What is "Conservatism?" A Serious Question for Fellow Ricochet-aliens
I am a big fan of Ricochet, and of its mission to provide a space for people with "right-of-center" political views to hang out and chat. Rob's belief that having skin in the game tends to create a more collegial atmosphere than exists on other websites seems to be holding true so far, but that doesn't mean that there aren't heated arguments on the Ricochet stream. There have been some very heated discussions, especially with regards to certain politicians (Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin) as well as certain political movements (the Tea Party). Very often these discussions include assertions that an individual that supports/doesn't support a particular candidate or organization isn't a true conservative. In fact, we have a few people here -- myself included -- who refer to themselves as "RINO squishes" as a means of self-deprecation that is meant to diffuse harsh criticisms. I recently saw an interview on Reason TV where the "conservative" former VJ Kennedy distanced herself from traditional conservatism and portrayed herself as a moderate conservative with libertarian leanings. She did so, as if creating a nuanced stream of modifiers would provide a true picture of her political beliefs.
But are such qualifiers necessary?
Should we allow those who are the keepers of "conservative purity" define what it means to be conservative or right-of-center, or should we look to find what it is that binds us politically? I think we should attempt the latter, and one way to do that is to ask what exactly conservatism is.
My dear friend David Bobb has often posited that the essence of conservatism can be found within the word itself. Conservatives seek to conserve something. One might argue, that American conservatives seek to conserve the principles of the American Founding -- Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. One could argue that, and many have, but that would only cover some conservatives.
Since becoming a conservative, something that happened after encountering and appreciating philosophy, I have found Russell Kirk's discussion of "the idea of conservatism" to be of great use. For Kirk, conservatism is in many ways a political belief without "ideology." To quote him at length, and I apologize for the extended quote:
Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata; conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors (this phrase was Strafford's and Hooker's, before Burke illuminated it); they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.
His definition is similar to that provided by David. Kirk's goal was to find the similarities and unifying themes between American and British conservatism, which I think to be a worthy goal. While Kirk didn't believe that conservatism had "dogmata," he did believe that it had six central concepts that guided it. He called them the "six canons of conservative thought" and they were:
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems...
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls "Logicalism" in society.
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society."
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked; separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
- Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription and checks upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.
- Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.
One may not agree with all of these as some might interpret them, but I find them to be a pretty good list. Belief in transcendent morality doesn't require a belief in a creator, only in morality beyond that of individual preference. It could be genetic or rational, but it applies equally to all.
Key for me is the connection between freedom and property. It is no accident that those who champion a "revolution of society" also favor the pirating of music and literature stating that "information wants to be free." Never mind the labor that went into the creation of the work, or the artist's desire to pay rent or keep the art to him/her-self. To people like Cory Doctorow, the internet demands that all creative works be shared -- for free -- whether the artist desires it or not. If one has no right to one's own creations, what rights do they have?