Conservatism as a political term has been subject to so many ideological variations that it, like liberalism, can be very difficult to narrow down into a specific set of concepts.
Conservatism, as evident from the name, desires to preserve the values and traditions of the past, and is skeptical and cautious of societal change. That much can be said about all ideologically-consistent conservatives.
But which values, and which traditions, does conservatism wish to preserve? The past is composed of many values and traditions, and virtually nobody would argue that the past is superior in every possible way to the present.
Geography also plays a role. Traditional values in America are somewhat different from traditional values in the United Kingdom, and both of these are incredibly different from the traditional values of Turkey or China.
For the context of this article, “conservatism” refers to the conservative movement originating in Western Europe in the late 18th century, and seeks to preserve traditional values of Western culture.
Conservative historian Russell Kirk defined Edmund Burke as the father of conservatism in The Conservative Mind, and with Burke is where he begins his history of conservative thought.
One might be surprised to hear that the “father of conservatism” is considered to be a “liberal conservative.” Lord Acton, a liberal, considered Edmund Burke to be one of three great liberals. He favored individual liberty, property rights, free trade, and small government. As a conservative, he was in opposition to the more egalitarian positions and tabula rasa view of human nature advocated by liberals like Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke.
While not a libertarian, he valued individual liberty, declaring that “[w]hatever each man can separately do, without trespassing on others, he has a right to do for himself… all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.”
He was not opposed to change, describing it as “the most powerful law of nature.” His approach to change was one of prudence. Rather than try to stop all change, he believed societies should oppose rapid sudden changes, and work to mitigate the negatives of change while accepting the positives. For this reason he was generally against revolution, but favored it for America.
The analogy of Chesterton’s fence describes the conservative worldview. When one comes across a fence blocking the path, the liberal is more open to removing it. A Burkean conservative is not against moving the fence, but insists upon caution when doing so, asserting that the fence must have been placed there for a reason, and that reason must be understood and evaluated before removing it.
Burke was an advocate of ordered liberty, somewhat similar to what is now considered right-libertarianism. He believed that with liberty came responsibility. For a free society to keep its liberty, the people must be virtuous.
Burke’s arguments for a state were pragmatic. He argued “that the State ought to confine itself to… every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity.”
When Burke is more specific about exactly which government initiatives he supports and opposes, he resembles that of many conservative thinkers in the early United States, like John Adams, Randolph, and Calhoun.
Burke and early American conservatives were far more socially conservative than many of today’s libertarians and conservatives, fitting the views of their time. Burke, Adams, and Randolph were all opponents of slavery, but their skepticism to change prevented them from taking radical steps to abolish it, believing instead that slavery would decrease over time.
On economics, Adam Smith describes Burke as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do.”
Burke was critical of economists and calculators. This isn’t to say that he disliked economics as a subject, but was critical of calculators that believed they could objectively measure value and happiness, and use these measurements to manipulate and manage society. If alive today, he would no doubt be critical of the Keynesian perspective, and support the Austrian school’s subjective theory of value.
It is his skepticism toward change and his anti-egalitarian individualist mindset that leads him to be an opponent of most government intervention. To Burke, no team of intellectuals can be competent enough to begin messing with the fabric of society through government intervention and achieve the desired results.
He believed that “it is better to leave all dealing… entirely to the persons mutually concerned in the matter contracted for than to put this contract into the hands of those who can have none, or a very remote interest in it, and little or no knowledge of the subject.”
When comparing the views of the father of conservatism to those of the modern day right-wing establishments in Western nations, we see, at best, a slight resemblance. In fact, we can say with confidence that right-libertarians represent the values of Burkean conservatism far better than modern establishment conservatives.