We hear the terms “conservative” and “conservatism” talked about a lot in the daily news right now. What do those terms mean really? Who is conservative, and what does she believe?
The great thinker Russell Kirk broadly defined a conservative as “a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time.”
He identified these 10 chief principles that have characterized American conservative thought throughout its history:
We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us.
Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called ‘democratic despotism’.
Civilized society requires that all have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition.
Conservatives value property because without it all are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.
So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.
The conservative knows he was not born yesterday, and values the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative thinks beyond the rash opinion of the hour.
Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion of government.
The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world.
The conservative understands we can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect.
Conservatives understand that people are best content when they can feel they live in a stable world of enduring values. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society. Innovation undertaken recklessly in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm will probably be disastrous.
Conservative principles shelter the hopes of everyone in society. And conservatism is a social concept important to everyone who desires equal justice and personal freedom. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.
Most conservatives are neither rich nor powerful. But they do, even the most humble of them, derive great benefits from our established Republic. They have liberty, security of person and home, equal protection of the laws, the right to the fruits of their labor, and opportunity to do the best that is in them.
Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation. For the radical collectivism of our age is fiercely hostile to any other authority: modern radicalism detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions.
The true conservative stoutly defends private property and a free economy, both for their own sake and because these are means to great ends. Those great ends are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness.