator of the meeting changes quite often and can have a very different personality and style, the meetings can be quite different each time. Because the decision-making process is consensus-based and folks are notoriously reactive and irrational, the conservative will probably observe some drastic changes during his life in that town with regard to specific policies. Because the conservative is acclimated to this frequent change and accepts it as the valid tradition of the town, this frequent change is not a particular problem. In fact, the conservative would probably be distinctly uncomfortable if the town suddenly got rid of the vibrant town hall meetings and just had a mayor making all the decisions. He or she would not understand why we need to do away with a perfectly good and lively way of handling the town business.
On a more basic level, consider a person who makes a different dish for lunch each day of the month. This variety is part of their tradition. To have the same dish for lunch every day of a given week would be a serious disruption in that tradition.
When change is part of the baseline, a conservative is unlikely to account it a change in a negative sense precisely because it is part of the baseline from which other ideas and practices are judged. This is why conservatives can favor market capitalism, an economic approach which tends to promote change. This is why conservatives can favor changing laws to make them stronger in penalizing certain crimes. This is why conservatives can favor reducing the size of the Federal government in the U.S.