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.

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Anonymous
Anonymous
14 years ago

How about we throw divisive labels out the window and stop splitting America down the middle into groups of “us” and “them”

smmtheory
smmtheory
14 years ago

That’s rather redundant you know, as labels are meant to be divisive in order to split things up into different groups. In order for what you suggest to happen, people would have to stop labeling themselves as well. It’s all rather improbable given that so many people derive a sense of well-being from either distinguishing themselves from others or belonging to a group. Some people even have trouble defining their self worth outside of identifying themselves by the group they think they belong to. An example would be a “Gay” person, or people who call themselves anonymous when posting messages on a blog.
So do stop the relativistic drivel because it’s even more meaningless than the term conservative has become.

Will
14 years ago

Labels can be helpful when trying to find out what people generally believe, but when you start getting into more specificity, then they can get in the way. As unfortunately as “liberal” is still the “L” word, I think the term “classical liberalism” would technically come closest to defining conservatism (free markets, free ideas, etc.). I’ve also liked the adjective “Jeffersonian.” President Ronald Reagan has often been described as “the last Jeffersonian.” I agree with Marc that our focus must be on maintaining and restoring the vision of what America can be, mainly as defined by the founders of our country.
PS Although I am a strong supporter of ideal of “states’ rights” (in so much as it is consistent with the US Constitution), I will agree with Marc on his point. About a decade ago, I briefly lived down South. I was surprised that President Lincoln wasn’t quite seen in the same way as we tend to see him up here (not a lot of “Lincoln Day Dinners”!). If one were to completely ignore slavery, the South could easily be seen by an objective observer as a bulwark of liberty fighting against a repressive central government. However, trying to ignore slavery in the context of the South is much like trying to ignore a second head on a supermodel — it just isn’t practical. Unfortunately for the South, the liberty that they were trying to retain for some was coming at the expense of the liberty of others. Liberty is a universal right. One can’t be claiming to believe in liberty, but only for a select few.

Will
14 years ago

PPS I meant “Mac,” not “Marc” — force of habit!

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