Political theory based on tradition.
The institutions of human society and government have evolved slowly and survive because they have stood the test of time. Social life is thus formed by processes beyond the rational comprehension of any single person. The principle virtue is thus caution, in not seeking ambitiously to go beyond the limits of individual reason. Human abilities are not equally distributed, and it is for the good of all that those of superior ability lead in politics, economics and social affairs. Private property is good for individuals and for society as a whole, and governments should preserve it but not interfere in its distribution.
Noel O’Sullivan, Conservatism (London, 1976)
Some writers such as Samuel P. Huntington see conservatism as situational. Under this definition, conservatives are seen as defending the established institutions of their time. According to Quintin Hogg, the chairman of the British Conservative Party in 1959: “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself”. Despite the lack of a universal definition, certain themes can be recognised as common across conservative thought.
According to Michael Oakeshott, “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” Such traditionalism may be a reflection of trust in time-tested methods of social organisation, giving ‘votes to the dead’. Traditions may also be steeped in a sense of identity.
In contrast to the tradition-based definition of conservatism, some political theorists such as Corey Robin define conservatism primarily in terms of a general defense of social and economic inequality. From this perspective, conservatism is less an attempt to uphold traditional institutions and more “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”. Conversely, some conservatives may argue that they are seeking less to protect their own power than they are seeking to protect “inalienable rights” and promote norms and rules that they believe should stand timeless and eternal, applying to each citizen.
Conservatism has been called a “philosophy of human imperfection” by Noël O’Sullivan, reflecting among its adherents a negative view of human nature and pessimism of the potential to improve it through ‘utopian’ schemes. The “intellectual godfather of the realist right”, Thomas Hobbes, argued that the state of nature for humans was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, requiring centralised authority.
Liberal conservatism incorporates the classical liberal view of minimal government intervention in the economy. Individuals should be free to participate in the market and generate wealth without government interference. However, individuals cannot be thoroughly depended on to act responsibly in other spheres of life, therefore liberal conservatives believe that a strong state is necessary to ensure law and order and social institutions are needed to nurture a sense of duty and responsibility to the nation. Liberal conservatism is a variant of conservatism that is strongly influenced by liberal stances.
As these latter two terms have had different meanings over time and across countries, liberal conservatism also has a wide variety of meanings. Historically, the term often referred to the combination of economic liberalism, which champions laissez-faire markets, with the classical conservatism concern for established tradition, respect for authority and religious values. It contrasted itself with classical liberalism, which supported freedom for the individual in both the economic and social spheres.
Over time, the general conservative ideology in many countries adopted fiscally conservative arguments and the term liberal conservatism was replaced with conservatism. This is also the case in countries where liberal economic ideas have been the tradition such as the United States and are thus considered conservative. In other countries where liberal conservative movements have entered the political mainstream, such as Italy and Spain, the terms liberal and conservative may be synonymous. The liberal conservative tradition in the United States combines the economic individualism of the classical liberals with a Burkean form of conservatism (which has also become part of the American conservative tradition, such as in the writings of Russell Kirk).
A secondary meaning for the term liberal conservatism that has developed in Europe is a combination of more modern conservative (less traditionalist) views with those of social liberalism. This has developed as an opposition to the more collectivist views of socialism. Often this involves stressing conservative views of free market economics and belief in individual responsibility, with communitarian views on defence of civil rights, environmentalism and support for a limited welfare state. In continental Europe, this is sometimes also translated into English as social conservatism.
Conservative liberalism is a variant of liberalism that combines liberal values and policies with conservative stances. The roots of conservative liberalism are found at the beginning of the history of liberalism. Until the two World Wars, in most European countries the political class was formed by conservative liberals, from Germany to Italy. Events after World War I brought the more radical version of classical liberalism to a more conservative (i.e. more moderate) type of liberalism.
Libertarian conservatism describes certain political ideologies most prominently within the United States which combine libertarian economic issues with aspects of conservatism. Its four main branches are constitutionalism, paleolibertarianism, small government conservatism and Christian libertarianism. They generally differ from paleoconservatives, in that they favor more personal and economic freedom.
Agorists such as Samuel Edward Konkin III labeled libertarian conservatism right-libertarianism.
In contrast to paleoconservatives, libertarian conservatives support strict laissez-faire policies such as free trade, opposition to any national bank and opposition to business regulations. They are vehemently opposed to environmental regulations, corporate welfare, subsidies and other areas of economic intervention.
Many conservatives, especially in the United States, believe that the government should not play a major role in regulating business and managing the economy. They typically oppose efforts to charge high tax rates and to redistribute income to assist the poor. Such efforts, they argue, do not properly reward people who have earned their money through hard work.
Fiscal conservatism is the economic philosophy of prudence in government spending and debt. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke argued that a government does not have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer:
[I]t is to the property of the citizen, and not to the demands of the creditor of the state, that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged. The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity. The fortunes of individuals, whether possessed by acquisition or by descent or in virtue of a participation in the goods of some community, were no part of the creditor’s security, expressed or implied…[T]he public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large.
National conservatism is a political term used primarily in Europe to describe a variant of conservatism which concentrates more on national interests than standard conservatism as well as upholding cultural and ethnic identity, while not being outspokenly nationalist or supporting a far-right approach. In Europe, national conservatives are usually eurosceptics.
National conservatism is heavily oriented towards the traditional family and social stability as well as in favour of limiting immigration. As such, national conservatives can be distinguished from economic conservatives, for whom free market economic policies, deregulation and fiscal conservatism are the main priorities. Some commentators have identified a growing gap between national and economic conservatism: “[M]ost parties of the Right [today] are run by economic conservatives who, in varying degrees, have marginalized social, cultural, and national conservatives”. National conservatism is also related to traditionalist conservatism.
Traditionalist conservatism is a political philosophy emphasizing the need for the principles of natural law and transcendent moral order, tradition, hierarchy and organic unity, agrarianism, classicism and high culture as well as the intersecting spheres of loyalty. Some traditionalists have embraced the labels “reactionary” and “counterrevolutionary”, defying the stigma that has attached to these terms since the Enlightenment. Having a hierarchical view of society, many traditionalist conservatives, including a few Americans, defend the monarchical political structure as the most natural and beneficial social arrangement.
Cultural conservatives support the preservation of the heritage of one nation, or of a shared culture that is not defined by national boundaries. The shared culture may be as divergent as Western culture or Chinese culture. In the United States, the term “cultural conservative” may imply a conservative position in the culture war. Cultural conservatives hold fast to traditional ways of thinking even in the face of monumental change. They believe strongly in traditional values and traditional politics and often have an urgent sense of nationalism.
Social conservatism is distinct from cultural conservatism, although there are some overlaps. Social conservatives may believe that society is built upon a fragile network of relationships which need to be upheld through duty, traditional values and established institutions; and that the government has a role in encouraging or enforcing traditional values or behaviours. A social conservative wants to preserve traditional morality and social mores, often by opposing what they consider radical policies or social engineering. Social change is generally regarded as suspect.
Social conservatives today generally favour the anti-abortion position in the abortion controversy and oppose human embryonic stem cell research (particularly if publicly funded); oppose both eugenics and human enhancement (transhumanism) while supporting bioconservatism; support a traditional definition of marriage as being one man and one woman; view the nuclear family model as society’s foundational unit; oppose expansion of civil marriage and child adoption to couples in same-sex relationships; promote public morality and traditional family values; oppose atheism, especially militant atheism, secularism and the separation of church and state; support the prohibition of drugs, prostitution and euthanasia; and support the censorship of pornography and what they consider to be obscenity or indecency. Most conservatives in the United States support the death penalty.
Religious conservatism principally applies the teachings of particular religions to politics: sometimes by merely proclaiming the value of those teachings; at other times, by having those teachings influence laws.
In most democracies, political conservatism seeks to uphold traditional family structures and social values. Religious conservatives typically oppose abortion, LGBT behavior (or, in certain cases, identity), drug use, and sexual activity outside of marriage. In some cases, conservative values are grounded in religious beliefs, and conservatives seek to increase the role of religion in public life.
Paternalistic conservatism is a strand in conservatism which reflects the belief that societies exist and develop organically and that members within them have obligations towards each other. There is particular emphasis on the paternalistic obligation of those who are privileged and wealthy to the poorer parts of society. Since it is consistent with principles such as organicism, hierarchy and duty, it can be seen as an outgrowth of traditional conservatism. Paternal conservatives support neither the individual nor the state in principle, but are instead prepared to support either or recommend a balance between the two depending on what is most practical.
It stresses the importance of a social safety net to deal with poverty, support of limited redistribution of wealth along with government regulation of markets in the interests of both consumers and producers. Paternalistic conservatism first arose as a distinct ideology in the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation” Toryism. There have been a variety of one nation conservative governments. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Ministers Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Boris Johnson were or are one nation conservatives.
In Germany, during the 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck adopted policies of state-organized compulsory insurance for workers against sickness, accident, incapacity and old age. Chancellor Leo von Caprivi promoted a conservative agenda called the “New Course”.
In the United States, Theodore Roosevelt has been the main figure identified with progressive conservatism as a political tradition. Roosevelt stated that he had “always believed that wise progressivism and wise conservatism go hand in hand”. The Republican administration of President William Howard Taft was a progressive conservative and he described himself as “a believer in progressive conservatism” and President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared himself an advocate of “progressive conservatism”.
In Canada, a variety of conservative governments have been part of the Red tory tradition, with Canada’s former major conservative party being named the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1942 to 2003. In Canada, the Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen, R. B. Bennett, John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, and Kim Campbell led Red tory federal governments.
Authoritarian conservatism or reactionary conservatism refers to autocratic regimes that center their ideology around conservative nationalism, rather than ethnic nationalism, though certain racial components such as antisemitism may exist. Authoritarian conservative movements show strong devotion towards religion, tradition and culture while also expressing fervent nationalism akin to other far-right nationalist movements. Examples of authoritarian conservative leaders include António de Oliveira Salazar and Engelbert Dollfuss. Authoritarian conservative movements were prominent in the same era as fascism, with which it sometimes clashed. Although both ideologies shared core values such as nationalism and had common enemies such as communism and materialism, there was nonetheless a contrast between the traditionalist nature of authoritarian conservatism and the revolutionary, palingenetic and populist nature of fascism—thus it was common for authoritarian conservative regimes to suppress rising fascist and National Socialist movements. The hostility between the two ideologies is highlighted by the struggle for power for the National Socialists in Austria, which was marked by the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss.
Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has examined the class basis of right-wing extremist politics in the 1920–1960 era. He reports:
Conservative or rightist extremist movements have arisen at different periods in modern history, ranging from the Horthyites in Hungary, the Christian Social Party of Dollfuss in Austria, Der Stahlhelm and other nationalists in pre-Hitler Germany, and Salazar in Portugal, to the pre-1966 Gaullist movements and the monarchists in contemporary France and Italy. The right extremists are conservative, not revolutionary. They seek to change political institutions in order to preserve or restore cultural and economic ones, while extremists of the centre and left seek to use political means for cultural and social revolution. The ideal of the right extremist is not a totalitarian ruler, but a monarch, or a traditionalist who acts like one. Many such movements in Spain, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy-have been explicitly monarchist… The supporters of these movements differ from those of the centrists, tending to be wealthier, and more religious, which is more important in terms of a potential for mass support.