Yesterday I heard someone make some sweeping, derogatory generalizations about conservatives. These comments received a positive reception from others nearby. The speaker derided conservatives for “never wanting to innovate or change.”
Basically, the comments were the same stereotypes that conservatives are bludgeoned with every day.
As an educator and a conservative myself, this saddened me. I was reminded of the research that shows that conservatives understand liberal ideas far better than liberals understand conservative ideas. It’s a natural situation these days that people would find themselves ignorant of political beliefs that disagree with what’s most popular, but I still think it’s a shame and I’d like to help correct it.
I don’t want to discuss our differences in terms of hot-button issues. Ultimately, our opposing stances on both controversial and mundane topics stem not from some arbitrary decision to take alternate sides, but from the foundational values that animate our respective worldviews.
Policy positions aren’t important. Permanent principles are.
For a primer on conservative principles, one could do worse than this list by Russell Kirk. He explains a great set of principles that should be eye opening to anyone.
As a brief introduction, though, just think about the term conservative. Our highest value is right there: conservation. “To conserve” means “to save, to protect, or to keep.” So what are conservatives trying to conserve?
Whatever has been best in the civilizations of history. Whatever has been proven effective by experience. Whatever, finally, serves to ennoble and empower life.
I hope we can agree that most things about the world of America in the 21st century are good. We might disagree about what some of those things are, but certainly there are plenty of things worth saving.
(Another irony here: considering how successful liberalism has been for decades now, you also have a large heritage that you may wish to “conserve:” welfare programs, abortion laws, the Department of Education, Obamacare, etc. add up to such a large part of the current landscape that one could argue you’re trying to be more “conservative” than we are!)
To paraphrase something the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Will Durant said in his excellent book The Lessons of History, a society is like a tree: the roots are our past and the branches are our future. Yes, we need to cultivate and cherish the branches, for they are the product of our previous efforts, but if we cut off the roots, the whole tree will die. A gardener’s top priority must be protecting the roots. Such is the call of the conservative.
Thus, our charter document in the modern world, the US Constitution, exists to define a framework based on the successes of the past–Greece and Rome, largely–with some innovation added. Indeed, the Constitution itself embraces change: it includes regulations for the expediency of being occasionally updated, via the amendment process.
Sometimes people complain that for government to do anything, though, an inordinate amount of time must be spent trying to get disparate segments to cooperate and work together through an excruciating maze of hurdles.
But that’s exactly the point. The Founders knew the value of their achievement, and they wanted it preserved from the any whims. Change is possible–sometimes necessary–but it must be focused by processes which to the best of our ability ensure that it is wise.
One of my favorite stories, “Harrison Bergeron,” (by Kurt Vonnegut who, ironically, was a socialist), lampoons the excesses of liberalism run amok. In the first paragraph, we see the satirical note that the progressive utopia it describes was created by 213 amendments to the Constitution.
In actuality, today, we have 27 such amendments. That’s 27 minor revisions to our guiding charter in more than 200 years.
The point should be clear. By saying that 213 amendments were needed to finally “perfect” the world, Vonnegut tells us that frequent, easy change isn’t as likely to lead to progress as it is to create a totalitarian, bureaucratic, micro-managing nightmare.
Liberals, especially young liberals, often seem to worship change. Cooler heads understand that rash reactions to any zeitgeist will usually cause more harm than good.
That’s why in court cases, the party seeking a change–the prosecution or the plaintiff–has the burden of proof. It only makes sense in a rational, free society to favor the existing situation. Yes, we’re open to change, but those seeking change are expected to demonstrate that the current situation is untenable and that the proposed change will lead to more favorable results.
The comments I heard yesterday repeated a canard that I’ve heard many times: conservatives are slaves to the status quo of the rich and powerful; they just want to go back in time to “the good old days.” Hardly. (When Will Durant, the historian cited above, was asked when and where in history he’d most want to live, he replied here and now, because we have what no one else has ever had: access to the total accumulated achievements of human history. I’m inclined to agree.)
We do acknowledge, however, that a lot of great things have been produced throughout history, and we’d like to base any approach to public life on a commitment not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Doesn’t that just make sense?
So far, this has merely been a defense against a single erroneous critique of conservatism, but there is much more to be said to explicate it for what it is: a dynamic, enlightened system of thought that maximizes the quality of life for as many people as possible.
For another quick example, consider this philosophical difference between conservatives and liberals: while liberals often promote policies that favor income redistribution, heavier relative tax burdens on the wealthy, and higher mandated wages, conservatives tend to oppose those all and favor free-market solutions. Is that because conservatives are trying to keep the rich people rich and the poor people poor? Not at all. We honestly believe that our principles will do the the most good for the most people.
Liberals’ economic beliefs seem derived from a vision of the world as a closed system: there are only so many resources, and the rich have most of them–we have to take some of those and give them to those who have been kept away from them.
Conservatives see the world more like an open system: Human ingenuity can create more resources, without limits! Follow the principles that created this success and you’ll be surprised by how much more is out there!
You may disagree that this an effective strategy, but please at least be honest that this is what we believe. It does nobody any good to dehumanize others by labeling them as one-dimensional villains.
When conservatives oppose sprawling government programs and minute regulations on commerce and civic life, is it because we don’t care about charity and safety? No, it’s because we know that there are more effective ways to channel the power of humanity into success than by infantalizing us.
Truly, one of the great ironies of our flawed discourse is this: while too many liberals dismiss conservatism in ignorance, we conservatives know that it is our principles that would most effectively realize your liberal goals in the real world. Seriously!
If any of this has been helpful in clearing up misconceptions, would you also consider getting to know conservative thought on a more regular basis? Nobody’s asking you to vote Republican! Just expand your reading with an open mind.
My favorite book on contemporary conservative thought is David Mamet‘s The Secret Knowledge. Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, only recently found himself an intellectual convert to conservatism and, as such, he’s an ideal figure to introduce it to the skeptical but curious mind. Highly recommended.
Of course, the Wall Street Journal opinion page is a great resource for general conservative thought.
For conservative views on the arts, subscribe to the Prufrock newsletter.
For quick summaries of current news and views with loads of links, check out Instapundit.
Thanks for reading this. I look forward to more productive dialogues with you in the future, informed by an accurate understanding of each other.