What Is (Are) Conservatism?

Judging by the recent election, we may hope that the nation is recovering from its posttraumatic stress disorder. Or to look at it another way, we are awakening from a six-year sleep punctuated by nightmares. More and more of us realize that the Bush administration is merely a deplorable aberration, born of arrogance and nourished by stupidity. From the start it was obviously not liberal, and conservatives are realizing as time goes on that it is not conservative either.

Like many disasters, Bushism focuses the mind. The current administration shows us the wrong path, and sweeping away the intellectual and moral trash generated by Bushism will provide both conservatives and liberals with a negative example that defines the right path by way of contrast. Conservatives in particular have a unique opportunity to define themselves and to find where they have common ground with liberals. But before we can contemplate these questions, we need a clear understanding of what conservatism is.

What is conservatism? It turns out that there is not one answer to this question, but many. The answers sort themselves into two levels. We find particular political positions or policies that qualify as conservative; and on a deeper level we find the underlying viewpoints - the various forms of conservatism- that serve as the foundations of these political positions.
Conservative political positions.

Here is my list of the specific positions that are labeled "conservative."

--for small government (and lower taxes; "fiscal responsibility"); generally against "social engineering."

--for free markets and capitalism (related to small government).

-- for a strong, assertive (possibly aggressive) and unilateralist foreign policy.

-- willing to suffer inequalities gladly.

-- emphasizing individual responsibility..

-- for government imposition of moral/religious values ("social conservatism").
Basic viewpoints

Here are the various forms of conservatism - the basic viewpoints or principles that underlie the above positions - as found in history and present-day discussion. They are presented in no particular order.

--ORGANIC CONSERVATISM: On this view, society or the state is seen as one entity, one organism, of which individual humans are merely parts. The purpose of government is to achieve a unified, healthy and vital social organism.

One of the best-known representatives of this viewpoint is Plato, who in the Republic compares the state to a statue. In a statue, one part (e.g., the face) may be exquisitely fashioned, while another part (e.g. the feet) may be crudely portrayed. This arrangement is necessary in order to achieve the proper purpose of the statue as a whole. Likewise, each citizen must perform his or her proper function for the good of the whole, and if that means that some are more privileged than others, so be it. Individuals have no more right to complain about the benefits they receive, or lack of them, than do the parts of a statue

Currently organic conservatism as such receives little attention, but traces of it are heard of from time to time. For example, one of the arguments against illegal immigration, or against public authorization of the Spanish language, is that it would produce a mass of alienated individuals, thus destroying the unity of society.

TRADITIONALIST CONSERVATISM: On this view, government should adhere to the predominant traditions of society.

The leading representative of this view is Edmund Burke, English Parliamentarian and philosopher. He holds that human beings and human societies are extremely complex and difficult to understand. Any effort to improve them on a basic level is apt to be harmful rather than beneficial (the law of unintended consequences). Therefore the wise course is to adhere to what has worked in the past - tradition - modifying it slowly and carefully or leaving tradition alone to evolve by itself.

This also is rarely asserted as a general viewpoint, though we can see it, for example, in some of the arguments that were asserted against school integration programs.

LIBERTARIAN CONSERVATISM: The Libertarian philosophy asserts that government should confine itself to the absolute minimal function of safeguarding the lives and property of individuals. Everything else is to be done privately, by agreement among citizens. For the government to do more would be to violate the rights of the citizens. (For example, to levy taxes for any purpose beyond maintaining a police force - e.g. for the purpose of aiding the poor - would violate the rights of those who are taxed.) In other words, Libertarians take seriously the view that the best government is the least government.

To be clear, we should apply the term "libertarian-on-principle" to the view I have just described, for many writers and politicians have argued for restricted government without asserting it as a matter of principle or inherent rights. Rather, they argue for restricted government on pragmatic grounds, on the grounds that restricted government can best do the job. This viewpoint is discussed below.

PERSONAL-DIGNITY CONSERVATISM: This is the view that a person's dignity, and the value of his (or her) life consists largely in the fact that he is independent and does not need help from others. The ideal, in other words, is the person who stands alone. Conversely, this view downplays the obligation of one individual (and by extension, of the government) to come to the aid of another - for the person's moral standing rests on what he does for himself, not what he does for others. (But note that we are concerned here with personal or governmental obligation, not with freely-given charity.)

This view is implicit in many arguments concerning welfare programs and the like, though not often stated explicitly. We find an explicit expression, however, in Richard Nixon's motto, "Ask not what the government can do for you, but what you can do for yourself."

RELIGIOUS-MANDATE CONSERVATISM: On this view, the proper function of government is to impose the doctrines of the true - that is, dominant - religion.

This viewpoint was universally accepted without question for many centuries in most or all Christian nations. To give the most prominent and notorious example, the government in medieval Spain and other countries cooperated in running the Inquisition. (And this viewpoint is still in control in some Muslim countries, as we know, only for the sake of a different religion.)

More innocent versions of religious-mandate conservatism show up in the call for school prayer and in the insertion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. In the case of opposition to abortion and opposition to stem-cell research, it is reflected in the premise that embryos are persons.

PRAGMATIC CONSERVATISM: This is the viewpoint that argues for conservative positions - most prominently for small government or the free market - on the grounds that these positions achieve the best results in the circumstances at hand. (Of course this raises the question as to what kinds of results are to be achieved.) Like pragmatism in general, this is a flexible position, open to adopting different stances in different circumstances on a case-by-case basis. For example, pragmatic conservatives might argue in favor of school vouchers not by arguing that public schools violate citizens' rights (as Libertarians do) but on the grounds that private schools perform better. At the same time, they might be perfectly happy, on the same grounds, to see government maintain the city streets.

This brings up the distinction between two meanings of "small government." In one sense, it means that government doesn't undertake programs that involve costs to the taxpayer or that intrude on individual (or corporate) freedom. To favor small government in this sense means opposing Social Security, for example, or environmental restrictions. In a second sense, "small government" means that government doesn't actually operate programs, though it pays for them - for example, the city government farms out garbage collection to private firms. Pragmatic conservatives can be for small government in both senses; but it is also perfectly consistent for them to favor small government in the second sense (letting private companies do the actual work), while favoring larger government in the first sense (public expenditure for such programs.)

MANICHEAN CONSERVATISM: Manicheanism is the religious or philosophical position holding that the universe is inescapably divided between good and evil, and that the proper course of action is to struggle on behalf of the good to overpower the evil - persuasion, compromise, or negotiation being irrelevant or obstructive. (Sound familiar?)

I hesitated to include Manichean Conservatism in this list, because it is SO representative of Bushism. However, some conservatives not necessarily connected with Bush also have expressed this viewpoint.

PESSIMISTIC-AUTHORITARIAN CONSERVATISM: On this viewpoint, human nature is aggressive, self-seeking and undisciplined. Therefore strong authorities are required to keep individual tendencies in check - both tendencies to be aggressive toward others and tendencies to be self-indulgent toward one's lower nature (through drug use, for example). Permissiveness is a prime social evil. "Family values" may be seen as a means of exerting authority.

As you can see, these viewpoints are not totally exclusive - to give one example, the organic and the religious-mandate versions can co-exist. However, some of the viewpoints do conflict with one another -- e.g. the Libertarian and the Religious-mandate.

By now you may wonder why these disparate viewpoints have all been termed "conservative." A good question. It may be that they all represent some form of restraint on the individual or the government - i.e. they are all conservative in the broadest, non-political sense of the term. Or it may be that the all have a common enemy, namely, liberalism, and are united in their opposition. (More recently, liberals have united in opposition to Bush, and we may find ourselves examining liberalism to distinguish its various forms. But that's for another day.)

Please keep in mind that these lists are not the final word. Feel free to assemble your own.

How do they fit together?

Let's look at a sampling of conservative political positions or policies to see what basic viewpoints they might, or might not, be derived from:

SMALL GOVERNMENT AND FISCAL CONSERVATISM: This is certainly implied by the Libertarian viewpoint and likewise by the Personal-dignity viewpoint.

Other viewpoints might prescribe small government or not, depending on the circumstances. These include: Pragmatic (Are best results achieved by small government, or large?); Traditionalist (Does tradition prescribe small government or not?); and Organic (What kind of government is required to achieve the health and vitality of society?)

FREE MARKETS AND CAPITALISM: Similar to small government, with the possible exception of the Personal-dignity viewpoint. (In a discussion group some years ago there was an interesting debate illustrating this point. The subject was the minimum wage. One of the participants was a dyed-in-the-wool union man. He claimed that the wage-earner's dignity rests on achieving a decent wage, even if - or especially if - this wage is mandated by the government. The other participant was a conservative. She asserted that it is up to an individual to maintain her own dignity through her attitude toward the world.)

GOVERNMENT IMPOSITION OF VALUES: This is obviously justified by the Religious-mandate view. It is just as obviously contradicted by the Libertarian view.

The Traditionalist view might well support this position. Likewise for the Manichean view, on the grounds that imposing the right values is a blow against evil.

The Pragmatic viewpoint might or might not support this position, depending on whether imposition of values best achieves the results that the conservative is aiming for. Similarly the Organic viewpoint might favor imposition of values on the premise that common values promote a unified society, but on the other hand it might condemn imposition of values on the grounds that it would foster discord.

This sampling shows that the various forms of conservatism don't all run in the same direction. A given policy might be supported by two or more of them, but it's equally likely that a policy will be supported by one and contradicted by another. And in many cases, whether a policy is supported by a given viewpoint or not will depend on the circumstances.

So when a conservative policy is being argued, ask what principle - what basic position - it is based on. Then consider whether that principle is acceptable and whether the policy being put forth really follows from the principle. Think about it.

In the next issue I will take the further step of asking which forms of conservatism are those that liberals and moderates can profitably deal with.

Eternal Vigilance Note: Keep on the Trail of Voting Machines

We are all grateful that no major scandals appeared in the last election, but that does not mean we can rest easy. In Florida (surprise!) 18,000 votes mysteriously went AWOL. Is this the tip of the iceberg? If so, let's hope we can deal with the iceberg before we again have that sinking feeling.

The apparent, but unproven, loss of 18,000 votes shows how helpless we are without a way of knowing if and how the wrong totals have been delivered. And the documentary Hacking Democracy (first seen on HBO) offers proof that fraud is all too possible. To use voting machines without a paper trail is as unacceptable as it is incredible.

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 2, Issue 24, Posted 2:02 PM, 11.20.06