How Many “Conservatisms” Are There?

January 28th, 2022

By Peter Hill

Many people may self-identify as “conservative” but have a very different political philosophy or orientation, and propose very different policy prescriptions, than do other people who also consider themselves conservative. Why is this? Are there different varieties or flavors of conservatism? The short answer is that there is no reliable checklist for sorting one’s self into a circle that can be neatly and precisely labeled “conservatism.” There are many helpful indicators, however.


Individual Liberty


Perhaps the most common element of people who identify as conservatives is an emphasis on individual liberty which can be used to oppose and even limit governmental action. Historically, these liberties have been articulated in the English-speaking world as the right to life, liberty, and property. The government may not encroach on these civil liberties unless I have somehow forfeited them by committing a crime, or the government has limited my liberties for a compelling reason, and only after giving me due process –notice of a proposed legislative or judicial action, and an opportunity for me to speak up on my own behalf.


This, by the nature of things, limits the size and power of government. Governmental power stops when it affects someone’s life, liberty, or property. This may well be the starting point for a description of conservatism. There are many “small government” conservatives because small government preserves and protects these civil liberties more than a big, powerful, activist government not limited by individual civil liberties.


Libertarians are those who seek the maximum amount of individual liberty consistent with a functional government which is primarily concerned with the maintenance of law and order. They oppose legislation for social or economic purposes. Government should limit itself to essential tasks, and largely leave people alone to find their own way socially, economically, and personally. Many libertarians vote for conservatives, but often do so reluctantly because even conservative candidates usually desire government to engage in more tasks than the libertarian considers advisable.


Liberty and Independence of Other Social Spheres


Conservatives recognize that “society” is much broader than “government” and includes all sorts of social spheres in addition to government. That is, businesses are just as much a legitimate sphere of activity as government is. Churches are just as much a legitimate sphere of social activity as government is. Families are just as much a legitimate sphere of social activity as government is. These other social spheres have an existence independent of government, and that independence should be preserved. Accordingly, not just individuals have rights, but families, businesses, schools, nongovernmental entities, churches, and other social institutions have rights and impendence. One might call this a “social libertarianism” because this brand of conservatism recognizes that these social spheres, to really have liberty of action and independence from the government, will themselves limit government.


Thus, conservatives are wary of the government regulating, fining, subsidizing, taxing, encouraging, or penalizing activity within these other social spheres. Conservatives agree that the government should investigate and prosecute crimes committed within these other social spheres, but do not want to see the government trying to shape these institutions into what the government considers moral or socially constructive. For example, conservatives want the government to investigate child sex abuse, or embezzlement within a church, but otherwise want the government to leave the church alone. Conservatives want the government to investigate fraudulent activity by a business, but otherwise want the government to leave the business alone.


Status Quo Conservatives


Some conservatives are “status quo” conservatives, meaning that they generally oppose changing existing ways of conducting social life when presented with something new. We might consider a particular public policy proposal either unattractive and unappealing, or wise and prudent. A status quo conservative may well avoid trying anything new to eat, reject a new translation of the Bible, or decline to watch a new program. That same mindset can translate into political opposition to any proposed change that the government might propose. This perspective is understandable, but more of us (including many other conservatives) would find this unattractive and unreasonable.


On the other hand, opposition to new governmental policies may well be rooted in a reluctance to adopt a policy that seems to be untried, unwise, counterproductive, or which will erode values conservatives hold dear, such as constitutional government, individual responsibility, or individual liberty. Some “status quo” conservatives oppose new government measures because those measures would disrupt the appropriate areas of responsibility of other social entities such as individuals, families, businesses, and so on. For example, conservatives think that the primary means of a person getting income is for that person to go to work. Work might be provided by a business or other economic entity. There are exceptions, of course, particularly for those who cannot perform work. But conservatives would oppose a policy proposal by a church or a government that would provide income to able-bodied people who decline work when work is available.


Economic Conservatives


Economic conservatives emphasize two things. First, the government should be small enough that it does not consume too much of the nation’s wealth through the usual taxing mechanisms –income taxes; payroll taxes such as social security, Medicare, and Medicaid taxes; business taxes; inventory taxes; use taxes; property taxes, etc. If the government takes less of my wealth, I have more wealth to spend on the goals I consider to be important. The more the government takes from me, the less opportunity I have to do something with what used to be my own money. Economic conservatives may be more concerned with personal taxation, or with business taxation, but are alike in wanting to keep the government on a strict budgetary diet.


The second point of emphasis is that economic conservatives tend to think government should largely leave businesses and consumers alone. It should not try to create desirable social policy by its taxing and regulating plans. If the business if thriving, leave it alone. If the business is failing, leave it alone. The government should not reward certain businesses, and give them subsidies and advantages other businesses do not have, because the government makes a value judgment about the social utility of the business. Nor should the government burden businesses with additional costs of doing business that the consumer did not choose.


These two points can be illustrated by a discussion of the invisible costs of government regulations which consumers pay but never know they are paying. Some business interests call these additional costs “hidden taxes” that increase the cost of a product or service. In a sense, that is correct. The consumer pays thousands of dollars more for an automobile because of all the add-ons the government requires the manufacturer to put into the vehicle. In another sense, however, it is not a tax because the money does not go to the government. It is merely an additional consumer expense required by the government. Consider how much a bank, utility, airline, manufacturer, refiner, or other business must spend to comply with government regulations, all of which are paid for by the ultimate consumer. Some estimate that these hidden costs may well exceed $2,000,000,000,000 per year. (Just look up articles on “hidden costs” in Forbes magazine, or studies by the American Enterprise Institute.)


All of these regulations make it more expensive for the consumer, and more difficult for the business. The economic conservative wants to decrease the amount of these compliance costs, making the transaction between consumer and supplier more transparent, and letting the consumer keep more of his income.


Social Conservatives


Social conservatives think that society should reflect good morals in every area of social life –business, family, government, schools, and individuals –and want government to help enforce those good morals. This includes not only traditional law enforcement and criminal prosecutions for such immoral acts as robbery, rape, fraud, theft, and looting; but also for such things as protecting life of the born and the unborn; preserving marriage as a stable commitment between a man and a woman; minimizing divorce while protecting the economic security of the divorcing parties, usually the woman; penalizing racism and eliminating benefits or burdens that are race-based or ethnically based; protecting the civil liberties of dissenters and nonconformists and unpopular minorities; minimizing or prohibiting the use of harmful drugs; and other social policies.


Social conservatives are often quite willing to use the coercive powers of the state to enforce these moral norms because they perceive these immoral acts to be immediately damaging to both the individuals and society involved, and also because of the secondary but quite foreseeable adverse consequences violations of these norms inflict on a society. A visit to a local criminal or civil court, or a perusal of foster care records makes these injuries immediately apparent. Family absence or breakdown leads to both immediate and long-term adverse consequences. A child raised in a morally bad environment, with parents absent, addicted, or incarcerated, is at high risk for educational, social, moral, legal, and financial disadvantages or handicaps. Other social spheres pay the price, literally and figuratively, for these immoral environments. That is, failure in one social sphere –the family –leads to intervention and costs by every other social sphere. Individuals, families, schools, and businesses all pay a price. The social conservative is willing to use the government to prevent or remedy these hardships.


Of course, the social conservative’s willingness to use the mechanisms of the government here may well place him at odds with his fellow conservative, the libertarian, who wants to minimize governmental interaction with other institutions. But the social conservative considers this a legitimate, even a good, trade-off in order to avoid further harm.


Nationalists and American Exceptionalism


“America First!” Who hasn’t heard that phrase? That attitude may well be what leads a citizen to a conservative perspective, but there are other, more common avenues as well.


The “America First” advocate may intend the phrase to mean that America is for Americans. It may be “nativist” or even racist in its intent, as though certain groups of people who arrived during the 16th or 17th century were superior to those who arrived before or after, and America should somehow be reserved for these superior groups. They may also consider that America is superior in every way to past and present alternatives. I’m sure these people exist, but I have never met one. Most conservatives, however, think it advisable that the government know who is entering the country, whether lawfully or unlawfully. And not everyone should be welcome.


More commonly, this perspective means that America should put its own interests first when dealing with other nations or international organizations. American interests –its security, economic well-being, productivity, and stability –should not be sacrificed in order to accomplish some desirable goal established by someone other than Americans, or by an American who is trying to be helpful or nice to someone other than Americans. That is not to say the U.S. should always drive a hard bargain with other nations when it can, or not support their military or economic security when possible, but American interests should not be subordinated to the interests of what someone considers good for the “international community.”


Part of this attitude is rooted in national pride. Part of it is rooted in a pragmatic self-interest. Pragmatically, nationalist conservatives do not want to sacrifice American jobs or wealth, or place American lives at risk, simply because it would presumably benefit South Americans or Central Asians or the United Nations. Americans have been doing that for decades, including several wars in which the only territory taken by the U.S. has been, in the words of the late general and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the cemeteries necessary to bury our dead. But there is a limit, ill-defined as it may often be, and American interests should not be sacrificed for the global good without knowing the cost in blood and treasure.


This attitude is also rooted in national pride. Americans are proud of their country. Conservatives are more proud than other groups, recognizing the good America (not just its government) has accomplished in maintaining liberty, security, representative government, and prosperity. Conservatives think that the more we become like _____ (fill in the name of most European and other countries) the less satisfactory America will be. America is unique, and uniquely free. Its greatness does not lie in its size or population or natural resources. Its greatness lies in its ordered liberty. It is, in a word, exceptional.


To be sure, America continues to have its social and governmental illnesses, and had a nearly fatal wound for much of its history. The “original sin” of America was slavery, which degraded millions of people, and corrupted millions more. The greatest, costliest war in our nation’s history was fought in large part as a partial atonement for that original sin. Yet to consider slavery as the defining characteristic of the U.S. is to have a grossly inadequate perspective of our history. Important? Yes. But to view the entire American experience through the eyes of chattel slavery is to have as misshapen and myopic a perspective as to consider, like the Marxist, all of history as the narrative of class struggle. To make a part the whole is a gross error. Conservatives recognize this error. They can respect and take pride in their nation, rather than revile or despise it, even while recognizing its past and present flaws.


Let me close this essay with a quote from commentator, author, historian, and Reagan speechwriter George F. Will from his 2019 The Conservative Sensibility, published by Hachette Books in 2019. It is a great summary statement on American Exceptionalism.


“Americans were born exceptionally free from a feudal past, and hence free from an established church and an entrenched aristocracy. This made them exceptionally receptive to intellectual pluralism and exceptionally able to achieve social mobility. America had an exceptional revolution, one that did not attempt to define and deliver happiness, but one that set people free to define and pursue it as they please. Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do to them. And because the Founding experience was the result of, and affirmed the potency of, human agency, Americans are exceptionally impervious to bleak modern anxieties about human destinies being shaped by vast impersonal forces. America’s central government is exceptionally constructed to limit the discretion of those in power by balancing rival centers of power.”


One of the things that makes America exceptional is the kind of society that may be produced by its limited, federal, constitutional government. When that limited, federal, constitutional government is eroded, the society that is produced is no longer exceptional. Accordingly, conservatives want to maintain that government, and the society which can evolve out of its ordered liberty.


© Peter Hill, 20Jan 22