What is Conservatism?

Conservative vs. Liberal
“In my book, conservatism is simply a partial philosophy of life that describes how the system should be set up for humans to flourish within it.” – Jonah Goldberg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

National Review Online has recently published a column by Jonah Goldberg titled “When We Say ‘Conservative,’ We Mean . . .“. In it, Goldberg explains that it is difficult to come up with a definition of modern-day conservatism as it is practiced in the USA. Here is an excerpt from the article.

Defining conservatism is actually very, very, hard. When Frank Meyer asked my old boss to define it for the seminal collection What Is Conservatism? Buckley submitted an essay titled “Notes towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism; Reluctantly and Apologetically Given by William F. Buckley.”

Bill was no shrinking violet philosophically, so it says something that it was like pulling teeth to get him to offer a definition of the cause that animated his life’s work. And yet, at the end of the day, all he could muster were some “notes” towards one.

I think this is because conservatism isn’t a single thing. Indeed, as I have argued before, I think it’s a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.

Goldberg’s column is a good read even if one doesn’t agree with everything in it.

I have two observations about conservatism.

1) As a philosophy, conservatism does not require one to be a theist, and it does not take into account the possibility that people might have religious beliefs that temper alleged “conservative” ideology.

For example, Goldberg writes, “Conservatives champion the idea enshrined in our founding document that we have an individual right to pursue happiness.” Theists might argue that a pursuit of happiness by itself is a hedonist quest that can* lead one into disobeying God. (*Please note that I said “can”, not “will”.)

2) Conservatism deals with life as it is, not life as one wants it to be. Socialism, in contrast, is based on a non-existing world.

For example, President Obama’s foreign policy is a failure because it is based on what Obama wants the world to be like, not on what the world is really like.

Likewise, the belief that Pope Francis has about the free market is in error because he is under the illusion that a free and open market should produce equal results for everyone.

Here is how Goldberg explains the reality of the free market:

No conservative worth the name would say that every product of the free market has been an advance for humanity, but we understand that a free society isn’t free without a fundamentally free market. Liberals resent the free market and are constantly trying to argue that free enterprise isn’t a freedom like, say, free speech (not that they’ve been too keen on free speech either of late). The reasons for this animosity could fill libraries, but among them is the fact that free markets must generate material inequalities and material egalitarians think that’s a crime. Conservatives are for the most part comfortable with material inequalities — so long as the system that produces them is fair and open — because we understand that’s how life works.

Family Goes Camping, CPS Takes the Kids
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