What is a conservative?

June 25, 2018

We throw around the word “conservative” a lot. Perhaps the term has lost its meaning from overuse and from Leftist abuse of the word. So, what does it actually mean to be a conservative? If you’ve titled yourself a conservative, how would you respond if someone asked you, “What do you mean by that?”

Russel Kirk, a 20th century political theorist and historian, attempted to describe what is meant by the term conservatism, defining it by ten principles. You can find the principles in his book, The Politics of Prudence, or here, but below is a short, paraphrased summary so that you’re ready to go the next time someone asks you to describe conservatism.

1. Conservatives believe in permanent moral truth. Society will fall if it’s based on self-interest or social controls: moral order is needed instead. Even if a nation has a perfect constitution, if the people do not have a sense of right and wrong, a good society will not be possible.

2. Conservatives observe custom and tradition, believing that traditions help people live together in harmony. They believe that such things as order, justice, and freedom come from centuries of trial and error and from people making necessary sacrifices, so we should not be in such a hurry to change the way things are. Some change will obviously be necessary, but it should come about gradually and with discernment—not by radically overthrowing all the customs of the past in such a mad rush that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater!

3. Conservatives do not make decisions based on one person’s private rationality and judgement. Instead, they know the human race has inherited wisdom from previous generations, and it’s important to follow the rights and morals they established. “Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time,” as Kirk expresses.

4. Conservatives are prudent: they don’t rush into sudden and disruptive reforms without weighing the consequences. Unlike liberals, conservatives know that society is complex and there are no simple, quick remedies, so conservatives first think long and hard before trying to change something.

5. Conservatives prefer variety and diversity instead of the “narrowing uniformity” of liberals, as Kirk states. Liberals try to level everyone to the same status; they think “equality” means “sameness,” and thus there can be no authority, no one who has more than someone else, etcetera. In contrast, conservatives realize that people are equal before God and the law, but that does not mean we should have equality of outcome, pay, or class. It’s okay for there to be natural and institutional differences between people, differences in wealth, etcetera.

6. Conservatives are aware that humans will never be perfect while on earth. They know that trying to make a utopia always ends in tragedy. Kirk says the “ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society” have turned the world into a “terrestrial hell.”

7. Conservatives advocate for personal property, for we know it helps protect freedom, teaches responsibility, and helps people stay out of poverty. Keeping the fruits of one’s labor—instead of it being stolen by government—improves culture and society as a whole.

8. Conservatives perceive the vast importance of voluntary community and local governance and do not want a centralized authority to take over the functions and duties of the local community. Living in community is how people learn to love their neighbors, and a nation can only be strong if the numerous little communities throughout the nation are strong.

9. Conservatives restrain power and human passions by using political checks and balances, enforcement of laws, Constitutional restrictions, etcetera. Since human nature is a mix of evil and good, conservatives do not trust someone to always do the right thing. There’s always a possibility power can be used for evil, so no one person, or small group of people, should have a monopoly on power. Limiting and balancing power is the way to go.

10. Conservatives are not against progress and prudent reform. After all, people will stagnate without change. However, conservatives also respect their heritage and history. Progressives think that everything new is automatically superior, but conservatives believe that some of the old is instead superior. Conservativism strives to reconcile and balance both permanence and change.

So, what do you think of Kirk’s ten principles? Are there any other conservative principles that need added to the list? Let us know what you think!

In Service,

Colorado Citizens Coalition

Gary Gates started the non-profit Colorado Citizens Coalition because he has a passion for individual liberty and preserving the Constitution, and it’s a fight he’s engaged in with every facet of his life. He believes a coalition is needed because it takes all of us being actively involved to move our state and country forward. We as citizens must stay informed because We the People are in charge and must hold government accountable. Gary desires to provide Colorado citizens a free resource to get useful information about state government from a conservative perspective.

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