What is Conservatism?
To the socialist, man is an imperfect being who can be perfected via force. To the liberal, he is an imperfect being who can be perfected via consent. To the conservative, man is a tragedy.
In contrast to such isms as socialism, liberalism and nationalism, conservatism is not so much an ideology as it is a disposition; an attitude of mind. This makes conservatism all the more difficult to define, for in the absence of concrete doctrine one is left wondering what it all stands for. But it is this very lack of an ideological underpinning that explains the resilience of the disposition in question. "Conservatism," explains Andrew Heywood, "has prospered because it has been unwilling to be tied down to a fixed system of ideas."
That said, it is possible to identify themes and tenets that unite all conservatives. Writing in his Dictionary of Political Thought, the philosopher Roger Scruton provides a broad definition of conservatism from which we will build upon:
[Conservatism is] the social and political outlook that embodies a desire to conserve existing things, held to be either good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives, or at least safe, familiar, and the objects of trust and affection.
First, conservatism entails suspicion of change. This attitude is contained within the very term: to "conserve" implies the desire to maintain the status quo in the face of reform. Thus, it is unsurprising that conservatism emerged in reaction to the outbreak of that titanic event in the history of man, the French Revolution of 1789. The classic articulation of conservative thought was provided by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which rebuked the French Revolutionaries for attempting to overturn the ancien regime and replace it with an order of their own design. With almost prophetic power, Burke predicted that the Revolution would end in terror, since in the absence of traditional institutions there would be but nought to assuage the passions of men.
However, it is not the case that conservatism constitutes blind opposition to change. To the contrary, that which Burke advocated for was "change in order to conserve". Hence it was that Burke sympathised with the earlier cause of the American colonists, for theirs was the attempt not so much to create a new order as to recover old rights. As Robin Harris puts it:
A conservative is, by definition, at least theoretically speaking, not a reactionary. He plans not to return to the past but to shape the future without losing sight of what is and what has been.
Conservatives appreciate the inevitability of change, but they also appreciate the need to moderate it, lest the boat that is society finds itself cut adrift from its anchors, to borrow Burke's analogy.
Second, and following as a corollary to the first point, conservatism favours the known over the unknown. By definition, the unknown has yet to be tested whereas that which is known has the advantage of its benefits and flaws being manifest to all. Revolutions are all leaps into the unknown. They overturn the existing social order in favour of one yet to be born and therein lies their fatal flaw. Conservatives look upon society as it exists now as an achievement in its own right and certainly, despite its flaws, as being preferable to any pre-social or post-social state of nature.
It comes as no surprise, then, that conservatives look upon society as a fragile order. Societies take many centuries to form and mature but they are obliterated by revolutions in the blink of an eye. Hence conservative opposition to attempts by men to alter society; such alterations risk destroying the structure altogether, regardless of whether or not that was the intention. Society and all its institutions can be likened more to woven fabric than to a sheet of metal. The woven fabric of society is maintained via the operation of laws beyond both the rationalisation and control of man, limited as he is. To work against said laws is to imperil both oneself and one's society. As the political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau puts in Politics Among Nations:
The world, imperfect as it is from the rational point of view, is the result of forces inherent in human nature. To improve the world one must work with those forces, not against them.
Third, the conservative suspicion of change and their preference for the known over the unknown leads them to a defence of tradition. Tradition, Heywood explains, refers to the "values, practices or institutions that have endured through time and, in particular, been passed down from one generation to the next." Crucially, conservatives believe that longevity of an institution is a testament to the virtue of that institution; the very fact that it has survived the passage of time means that it has been proven of value. Hence the conservative defence of such institutions as family, church and monarchy that have been passed from one generation to the next. "Society," argued Edmund Burke, "is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." But it is not simply that such institutions have survived the test of time that conservatives defend them. Indeed, conservatives argue that such institutions are of value to society in their provision of stability and security. They are of utility to the many, not the few. History attests that when revolutionaries overturn traditional institutions the result is a descent into chaos, as seen in the case of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. The overthrow of the Provisional Government created a power vacuum which created the conditions for a bloody civil war, to say nothing of the impact on the Russia psyche of the loss of the Tsar.
Fourth, and following on from this, conservatives appeal not to abstract thought but, rather, to history and to past experience in order to establish their claims. This is due to an inherent suspicion towards rationalism on the part of the conservative. Unlike the socialist and the liberal, the conservative is pragmatic as opposed to being dogmatic: his is the preference for policies that have been proven to work, not for those based on ideas yet tested and therefore inhabiting the realm of the unknown. So it was that conservatives of the eighteenth century scorned liberal appeals to such lofty notions as "liberty, equality, fraternity", the rallying cry of the blood bath that was the French Revolution. History is littered with the examples of "enlightened" men who embarked on revolutions in pursuit of lofty ideals, only to make society worse off for it. "What has always made the state a hell on earth," says Friedrich Holderlin, "has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven."
Fifth, conservatives maintain that man is an innately imperfect being and that attempts to perfect him will end in futility. Whereas the liberal is an optimist with regard to human nature and its potential for progress, the conservative is a pessimist, hence the description by O'Sullivan (1976) of conservatism as a "philosophy of imperfection." Alternative ideologies contend either that man is inherently good or that man can be made good by altering his social environment. But this overlooks the limitations of man ingrained in his nature. Man is psychologically limited in his fear of isolation and instability. Man is morally limited in his potential to circumvent the law of the land for personal gain. Man is intellectually limited, hence the earlier conservative suspicion of rationalism. This is a point well made by F.A. Hayek; the greater the boundaries of knowledge, the smaller any individual's share in that sphere of knowledge. It is the very imperfect nature of man that necessitates the need for societal institutions, chiefly the law and the execution thereof, to keep him in check.
The limited nature of man was best made plain in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. There, Hobbes explains that in a state of nature — a place without government — the life of man is "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short". Without the power of the law to restrain him, the passions of man will know no limit, and he will see it as his right to acquire all that which he desires. A world without the state would not be the romantic utopia envisaged by such Enlightenment idealists as Rousseau but a "war of all against all".
Sixth, contained within conservatism is an impassioned defence of the rights to private property. Private property refers to all that over which the individual has exclusive rights of ownership. It is an intrinsic good; a testament to the merit and enterprise of those who acquire it and an extension of their very being. As Margaret Thatcher appreciated, those who acquire property gain a stake in society; something whose preservation they now have a vested interest in. For those who lack property, the wish to acquire it acts as an economic incentive. Whereas the desire to acquire things yet unowned - to improve one's station in life - is castigated as "selfish" and therefore "evil" by socialists, it is unashamedly celebrated by conservatives. To borrow the maxim of that nineteenth century defender of property, John Locke:
He who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind.
A respect for the maintenance of law and order follows from the conservative wish to preserve property rights, for only under the law can such rights be upheld.
But property is not an issue for the individual alone, but is also of importance to society as a whole; property rights entail obligations. Those who inherit property have a duty to pass it on intact to successive generations. In this sense, individuals are not so much owners of property as they are custodians of it. Herein can be seen a conservative concern for the maintenance of the environment for generations yet to be born. "Conservatism," explains Scruton, "starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created."
What, then, is conservatism? It is the preference for the known over the unknown; for past experience over rational abstraction; for order over chaos. Above all else it is the appreciation that man is an imperfect creature who, in the absence of society to hold him in check, would be but a savage beast.