What Is A Conservative?

July 3, 2017

When American voters hear someone identify as “conservative,” too often they think it means the same thing as “Republican.” Or, slightly better, they remember a few conservative political issues with which they may agree or disagree.

But conservatism is so much more than a political party or a list of policy goals.

Conservatism is a risk-averse strategy to promote human flourishing and protect human liberty. That means conservatives use the rule of law to protect Western values.

Let’s break that statement down into small parts, because each of them is critically important.

First, we’ll look at the use of prudence in the conservative process — our strategy for governing well and achieving our goals. Next, we’ll examine conservative values — human flourishing, human liberty, a rule of law, and Western values. These are the end goals of our conservative process.

Conservatism is risk-averse: it exercises caution and prudence

Conservatives believe that each generation can learn from history. In that way, conservatives reject what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” — the arrogant belief that any idea today is inherently better than ideas expressed in the past.

After all, today’s social institutions today combine the ideas and experiences of many generations before us. Sir Edmund Burke, a famous member of the British Parliament, described this conservative mindset as appreciating wisdom distilled through the ages. So conservatives are skeptical when progressives suggest we immediately chuck overboard all of society’s traditions and ideas.

But that doesn’t mean conservatives oppose new ideas or mindlessly cling to old habits. In fact, as one of the earliest modern conservatives, Burke stood nearly alone in Parliament defending the American colonies in their bold new quest for independence. Instead, conservatives are simply skeptical of radicalism, because we know that far too often it ends in radical pain.

Why is conservatism risk averse? Because wise governments minimize the chance of inflicting radical pain on the people.

Humans learn from experience, and society changes slowly as leaders learn from those experiences. That process informs our understanding of what political policies promote human flourishing. Radicals break fully from the lessons of history, and pursue foolish ideas without benefit of experience. Too often, their untested ideas lead to destruction, poverty, and misery.

Conservatives’ skepticism of change may hamper their public image more than any other attributes of their ideology. Some people perceive caution as a sign of stick-in-the-mud right wing voters, and that could influence the age gap between conservatives and progressives. Sometimes trouble is self-inflicted. William F. Buckley, Jr. was perhaps most responsible for popularizing conservatism in the 20th century, and he famously said his magazine would “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop!’”

Despite Buckley’s good intentions, the Conservative Institute plans to do much more than that. Just as past generations had good ideas, so do many thinkers and reformers today. Many of history’s greatest evils, such as racial segregation and prejudice, only ended because reformers challenged dangerous traditions.

As a result, we fully embrace a conservative legacy of prudence. Conservatives consider new ideas on their merits, mindful that radicalism often ends in destruction — be it at the hands of Marxists in Latin America or Jacobins in France.

On that note, we can conclude our discussion of the conservative process with one last lesson from Burke. When revolution broke out in France in 1789, many people assumed Burke would offer the same support to French revolutionaries that he had offered to Americans. But he knew better.

Not all revolutions are created equally: the Americans wanted self-government and protection of rights, the French wanted chaos and revenge.

History vindicated Burke’s decision to distinguish between the two wars. The American revolution ended with a new republican form of government; the French revolution ended with the guillotine and Robespierre’s reign of terror.

Conservatives today must offer the same measure of prudence.

Conservatives promote human flourishing

Turning from conservative process to conservative values, we ask how politicians can give people the freedom and opportunity to live a flourishing life. Some of the most dangerous policies come from the best intentions. But conservatives have the proper view of human nature, and that allows us to offer the policy prescriptions that can truly help people live better lives.

Research from Arthur Brooks shows four major factors, outside of genetics, that determine human happiness: faith, family, community, and meaningful work.

Interestingly, conservatives are very happy. Conservative women, in particular, are happier than both conservative men and liberal women. That doesn’t mean being conservative automatically causes happiness, but it does reflect that the real drivers of human flourishing are outside the control of the government. They understand the four factors Brooks identified in a happiness portfolio. Effective public policy should emphasize these values and promote their adoption.

Dr. Brooks explains that “the happiness rewards from work are not from the money, but from the value created in our lives and the lives of others… what we call earned success.” Conservatives fundamentally believe in this principle, and want lawmakers to create more opportunity for people to discover this happiness.

In America, a proper appreciation for human flourishing has always been a defining feature of our country.

As Senator Ben Sasse likes to point out, when the great French political scientist Alexis DeTocqueville visited the United States to write his 1835 classic Democracy in America, he reported that he found the key to American civil society. And that key was not Washington. Nor was it even local governments.

Tocqueville concluded that American greatness came from civic associations — non-governmental community institutions. Churches, civic societies, families, rotary clubs — these institutions are the glue holding American lives together, in good times and bad. Our social cohesion does not come from a shared need for government programs.

In short, a key difference between modern liberals and conservatives is that conservatives understand the value in middle layers of society.

These middle layers are often called “mediating institutions,” referring to the institutions standing between the individual and the government. Think about all the organizations, charities, religious groups, and causes of which you’re a member, but to whom you do not pay taxes.

Doesn’t everyone believe in those institutions? To some degree. But in a 2012 campaign speech to union workers, President Obama revealed how the modern left approaches this mindset differently. President Obama passionately declared:

Looking out for one another — that’s a value. The idea that we are all in it together — that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper — that is a value.

How does a conservative respond? By asking why we need the national government to help us be our brother’s keeper.

Because we believe in the power and greatness of families, houses of worship, and community organizations, we don’t need to politicize everything. To the modern liberal, every problem demands a government response. What happens then to our public policy?

The political left offers utopian, heaven-on-earth schemes to fill the void that can only be filled by society’s mediating institutions.

Conservatives protect human liberty

In addition to robbing Americans of the human flourishing that only comes from real relationships with their fellow citizens, these schemes also rest on the need for government power. Because progressives are utopian, they believe lawmakers, judges, and bureaucrats will exercise their power effectively to help people.

But because conservatives have a proper view of imperfect human nature, we understand that faith is misplaced when in the hands of individuals entrusted with unlimited power and unaccountable authority.

To remedy that concern, our founding fathers structured a government of limited powers, powers that James Madison famously described as “few and defined.”

Then to avoid what Madison called the “accumulation of powers” in the hands of one person or branch of government, the Constitution separated powers between different branches of government.

As an opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1983:

The principle of separation of powers was not simply an abstract generalization in the minds of the Framers: it was woven into the documents that they drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

These limits on the power and scope of government reflect a conservative skepticism about unchecked authority. To conservatives, then, the government must be strong, but narrowly confined in scope. As the old aphorism says, a government big enough to give you anything you want is also big enough to take everything away.

The best use of government, by contrast, is to protect the liberty of the people. Human rights are innate in our nature, whether or not a government recognizes them. In the words of our Declaration of Independence, all people are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” — rights that came from God, not from the state. First came rights, then came government.

The government cannot give you rights, and it cannot take them away. It cannot give you dignity, and it cannot deny your dignity. It can only choose whether or not to protect those rights and recognize that dignity.

The progressive alternative to this conservative vision is statism. The government decides — based on prevailing social trends — whether you have a right to life, a right to self-defense, a right to make a living, a right to the fruits of your own labor.

Progressives believe that a few intellectuals in society should make major choices in the lives of others. In their system, you cede some liberty to the state in exchange for well-intended regulations and programs.

But as Nobel-prize winning economist F.A. Hayek effectively argued, they run into a knowledge problem: no one person or government agency has enough information to centrally plan the lives of others.

Fifty years ago, families in the Soviet Union starved because central planners tried to regulate agriculture. Today, people are homeless because progressives over-regulated housing, people are unemployed because progressives mandated higher wages, people are trapped in generational poverty because progressive entitlements punished them for working, and people lack health coverage because progressives mandated too many expensive provisions.

Human flourishing and human liberty go hand-in-hand. Only conservatives still defend that basic truth. And they mount that defense on the rule of law, holding all citizens to the same standard of justice.

Conservatives protect Western values with the rule of law

A defining feature of flourishing societies is a rule of law, meaning a universal and publicly-understood standard to which all citizens are held. Corrupt societies allow “kangaroo courts” to administer justice by cronyism and bribery, while tyrannical states allow punishment for anything the government finds offensive.

Free societies, by contrast, embrace the concept John Adams wrote into the 1780 Massachusetts Bill of Rights, calling for “a government of laws, not of men.”

In our republican form of government, the Constitution structurally limits the power of the federal government to a few discreet tasks. The Bill of Rights, coupled with the Fourteenth Amendment, limits the power of state governments to violate our human rights.

Modern progressives move away from the rule of law when they empower administrative agencies to write, enforce, and adjudicate their own rules — all with no input from the people or the Constitution.

We also undermine the rule of law when judges decide cases not on the text of a law or original meaning of the Constitution, but rather on their own “moral reading” of a living document. If judges believe the Constitution’s meaning evolves or changes with popular opinion, then it can no longer uphold the rule of law by protecting unpopular minorities against majority preferences, if popular opinion turns against those minorities.

Consequently, conservatives achieve our policy goals through the legislative process, and through robustly enforcing the text of the Constitution in the courts.

What are those policy goals? In subsequent papers from CI, we will explore the implications of this conservative worldview on today’s hot-button issues, from economics to sociology.

In every instance, the Conservative Institute defends the values of Western Civilization that protect individual rights and promote human flourishing. Be sure to subscribe to CI – you can sign up for the newsletter below – to hear the latest in conservative news and analysis on these issues.


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Shaun Connell

Shaun Connell is the founder of both the Conservative Institute and the Strong Society.