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What is Conservatism?

By Peter Hill

The first thing to do is to describe, if not define, conservatism. What is meant by this term? How is to be distinguished from other perspectives, such as being liberal, or progressive, or socialist?


Several descriptions will assist in our understanding.

First, one might describe conservatism as an ideology, a political philosophy that values and defends the liberty and independence of individuals and all social institutions such as families, businesses, schools, clubs, and churches. These tend not to encroach on each other. But one social institution does tend to be imperialistic and, if not restrained, expands to control all the other social institutions, and that is government. Accordingly, to preserve the liberty and independence of all the other institutions, the role and apparatus of government must be limited. This is classic “small government” conservatism.
Conservatives champion the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the federal Constitution – because they limit the power of the federal government. “Congress shall make no law...” They also champion the constitutional structure of the federal government, usually duplicated in the states, that divides power between branches, and makes each branch largely independent of the others. Institutional encroachment by one branch over another is made difficult by the Constitution, and by the natural resistance and ambitions of the branch being encroached upon. Accordingly, when conservatives read the first words of the Constitution, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States” they are dismayed when hundreds of pages of regulatory laws are made each day by unelected experts in the Executive Branch. These new laws may be every bit as coercive as any legislation passed by Congress, depriving one of liberty and property, if not life.


Second, one might simply describe conservatism as a defense of the status quo – the social, economic, or political structures that currently exist, particularly when challenged by an ideology that seeks to overthrow these and replace them with revolutionary “social transformation.” Of course, conservatives perceive many injustices with the way things are, and support changes to promote justice. But the conservative is skeptical of grand claims for the need of transformational change, and of the need or desirability of powerful governments to implement that transformational change. “Change” is not necessarily real progress.


How is conservatism to be contrasted with other social and political perspectives?


Conservatism recognizes that the concept of “society” is much bigger and broader than the idea of “government.” We ought not to confuse the two. Thus, while society, or some part of society, may have an obligation to do something to remedy injustice, or provide income, or raise children, or accomplish some other worthy goal, that does not mean that government has an obligation to do something. The conservative maintains that poverty is something to be avoided, and that the best means in society to accomplish poverty prevention or poverty alleviation is through the family, or through individual work in a business relationship. “Get a job” is a major, but not the only solution, conservatives would consider. Progressives, on the other hand, are much more likely to confuse the two distinct ideas of “society” and “government” and may well determine that if “society needs to do something about this problem” government will be the preferred and perhaps only solution. Progressives are quick to rely on governmental solutions.
When the conservative asks “who should act to accomplish some good societal goal?” she tends to look into the mirror for the answer. “I am.” That is not to say that conservatism is wholly individualistic. But solutions to problems often begin with an individual. Yet, other social institutions – besides government – also assist in problem avoidance or problem solution. While parents remain primarily responsible for their child’s upbringing, other social institutions may assist. Businesses provide jobs. Schools provide education. Clinics provide medical care. Churches provide spiritual nourishment and moral development. But simply because there is a need does not mean government must meet that need. To think that is to adopt a totalitarian perspective in which nothing is outside the control of government, and nothing is beyond government’s legitimate functions.


These other social institutions provide a counterweight and check on government. These social institutions ought to remain independent of government. For the Christian conservative, these institutions are all responsible under God for doing God’s will in providing jobs, education, medical care, spiritual sustenance, and so on. Government is itself a social sphere and its tasks are perfectly legitimate and necessary. But just as the family is not to dictate to the Church, and the school is not to direct the family, and the business is not to direct the government, so the government is to “stay in its lane” and not illegitimately encroach on the legitimate activities of the other social spheres. When government begins to regulate or substitute itself for the family, business, Church, or school, the conservative thinks the government has overreached itself and become too big and powerful. Smaller government results in more robust social institutions and more liberty or opportunity for those other social institutions. Secular conservatives think much the same way, but may root this societal order in something other than God, such as natural law, or in mere prudence to avoid a government which directs everything, or in a love for liberty, which cannot exist under a powerful government.


Conservatives recognize that in the past certain social spheres interfered with and even absorbed other social spheres. In times past, a Church might interfere with the legitimate claims of government or of the family, claiming that it could depose magistrates or punish lawbreakers. In our own history, one economic or business arrangement, slavery, interfered with all other social spheres. For example, education was subordinated to slavery when slaves were forbidden to learn to read. Church was subordinated when slaves were excluded from certain churches or church offices. Families were hardest hit when masters could, at will, split apart families and sell the various pieces of a family in different markets. Even the state was, in part, subjugated when it was to enforce slavery, punish those who escaped or aided an escape, and recapture escaped slaves. In fact, slavery could not exist without a subservient, compliant, coercive state.

What are the legitimate activities of government? Conservatives think government ought to limit itself to three main activities.

First, it resolves disputes between individuals and groups. It provides legislatures, councils, and courts to weigh policy decisions and implement policy that affects many, or to adjudicate disputes and cases that directly affect only a few. There are and ought to be other dispute resolution mechanisms. Government does not have a monopoly on this. But the poorest woman or the simplest man should have access to justice in the legislature and in the courts.


Secondly, it preserves rights of people and institutions. It protects these rights both from the government itself, and from others who might threaten these rights. We often call these rights “civil liberties.” They include such rights as due process, or the opportunity to be heard before a decision is made which affects me, the right to free speech, the right to be secure in my person and possessions against government searches, the free exercise of religion, and so on.


Thirdly, government keeps the peace, and provides law and order. It provides security - national security and physical security. Law makes society predictable. Order makes society functional, so that the other social spheres can operate without violence or oppression or interruption. In doing so, government avoids the opposite evils of tyranny, when it is too strong, or a chaotic anarchy, when it is too weak. Soldiers, judges, police officers, food inspectors, and prosecuting and defense attorneys are all part of the legitimate apparatus of government.


Conservatives look at the original cabinet departments of the federal government and think that structure was no accident. The Department of War (or Defense) provided national security. The Attorney General (Department of Justice) provided legal representation for the federal government, and legal advice for the President. Through its attorneys it prosecuted those who violated federal law. The Secretary of State provided diplomatic expertise for the nation’s foreign affairs. The Secretary of the Treasury provided oversight and management of the new country’s governmental finances. These reflect the fundamental tasks of government. The more government, and particularly the federal government, expands beyond these original goals, the more skeptical of its legitimacy the conservative becomes.


This conservative view of the nature of society and of the tasks of government are in stark contrast with that of progressives. Progressives tend to think that society is fundamentally and deeply flawed in nearly every social sphere. This results in widespread injustice. It is the task of government to root out injustice and reform society to make it more just. Accordingly, the progressive view of government is almost redemptive and has few limits. Injustice must be remedied wherever it is found. Government must remedy injustice or unfairness wherever it can. This perspective results in government that is very intrusive. It does not recognize any limits. Government becomes omnipotent and its scope becomes universal.


The conservative values liberty. The progressive values equality. Indeed, some progressives define justice in terms of equality, and especially equality of outcome. The conservative recognizes that people are unequal, and maintains that forcing an equality of outcome on unequal people is unjust.
The conservative promotes constitutional government because the constitution limits government and preserves the independence and liberty of individuals and other social spheres. Progressives tend to be dismissive of constitutional government because it limits what government can do, and what majorities can insist on. Thus, progressives usually refer to the American federal system as a “democracy”, whereas conservatives frequently refer to the same government as a “constitutional republic.” With this focus on constitutional government, conservatives think that the federal government should be one of enumerated powers – as the Constitution says. The federal government’s legitimate tasks are limited to those enumerated powers actually found in the Constitution. And when the first sentence of the Constitution says, “All legislative powers herein granted are vested in a Congress of the United States,” the conservative is puzzled, and sometimes alarmed, when the Executive Branch issues a few hundred pages of regulatory laws every day. Isn’t Congress, elected by the people, supposed to do that rather than unelected federal agency employees?


This introductory chapter introduced and summarized many ideas. The next chapters will look at these and some other conservative ideas in greater detail.