What is Conservatism?
The posts by Justin and Marc on Conservative Political Methods logically lead to the fundamental question: what, exactly, is “conservatism?” The problem here is the word itself: “conservatism” is concerned with “conserving,” but conserving what?
Many years ago, the Nobel Prize Laureate (Economics) and dean of the “Austrian School” of economics, Friedrich von Hayek, wrote an essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative.” Many readers were puzzled because the Austrian School was always described as conservative. Hayek preferred the term “liberal” (as do I), but unfortunately for truth in packaging, that term was hijacked, at least in the United States, in the early twentieth century by social democrats. That meant in practice that conservatives could be portrayed as defenders of the (bad) old ways, who stood in the way of (good) progress.
The meaninglessness of the term “conservative” is best captured by the case of the Soviet Union. As Gorbachev moved to liberalize the USSR, the US press began to call the hard-line Stalinists who opposed him “conservatives.” So Ronald Reagan was conservative and so were the hardline communists. What utter nonsense.
“Libertarian” doesn’t solve the problem because it divorces action from principle.
I wish we could recover the word “liberal” from those who hijacked it. After all, it traditionally referred to those who were committed to “liberty.” That’s what I believe is worth conserving. Since the word is probably beyond saving, I now describe myself as a “Declaration of Independence” conservative. That’s the best I can do. I want to conserve the principles of the American Founding.
But this doesn’t please everyone who calls themselves conservatives. Right now over at “No Left Turns,” the blog of the Ashbrook Center, there’s a nasty row going on. The spark was a “podcast” of Harry Jaffa discussing the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Defenders of the Old South denounced him as a neo-con “nutjob” and called Lincoln a left-wing tyrant comparable to Stalin, Hitler and Mao.
Well I am a son of the South who was raised in a Lost Cause household. I once believed that the South represented the essence of liberty, but one can only believe this by ignoring the institution of slavery, which constituted the basis of Southern society. My epiphany on road to Damascus occurred when I read the speech by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, that he delivered in Savannah on March 21,1861. He never once mentions “states’ rights” the term always invoked by defenders of the Old South, but he does spend a grat deal of time talking about African slavery, which is says is the natural result of the inferiority of the African race, and the “cornerstone’ of the new Confederate Constitution.
The Old South is not what we should be defending. Until there is some fundamental agreement on principles, “conservatism” will continue to lack real meaning.