Let’s Define Conservatism


Conservatism is a complex term these days, lots of people claim to be conservative, yet they can agree on nearly nothing.  In fact, conservatism has become a catch-all term which really refers to nothing classically conservative, it’s become a word applied to things hoping to attract conservative votes to things which are demonstrably not conservative in nature.

The reality is, the modern Republican Party is not conservative.  It is Neo-Conservative.  Most of the powers-that-be in the modern Republican Party were hardcore religious Southern Democrats who abandoned the party in the 1960s and 1970s over issues like civil rights and abortion.  They joined the Republicans with the goal of taking over the party and that’s exactly what they’ve done.  The modern Republican Party is fiscally liberal and fundamentalist Christian.  Neither of these things are classically conservative.

Believe it or not, you don’t have to be religious to be a conservative.  In fact, conservatism doesn’t take religion into account at all.  One of the fundamental beliefs of conservatives is keeping government, and that includes government-endorsed religion, out of people’s lives.  Abortion and gay-rights would never be a part of a conservative platform, except to say that the government has no place in deciding for people what to think on these issues.  The government needs only to ensure equality of rights to all Americans.  Conservatism, unlike the impression many liberals would like to give, does not oppose rational change, it just opposes change simply for the sake of change.  Given a good reason to abandon traditional positions which have worked for years, change is always a viable option.  However, there’s no reason to abandon a position which does work in favor of another which has yet to be demonstrated, simply because someone seeks change.

In the modern political vernacular, since the religious fundamental right-wing has claimed a spot at the far-end of batshit crazydom, conservatives would be fiscally conservative and socially moderate.  Conservatism shares many of the same core values as the more moderate, responsible libertarians, which is why libertarians can often be found under the umbrella of conservatism.  Again, there are a lot of wingnut libertarians, like there are a lot of wingnut neo-conservatives, which run off down the primrose path of insanity, which make it difficult to include their parties wholesale under conservatism.

Conservatism requires, as it’s core value, personal responsibility.  This theme runs through every other aspect of the view and whenever you’re confused if a particular idea may be conservative, ask yourself how personal responsibility applies to it.  Almost without exception, if it matches with the idea of personal responsibility, it very well may be a conservative value.

So what does this mean in the political sphere?  It means small government.  Not no government, as many on the libertarian side might like, but a small, effective, necessary government. There are things we need the government to do such as national defense, maintaining the law, representing the will of the people, etc.  Beyond that, the government has little it ought to be doing.  It means fiscal responsibility, not spending more than you have to spend, something both parties have serious problems doing these days.  While there can be times when running at a deficit can be warranted, that is a short-term solution to a serious problem and ought not happen often.  It does not set up a nanny state where the majority of people receive checks from the government, at best it may help people to get back on their feet in the short term and once there, recind any payments and perhaps even require the money be paid back out of new earnings.  Some things, like unemployment insurance, that has already been paid for out of the checks of working individuals, certainly would not have to be repaid, but most anything else, the government doesn’t owe the citizens anything, especially since tax rates ought to be kept low to begin with.

25 thoughts on “Let’s Define Conservatism”

  1. Conservatism, unlike the impression many liberals would like to give, does not oppose rational change, it just opposes change simply for the sake of change. Given a good reason to abandon traditional positions which have worked for years, change is always a viable option.

    Can you give some examples of +ve changes that were brought about by conservatives in the fashion you describe.. and how its different from +ve changes brought about by liberals?

    OR if you can recommend some book/website that can throw some light on this, thats great too. I think I am a classical liberal, and am curious about conservatism in a conservative's own words. I read Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul, and thought it one of the worst books I ever read.

    1. We need liberals in order to propose good changes and show why they are necessary, and we need conservatives to stop them changes from happening wily-nily without considering unintended consequences. A good society needs both thoughtful liberals and conservatives. I think the blanket attacks liberals and conservatives spew at each other is harmful

      1. But that's not how it works most of the time. As I've said, liberals have some good ideas, but often for very, very bad reasons. It isn't enough to get to the right place, you have to get there for the right reasons. Unfortunately, we're just getting reactionary conservatives and liberals in society today, people who just yell and scream for ideological, not rational reasons.

  2. Until recently I held the belief that because every conservative politician that I have ever heard has used god to justify their actions and beliefs that all Conservatives were irrational, I had thought that made me a Liberal, Then i researched what the Liberals were doing recently and saw much of it as irrational and disagreeable as well. And now i am left confused. Clearly I'll need to do more research to sort that out on my own, but that's my issue. Your definition of Conservatism is different from any other that I have Read. I am Pleasantly surprised to learn that belief in God does not determine Political orientation, so far i am fascinated by what i have read on this site. I am an atheist and politically still undecided. Thanks for helping me to Discover that i was thinking inside the box, I shall rectify that. Keep up the good work. 🙂

    1. You have to remember that pretty much nobody in the modern-day Republican party is a conservative. They are neo-conservative. Those are two entirely different things. Nobody in the Republican party is a conservative, they are full-on fiscal liberals who favor massive government and their fingers in everyone's bedrooms.

      That's just not what a conservative is. There is no conservative party in this country today. We are entirely without representation.

      1. I am confused. Almost everyone else uses the term Neo-Conservative to refer to warhawks who want the U.S. and NATO to police the world. Dick Cheney doesn't want the government in his daughter's bedroom.

        1. But I'm sure he doesn't mind it in the bedrooms of other kids. It's the hyper-religious right that are the neo-cons, the people who are essentially the American Christian ISIS. They want Christian rule over everyone, just like radical Muslims want that for Islam. They want to force everyone to believe as they do. They want politics to revolve around their religious beliefs. This is not a realistic, nor rational way of looking at things. they also do tend to be warhawks, mostly because they, like ISIS, think their god is on their side and they can't lose. That's why, when they do lose, they go looking for excuses like the gays and sin and all of that, for why things didn't go their way.

          1. Like everyone else's kids. I'm sure he thinks his own daughter is doing things the right way. But for more on that, you'd have to ask him.

          2. As far as I can tell the Neo Conservatives are lead by people like Donald Rumsfeild, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, atheist Douglas Murray, the late Ivring Kristol and his son William Kristol etc. who are mostly concerned with foreight policy and are not the same as the religious right who are lead by people like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Farlwell, and organizations with the word "family" in their name. If they were the same then you would have anti-theists like Christopher Hitchens coysing with Neo-Cons.

  3. Very interesting. I thought I was a Libertarian, but by your standards, I am a conservative. This proves that it is hard to peghole people based on labels. I have labeled myself as a social liberal / fiscal conservative.

    I especially agree that government is not here to molly coddle us and provide for our every need. Rather it is supposed to do certain limited things, such as national defense, maintain law and order, and build infrastructure.

    1. That's the point I keep making these days that "liberal", "conservative" and "libertarian, along with a whole slew of others, are just labels that we assign to ourselves. There is no set of checkboxes, no quizzes or surveys that we can take that can tell us what label is most applicable. Where I feel I differ from a libertarian label is I think there are things that many libertarians think are not the job of a federal government, that I think ought to be. But it's just a choice what label people want to staple to their forehead, different labels don't automatically make different views.

  4. I'm not a conservative because I believe that not everyone has equal opportunity for self-responsibility and that as part of the social contract, it is my job to help those who are underprivileged because I don't want to live in a country with abject poverty and streets full of homeless, mentally ill and elderly people. I also think it is a human right that we can and should provide health care to our citizens. The biggest issue I have with your view of government responsibility is that it offers no solution to these social issues, not all of which are short-term… not everyone Can get back on their feet, certainly not the mentally-ill or the elderly. Also, reducing taxes on the rich has not helped stimulate the economy. Trickle-down economics doesn't work. I believe in free-market capitalism, but I also believe in helping those who work all their lives and still have nothing. I don't think conservatism, in whatever form you define it, is a realistically sustainable system. Though I agree that the Republicanism of my ancestors no longer exists… I don't think it can in a country of such inequality. I think there is a middle ground, a more moderate path that we should be scrambling to find before it all falls apart.

    1. The problem is, the social contract works both ways. I've never said a thing about leaving the mentally ill or elderly out in the cold, in fact, that's why we have programs like Social Security, at least until the idiots in Washington gutted the program and stole all the money. Those people ought to be cared for. It's the people who are able to hold down a job who shouldn't be coddled and far too often, those are people who are handed money for their entire lives because they've squandered their opportunities. The fact remains, every single able person in the country has an opportunity to get an education and it is the responsibility of every single able person to get that education or they are violating the social contract. Why should someone squander their opportunities, either as a child or as a parent whose responsibility it is to see that their children get an education to prepare them for the future, and get paid because of it? Because we're willing to give away stuff for free, lots of people don't even bother trying. In fact, for some programs, the government has to actively go out and find people to give money to because those people are too lazy to even hold their hand out. I honestly don't think there is anyone out there who works their entire lives, who has taken advantage of the educational system, who has not made poor decisions and lived responsibly, and not had anything as a result of it. It's the people who want to game the system, who want to live outside of their means, who want to get something for nothing, those are the people who end up with nothing and the ones who deserve to do so. Conservatism works, but it only works if people are willing to get off their fat, lazy asses and work. We've raised at least 2 entire generations of people under the liberal system now, we've trained people that they don't have to be responsible for themselves, that they don't have to work hard and earn their way. It's no wonder the nation is in such a disaster today and it will only continue to get worse so long as we allow a huge number of Americans to sit on their asses every day and not get out and earn their keep.

      1. "…those are people who are handed money for their entire lives because they've squandered their opportunities."

        You've written this on numerous occasions. I am wondering when you are going to substantiate its truth. You keep asserting it. You remind me of the exaggerated rhetoric Ronald Reagan frequently used when talking about the "broken welfare state" and welfare fraud. You are engaging in similar rhetoric. Well, I am calling you out on it. Provide the evidence that substantiate's the assertion or acknowledge that you are just repeating a false trope, purpose of which is to give the appearance of credibility to your unsupported, undocumented claim.

        "The fact remains, every single able person in the country has an opportunity to get an education and it is the responsibility of every single able person to get that education or they are violating the social contract."

        No, this is not a fact. Equality of opportunity in this country is a myth that people like you keep perpetuating. There is considerable economic, social, educational, and political inequality of opportunity in this country. If you think otherwise then it you have little grasp of the reality of life and conditions in this nation for tens of millions of Americans.

        "n fact, for some programs, the government has to actively go out and find people to give money to because those people are too lazy to even hold their hand out."

        If you want this to be believed, then you had better provide the evidence. Identify the programs to which you refer. Provide evidence that these programs actually send people out to find people to enroll. Otherwise you're just pulling shit out of your asshole. Not an uncommon practice for you.

        "We've raised at least 2 entire generations of people under the liberal system now, we've trained people that they don't have to be responsible for themselves, that they don't have to work hard and earn their way. It's no wonder the nation is in such a disaster today and it will only continue to get worse so long as we allow a huge number of Americans to sit on their asses every day and not get out and earn their keep."

        There you go again, making assertions without providing a foundation upon which belief in them can be constructed. You asserting these things to be true is insufficient reason to accept these claims as true. Provide some evidence. And the nation is not in a disaster. You talk as though the collapse and demise of America is imminent. This is utter horseshit.

        How do you know that there are a "huge number of Americans" sitting on their asses doing nothing, contributing nothing. If you are able to describe their numbers as huge, then why are you unable to more precisely quantify their numbers. What does huge mean in this context? And once you provide the meaning of huge (is it 60%, 70%, 80%?), then cite your source for the data. If you can't do this then you are just making shit up. My experience reading your blog posts these past few months is that you are very practiced and skilled at making shit up and engaging in making assertions without supporting those assertions. You are often long on rhetoric and sort on actual facts and evidence.

        1. It should be easy to find people who have made no bad decisions in their lives and are still on welfare then, shouldn't it? Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Keep in mind, I'm only talking about multi-generational or chronic welfare use, not people who are down on their luck because of a fallout in the economy beyond their control. So where are the people who have stayed in school, gotten good grades, not gotten involved in drugs or gangs, not gone to prison, gotten and kept jobs, learned a work ethic, not had children out of wedlock and not bettered their lives? Where are those people? I'm just not seeing them and no liberal can ever present a large number of them to support their claims.

          See, this is why personal responsibility is such a big thing in conservatism. People who are responsible for their lives and their actions and who are willing to accept the consequences of their actions without having their hands out, those are the people who do tend to improve their situations. It's the people who want to earn their way out of poverty and not those who want a hand-out that matter. I have no problem with short-term help for those who really need it, so long as it's a very occasional thing. Yet we find people who constantly have their hands out, who are never demonstrably improving and whose problems are largely self-imposed and you expect me to feel sorry for those people? No, I do not.

      2. One point I'd like to make on Social Security – given the tendency of employers to discriminate against older employees (I'm thinking engineers in particular here, as I have experienced age discrimination repeatedly), I don't want to be "cared for" (although I won't turn down the Medicare part of the Social Security system) – I just want to be allowed to continue working…

  5. Finally. A place a weary conservative atheist can feel at home. Why is it that the non-theist community is loath to accept a big brother in the sky, yet embrace big brother in their government?

  6. Glad to have found more conservative atheists.
    I've been trying to explain true conservatism to a couple of my religious coservative friends for a while, with some success.
    Thanks for writing!

  7. My own brand of conservatism is this: the retain those features of our world from the past that have served us well, and to pass on the world to my children in a condition better than I found it (or at least no worse). It means that I want to keep what is good out of the past, and to discard what is bad (conserving does not mean putting everything into stasis in my opinion, but rather in saving what we can of the good). My thoughts on government mirror those of one of the founding fathers ("Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. –George Washington). I don't tend to think of libertarians as conservative — though this is an opinion flavored by experience with several individuals over the years who have called themselves libertarian and who were (and are) in my not-so-humble-opinion, "batshit crazy". This has driven my to the (possibly erroneous belief) that libertarianism is the "I've got mine, Jack" wing of the political spectrum. (I tend to think of Ron and Rand Paul as in the "these guys are batshit crazy" wing of the political spectrum, for example).

    1. I agree with you. Conservatism isn't dogmatically clinging to tradition regardless of consequence, it's keeping the things that work and getting rid of the things that don't so that we can continue to move forward rationally. This is unlike a lot of liberals who just want change for the sake of change, because they feel that we have to keep changing, even if that change doesn't improve the situation or even makes it worse. Libertarians tend to be conservative fiscally and liberal socially and the less said about Ron and Rand Paul, the better. Ron was out of his addled mind and while Rand is a bit better, he's still nobody I'd ever want to see in a position of national power.

      As for government, what people don't understand is that the government is the way it is because of us, the voters. We made it that way and we allow it to stay that way because we're not interested in making it better. We can tame it but that takes work and it takes an educated and intelligent populace, which unfortunately, we just don't have.

      1. If the average voter has a better than 50% chance of "guessing" right, then the more heads you count, the higher the probability that the majority will come up with the right answer. If the average voter has a less than 50% chance of "guessing" right on a given subject, the more heads you count, the lower the probability that the majority decision is the right one. This can be shown to be true mathematically.

        Sadly, when the voting populace is uneducated or ill-informed, voting is a really bad way to get the "right" answer". I wish I had a solution to this problem. (Of course, if we elect representatives who are well informed and intelligent and, further, have the courage of their convictions to vote the right way – even if it costs them the next election – the system can still work. This is, I think, what has saved the Republic so far…)

        1. But it isn't about "guessing" right, people can just close their eyes and pick someone on a ballot without having the slightest idea what they stand for and what they want to do. I don't know that we can even say there is a "right" choice to make. Depending on one's perception, there might be a "best" choice that fits most closely with their particular position, but you don't randomly pick that, you examine their position and make a determination based on it. I think that where this becomes problematic is that most voters don't even consider the platform of the person they are voting for, they make their selection for entirely irrational reasons, like who looks best on TV. We have a populace which is not only ignorant of the world, but wants to remain that way, they don't make these choices for rational reasons, they do so for entirely emotional reasons.

          Unfortunately, the number of representatives that are willing to do the "right thing" whether it loses them the next election are a tiny minority. Most will do anything at all to get re-elected, even if it ultimately harms their constituents and the constituents don't seem to care or notice.

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