What is Classical Conservatism?

I’m posting this mainly to help define the term “conservative.” It’s a misunderstood word, though it is frequently used. Many who call themselves conservatives today are actually classical liberals, who advocate a freedom from most constraints both socially and economically. I would generally call myself a classical conservative.

Here I’m speaking of conservatism broadly in the tradition of John Seldon, Edmond Burke, and Roger Scruton in contrast to the enlightenment liberalism of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and especially to his follower, the French elightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Political conservatism is consistent with the common kingdom of the Noahic covenant and the biblical reality of ethne (ethnic groups) along with their distinctive customs. It’s also more of a disposition than any particular set of political beliefs. Conservatism requires careful thinking and does not guarantee identical conclusions among its adherents. Here’s how I would define conservatism:

1. Conservatism seeks to conserve the truly Good traditions of a society. It emphasizes empirical reasoning to study the history of the laws of a society and notes the effects of changes in those laws or practices, either for better or for worse. Political judgments are then based on such historical observations. Classical conservatism does not attempt to produce a comprehensive political theory. This stands in contrast to classical liberalism, which says that a political theory can be deduced from pure reason, imagining mankind in an original state of nature and then drawing conclusions about an ideal political state. Classical liberalism teaches that human beings are fundamentally choosing individuals and that the state essentially exists to preserve the individual’s right to choose. In classical liberalism, freedom, has no essential moral content except the goodness of freedom itself.

2. Conservatism affirms natural law. Natural law observes that there are fixed moral principles by which societies must be governed for justice and the common good. Human beings are not infinitely free to choose for themselves what is good, but must live according to the broad principles of natural law, or else society will be harmed. While the ancient philosophers were able to deduce a great deal of natural law through observation and reason, the essence of natural law is revealed to all human consciences (though they suppress the truth in unrighteousness), and it is taught and clarified in the Bible.

3. Conservatism is based on the idea that human beings are real, complex, and are not infinitely malleable. Therefore, human beings are only capable of having flourishing societies in a limited number of ways. Conservatism notes that impositions of rationalistic systems on society by an intellectual class have always had unintended consequences (consider communism and fascism as obvious examples). Instead of trying to impose new rationalistic solutions to society’s problems, we ought to observe how human beings have lived in the past so we can understand how they might live best together in the future, even while thinking about careful and reasonable changes to society in light of God’s moral/natural law to correct historical problems.

4. Conservatism affirms that human beings have always naturally existed in social hierarchies. Hierarchical structures are inevitable in human society (consider parents and children). They are not inherently oppressive, since superiors and subordinates owe each other certain duties, and there is honor in each when they do their respective duties. Hierarchies are essential to passing down the traditions of a society, as well as to leading necessary changes in society. The importance of receiving wisdom gained from past experience is one important reason to give honor to fathers and mothers. Fathers and mothers “tradition” their inheritance to their children, and children should respect them because they are passing down a way of life in a particular society that has enabled it to survive. Under the influence of Christianity, Western hierarchies affirmed that leaders exist to serve, or minister to, those under their charge, never to rule down upon them oppressively.

5. Conservatism holds that societies cannot be radically changed into something different because culture is deep and cannot be engineered. Rather, needful changes in society should be incremental, slow and measured, and within the established and agreed upon institutions of that society. By contrast, radical liberalism has often proposed utopian ideals and attempted to thrust them upon society, through revolution (e.g., the French Revolution). Conservatives oppose such revolutions, but they would support drastic actions if they become necessary to restore and repair or restore institutions when they are threatened or begin to collapse.

6. Conservatism holds that no society is perfect and that injustices will inevitably occur. Gross injustices, such as race-based chattel slavery, needed to be corrected, since they were a violation of God’s moral and natural law. While we should work for justice and seek to minimize injustices, conservatives do not dream of perfectly just societies in this world. We must be content with social imperfections, without excusing them, or attempting to eliminate them all through pure reason.

Roger Scruton has some excellent lectures online about classical conservatism (I also highly commend Scruton’s documentary about Beauty). Dr. Jordan Cooper recently put up a short video with similar points. I have also benefitted from Yoram Hazony.