The Definition of Conservative

The Definition of Conservative

[1] The definition of conservative used in college class rooms and political science textbooks often reduces conservatism to a blind adherence to the past. The root of the word conservative, i.e. to conserve, is overemphasized and the conservative world view is reduced to a stubborn opposition to progress.

[2] A glance at the modern conservative movement in North America today quickly reveals that such a definition of conservative is out of date and probably more applicable to conservatism outside of the U.S. and Canada. For example, Islamic fundamentalists are sometimes referred to as “conservative” in the sense that they want to conserve a medieval view of the world, but their underlying philosophy shares nothing in common with Western conservatives.

[3] So the problem with this classical definition of conservative is simply that it is far too broad to be meaningful. After all, to define conservatism as a desire to conserve the past merely inspires the questions, which past? and, whose past? Indeed, what most modern conservatives seek to conserve is actually classical liberalism, which is hardly hostile to change.

[4] While it is true that tradition and history are of profound importance to conservatives, they do not oppose progress blindly. Conservatives believe that change and progress can be either good or evil, and that as a society we ought to progress in such a way as to maximize both freedom and virtue.

[5] Russell Kirk, a conservative very mindful of history and suspicious of progress, concedes in The Conservative Mind that “society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation.”1 Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, shrewdly asks in the footnotes of The Conscience of a Conservative, “Have we forgotten that America made its greatest progress when Conservative principles were honored and preserved?”2

[6] The definition of conservative, then, is not an opposition to progress in itself. Conservatism as a mere nostalgia for the past is not a fixed position on the political spectrum; for example, just as some conservatives fetishize life in the 1950s, so some liberals wildly idealize life in the 1960s.

Defining Principles

[7] Just like the definition of liberal, the definition of conservative can be divided into 6 key principles:

(To see a comparison between conservatism and liberalism, click here)

[8] The first of these principles, the belief in natural law, means simply that conservatives believe in a higher order of things. Good and evil, justice and injustice, rights and responsibilities are not subjective concepts to conservatives. Human beings do not make the laws of morality, nor are rights conferred upon us by governments but rather by a higher power.


[9] What conservatives agree upon is that these natural laws exist independently of human beings, and that we are subject to them even more so than written (or “positive”) law. The majority of conservatives believe that these natural laws originate with God, whereas a minority believes they exist Platonically, which is to say above God and man.

[10] As Russell Kirk put it, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”3 At the very root of the definition of conservative is a belief in the importance of virtue.

[11] The second of these defining principles is a belief in established institutions. American conservatives, for example, believe passionately that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are works of profound genius, and that they provide the best system of law and government possible. More broadly, conservatives believe in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of rule of law and good government.

[12] A very important part of the definition of conservative is the deep respect conservatives hold for the cultural institutions of church and family. In an age in which faith and family values are under constant assault in the media, conservatives maintain that these institutions are critically important for the spiritual well-being of humankind and disdain any attempt to disparage and destroy them. Moreover, the conservative asks, with what can we replace them?

[13] “An ignorant man,” observed the great Edmund Burke,

who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.4


[14] Such is the conservative response to those who would dismantle society and rebuild it to their whims. While the definition of conservative is not a blind opposition to progress, neither is it an open invitation for social experimentation.

[15] The preference for liberty over equality is the most difficult part of the definition of conservative for most people to understand, particularly since liberty and equality are almost used as synonyms in our times. Put simply, all societies face a fundamental choice between emphasizing freedom or emphasizing equality.

[16] The unfortunate reality is that we can either be equal or free, but we cannot be both. Though both the right and left wings claim to promote both freedom and equality, the right is most concerned with freedom and the left most concerned with equality. In the words of Barry Goldwater, “the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”5

[17] The fourth principle that defines conservatives is their suspicion of power and their hatred of big government. In his First Inaugural Address, President Ronald Reagan declared,


Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?6


[18] And yet, what separates conservatives from anarchists is their reluctant concession that government is a necessary evil, as without it the good are often at the mercy of the evil.

[19] “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” asked James Madison. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”7 Alas, men are not angels, and conservatives know as Madison did that we are imperfect beings and easily corrupted. For this reason, conservatives believe power must be spread out and decentralized, with adequate checks and balances to ensure that government does not devolve into tyranny.

[20] The fifth and sixth beliefs of conservatives are closely related. Conservatives believe in exceptionalism because they do not believe in perfect equality. Conservatives realize that some people inevitably have superior abilities, intelligence, and talents, and they believe that those people have a fundamental right to use and profit from their natural gifts.

[21] While it has become commonplace to regard the exceptional among us as “winners in the lottery of life” who are lifted up by the tired shoulders of average citizens, conservatives believe quite the opposite. Conservatives believe that exceptional people exist to lift us up, to improve our lives, and to give us hope. As such, John Stuart Mill insisted that “it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe in an atmosphere of freedom.”8*

[22] Finally, conservatives believe in individualism. As Barry Goldwater explains, “Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.”9

[23] Conservatives know, like Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”10

Freedom vs Virtue

[24] Most conservatives believe in all of these principles to varying extents, but their way to see the world is inevitably dominated by just two or three. Ultimately, the conservative must choose whether to serve freedom or virtue, and this choice will inevitably determine his or her own personal definition of conservative and which of the 6 principles he or she holds most dear.

[25] Social conservatives emphasize principles 1 and 2. Their definition of conservative is influenced by their faith. While they slightly prefer liberty to equality, they despair that liberty also means the freedom to make poor choices; while they believe deeply in individualism and exceptionalism, they insist that as a society we must maximize virtue, sometimes even at the expense of freedom.

[26] Fiscal conservatives, or “liberal-conservatives“, are sometimes described as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” Principles 3 and 4 are of the greatest importance to them. These conservatives are classical liberals, who have become disenfranchised from liberalism, which they see as radicalism for the sake of radicalism. Their own definition of conservative emphasizes the political and economic freedom of the individual, as they believe the individual’s spiritual life is outside the realm of government and vice versa.

[27] Such conservatives stress the importance of free markets and free choices. They are dubious as to the effectiveness of “equalization” schemes (i.e. the radical redistribution of wealth), which they fear weaken freedom, hinder progress, and harm rather than help the poor. They worry profoundly over the growth of a bureaucratic elite in which extraordinary power is invested in unelected appointees such as activist judges.

[28] A third type of conservative is the libertarian-conservative. If libertarian-conservatives have a motto, it is that government is no one’s mother. Government, these conservatives insist, should not be in the business of saving people from themselves. Moreover, they believe, an enforced morality is utterly meaningless. Human beings cannot be virtuous if they are not free to choose virtue, but rather have it forced upon them.

[29] What differentiates the liberal-conservative, the libertarian-conservative, and the proper libertarian is simply the extent to which individual freedom is emphasized. A liberal-conservative, for example, may or may not support abortion, although he or she certainly disapproves of judges deciding the issue. A libertarian-conservative may regard abortion and limited judicial activism as necessary evils, whereas a full-fledged libertarian regards abortion as an inviolable “right.”

[30] A liberal-conservative might be sympathetic toward civil unions for gay couples but oppose the creation of such an institution by a creative judge, whereas a libertarian-conservative might approve of activism in this instance given that freedom is being extended. By contrast, a libertarian would likely regard gay marriage as a pre-existing right already in the “spirit” of the Constitution.

[31] Finally, European conservatives are strongly attached to principles 2 and 5, which essentially amounts to a single belief in exceptionalism by established convention (i.e. a belief in nobility). These conservatives believe in the importance of an aristocracy, such as a monarch and a nobility, and are often skeptical of anything they see as a threat to those ancient titles, including rampant individualism and capitalism.

[32] It is admittedly questionable whether European conservatives fit within the definition of conservative provided here and whether they occupy the same place on the political spectrum as North American conservatives. Nevertheless, they are included here for the sake of comparison.

[33] At any rate, while it may seem that the definition of conservative is inherently contradictory, behind modern North American conservatism lies a coherent set of principles that most conservatives believe. Ultimately, the definition of conservative is a fittingly individual one, as every conservative must define himself or herself within the principles of conservatism.

  1. Belief in natural law
  2. Belief in established institutions
  3. Preference for liberty over equality
  4. Suspicion of power—and of human nature
  5. Belief in exceptionalism
  6. Belief in the individual

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