Sunday, April 22, 2007

What is conservatism?

Conservatives got their name because they wanted to conserve important aspects of their own tradition.

What conservatives wanted especially to defend were particular forms of human identity and connectedness. For conservatives, the need for these forms of identity and “relatedness” is an unchanging part of our human nature.

These forms of connectedness include:

- the connection existing between members of an ethnic group based on a shared ancestry, culture, religion, history and language

- our masculine identity as men or feminine identity as women

- our role as fathers and mothers or husbands and wives within a family and our place within a family tradition

- marital love and paternal & maternal love

- our sense of connectedness to nature and our attachment to a particular locality

- a positive sense of our moral nature and of the existence of an objective moral order

Historically, individuals did not create these things for themselves. Instead these forms of connectedness grew in a distinctive way within a particular tradition. This is one reason why conservatives have tended to be strongly traditionalist.


However, from the time of the Renaissance in the 1400s there arose a strong challenge to conservatism, which is best known today as liberalism. Liberalism was based on the idea that the individual should be radically autonomous, so that he could choose to do what he wanted according to his own will and reason, and be able to create himself in any direction without impediments.

Most liberals did not want to radically destroy their own traditions. Unfortunately, the logic of their own first principles (known as liberal individualism) meant that the traditional forms of human identity and connectedness were undermined.

This is because liberals can only accept those things that the individual has chosen for himself. Most forms of human relatedness though are not chosen by the individual. For example:

- We don’t choose our own traditional forms of national or ethnic identity. Instead, we are simply born into them. Therefore liberals have tended to either reject nationalism altogether in favour of internationalism or else they support forms of nationalism, based solely on citizenship, which the individual can choose, or else they support fluid and pluralistic forms of nationalism based on multiculturalism.

- We don’t choose whether we are male or female. Therefore, liberals insist that masculine and feminine behaviour is simply an oppressive and artificial social construct which can be overcome through social engineering. Liberals prefer gender sameness or “androgyny.”

- The actual form of traditional family life, involving a husband, wife and children, was also unchosen. Liberals want to claim that there are many models of family life, and they want very easy divorce laws so that the individual can choose at any time who they will live with. Similarly, liberals don’t want gender based family roles, such as distinctive roles for fathers and mothers, since gender itself is unchosen.

- The existence of a moral order, as expressed through a traditional moral code, also restricts choice for the individual. Therefore, liberals have advanced the idea of a "personal" morality that is chosen by the individual alone and applies only to the individual.

Further differences

There are some typical differences between the way that conservatives and liberals think about things. For instance:

Human nature. Conservatives believe that there exists an essential human nature. This human nature is flawed, having both higher and lower qualities. Our human nature gives a definite direction to our lives. It is a part of the aim of any society, and of every individual, to draw out what is best in our nature, and to repress the worst, a difficult process that might occur over a long period of time.

Liberals, in contrast, want the individual to be created through his own will and reason. They therefore prefer to view the individual as a “blank slate” without any inherent qualities to influence his behaviour or to encourage particular loyalties or forms of association.

A further consequence of this belief in the individual as a “blank slate” is that individuals can theoretically be perfected under the right social conditions. Therefore, liberals have often put great faith in the idea of a human progress to perfection, and in the idea of reforming social conditions as a solution to any social problem.

Progress. Liberals have often believed in the idea of linear progress, which means a constant advance of humanity toward a perfect individual and a perfect society. It is because of this belief that liberals have sometimes been called progressives.

This belief is rarely held so naively these days. However, it is still evident in the fear of liberals in “going back” (to the 1950s etc) and in their enthusiasm for social change, even when the effect of such change is poorly thought through.

Conservatives tend to view societies as rising and falling according to their inner strengths and weaknesses rather than inevitably advancing. Furthermore, conservatives have a more protective attitude to their own tradition, and want to keep it alive for future generations. Therefore, conservatives tend to be more cautious about social change, as they want to know the long term effects that such changes will have on the social fabric.

Equality. Liberals often raise the slogan of equality. By equality, they seem to mean treating people the same, or not discriminating against people.

Conservatives don’t believe in treating people the same for the simple reason that people are different, in their inner natures, in the quality of their beliefs and actions, in their capacities and in the relation in which they stand to each other (for instance, we will usually discriminate in favour of people to whom we are closely related, such as family members).

There is a levelling tendency within liberalism, which denies the distinctions between people and refuses to judge the worth of their actions.

Rationalism. Liberals want people to decide things according to their own individual reason. This has led many liberals to support the idea of rationalism: that we come to our beliefs and knowledge of the world through abstract reason, ie through the analytical intellect, alone.

This belief in rationalism makes it hard for liberals to accept inherited forms of knowledge, and even more importantly, it undermines the position of whatever in life is intangible, in other words, whatever is hard to measure intellectually. How, for instance, can you validate through abstract reason such qualities as love and beauty, or nobility and honour, or whimsy and fancy?

Liberty. Liberals believe that by removing impediments to individual behaviour they are creating ever greater levels of human freedom.

The conservative view is that humans are fundamentally social creatures. Therefore, if we pursue a purely individual freedom to choose anything, we will fail to maintain the social conditions in which we can choose those things that are most important to us.

Varieties of Liberalism

There are two different varieties of liberalism. Left liberals place their focus on social individualism. They resent restrictions on the social behaviour of the individual, and so have sought to deconstruct traditional family life, gender roles, moral codes and so on. They are strongly statist, believing in a high level of government intervention in both society and the economy.

The focus of right liberals is on economic individualism. They tend to see individuals as economic units, and oppose restrictions on the economic activity of the individual or on the operation of capital (such as the movement of labour, or restrictions on investment etc.) Right liberals have often preferred a more limited role for government.

There is also a distinction between radical and gradualist (or mainstream) forms of liberalism. Radicals want to rapidly push liberal individualism to its logical conclusions, and are sometimes willing to use violent means to achieve their aims, whereas gradualists tend to work peacefully within the system and only want to take liberals principles one step at a time.

How do these distinctions work out in practice? Left liberalism is strongest amongst government employees like public servants and teachers. It is also well represented in the mainstream media, in the churches, and at universities. Left liberals have considerable influence politically through parties like the Australian Labor Party, the British Labor Party and the American Democrats.

Radical left liberalism is represented by movements like the anarchists, the communists, and the radical wings of the feminist and animal rights movements. It draws much of its support from the intelligentsia.

Right liberalism is supported by big business and the commercial classes. It is much more poorly represented intellectually than left liberalism, but has considerable political influence through its ownership of the mass media and through political parties like the Australian Liberal Party, the British Conservative Party and the American Republicans.

There is a more radical form of right liberalism called libertarianism. This movement is stronger in the US than Australia. Libertarians are often uncompromising in opposing the role of government in society and in their admiration for individual economic enterprise.

The realities of electoral politics have somewhat blurred the distinctions between mainstream left and right political parties. To achieve the necessary support to win office, the Australian Labor Party has been willing to adopt some right liberal policies, such as economic deregulation, whereas the Liberal Party has been willing to accept higher levels of taxation to maintain government social programmes.

Conservatism in Modern Society

Conservatism is sometimes wrongly seen to be an establishment philosophy. In fact, the establishment in all Western societies has for a long time been dominated by liberalism.

It is true that right liberal parties, like the Australian Liberal Party, are sometimes described as being conservative. However, there is at best a conservative tinge to a particular section of these parties.

The right liberal parties are “conservative” only in the sense that they sometimes object to new liberal measures introduced by the left liberal parties. Once implemented, though, they are usually content to carry forward the new programmes. Similarly, they might be “conservative” in being more concerned to carefully manage the process of social change. They rarely object though to the fundamental direction of the change.

In short, there is little principled or substantive conservatism within the right liberal parties, and certainly nothing that can withstand the primary emphasis in these parties on economic liberalism.

If genuine conservatism has had any influence in recent times it is because conservative values are still held to some degree by the general public. Populist conservatism, though, will not succeed by itself. It’s important also to have people who can present conservatism in a clear and consistent way as an alternative to the current liberal orthodoxy.

(First published 2002)


  1. This is a good life to the full now at everyone else's expense so long as you enjoy yourself and nobody really gets hurt, then society can pay the price later. Which is what we are all witnessing now.

    Not a lot of thought given to this logic, except hedonistic ones!

    Boy oh boy, have we conservatives taken our eyes off the ball or what!


  2. Very nice summary.

    Sadly, if you ignore the "bleeding heart" crowd, our choice of political philosophy is almost completely influenced by class/race and economic situation, rather than rational analysis. For example, I've had friends say that everyone they know turns libertarian after they've made some money. Kind of proves the conservative view on human nature. But it ensures that many have little motivation to support the conservative position.

    A transformation to local government is the best hope for conservatives, something libertarians would support. A strong federal government is our own worst enemy.