If you talk to ten people, you’re likely to get ten different answers about what conservatism is and is not. Still, conservatives often say they want to preserve America. Liberals often define it in stark contrast, claiming conservatives seek to keep America trapped in the dark ages. The reality is that conservatism isn’t complex, but modern political thought and changing attitudes in the country have presented it as such.
At its core, conservatism seeks to advance hope, opportunity, and happiness. I’ve talked more in detail about these principles here.
At its most basic understanding, conservatism stands on the solid rock of the American Founding. It also favors slow and gradual political and governmental change based on empirical evidence. As such, there are benefits to preserving time-tested truths like those found in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood that cultural impulses could cause deep divisions in society. When the government or politicians use divisions to make swift changes for political gain, it could cause upheaval and significant unintended consequences.
It’s important to remember that the founders noted the chief aim of the government was to preserve and protect individual liberties. This is the reason for the Bill of Rights.
In Federalist 10, James Madison discussed how the Constitution’s establishment of a Republican Democracy would ensure the new country could flourish by respecting the interests of differing perspectives. Thus, the government would be stable. In essence, he said the varying personal, business, and other interests would serve as a check and balance on the unbridled passions of politicians and the culture at large in any era.
If we are to understand conservatism, it is about something other than holding to tradition just for the sake of doing so. Instead, it’s about preserving liberty through the protections afforded in the US Constitution. The complications arise when politicians or the government ignore the nation’s founding document or laws for political purposes.
So, what are the basic tenets of modern conservatism? While there is no standard definition, and it isn’t possible to point to a specific dogma, there are principles that define conservatism. Still, there are varying views on the nature of the movement. Some see it as a social issue, while others consider it an economic one.
The core conservative tenants are:
- The practice of liberty and freedom requires the establishment of social order consistent with the maximum amount of personal liberties laid out in the Constitution.
- Political freedom can’t exist without economic freedom based on free market principles.
- Adherence to the separation of powers ensures a limited government incapable of trampling on liberties and freedoms. It calls for restraints on power and human passions to prevent anarchy or tyranny.
- The acquiring of property is vital to freedom. Property isn’t just land or money. It’s also intellectual thought, a person’s opinion, a business, or items that contribute to the well-being of an individual.
- Privacy is a bedrock of liberty.
- Social improvement is good. Yet, change is best enacted at the local level to test how things work.
- Government works best from the bottom up. That includes areas such as healthcare and education, among other issues.
- The Constitution should be interpreted as it was meant at the time of its writing.
Another way to explain conservatism is this… a legitimate and defensible free government is one that protects people to exercise their faculties to the end of becoming the people they want to be. Still, the framers also believed the government needed the appropriate power to “control the governed.”
Conservatism isn’t libertarianism. There is a vital place and role for government. Chiefly it’s to ensure liberties, the public good, and protect the country.
Today, we are responsible for educating one another on our founders’ intent and ensuring the government preserves our liberties and freedoms. As Ronald Reagan said,
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”