…I do not think it means what you think it means.
Thus the immortal words of Inigo Montoya begat a popular meme used to call out someone else’s incorrect use of a word or phrase. And well it should; words mean things. At least they should be allowed to mean things if we hope to get on in life. When words or ideas are assigned meanings contrary to their original definition chaos ensues. This is particularly problematic of ideologies, worldviews, and religions where descriptions are complex and easily misunderstood.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in efforts to apply the word “conservative” to the ideas expressed by president-elect Donald Trump. In a later post I hope to explore what Trump’s unconventional ramblings represent, but for the time being I’m concerned with a much more pressing question: what exactly is a conservative?
Summarizing any political worldview is a daunting task. The most lucid explanation of what defines a conservative I’m familiar with is Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles. Kirk begins by stressing conservatism isn’t so much an ideology as it is a “state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”
In woefully inadequate summary of Kirk’s work, conservatives believe:
Most importantly, there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. Our highest aim is to express our understanding of supernatural order through inferior manmade laws.
An adherence to custom, convention, and continuity is preferable to radical revolution.
Modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore, deference should be given to ideas of the past.
Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.
For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. Efforts to wipe out inequalities often do nothing more than bring people down rather than raise anyone up.
Human institutions are imperfectible and the pursuit of utopia often produces hell on earth.
Freedom and property rights are closely linked. The enemies of liberty always seek to diminish property rights for the sake of some common good.
Voluntary community should be praised just as involuntary collectivism should be opposed.
There must be prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. The best way to preserve civil government is to carefully balance power so that no one person, group, or majority can fully control the other.
Progress must be reasoned and temperate; the cult of Progress, which teaches that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old, must be opposed.
A conservative is one who believes the role of government should be limited to only those things it was originally created to do, such as maintaining defense, courts of law, a monetary system, and basic infrastructure. A conservative is also someone who believes promoting stability and retaining traditional social institutions is preferable to bloody revolutions or coups. For example, while a conservative may believe in lower taxes, they would also believe it’s best that we arrive at lower taxes through a stable, legislative process rather than the mandate of some magistrate or popular revolt.
As the Republican party has traditionally been seen to be the “conservative” political party in the United States, it will become increasingly important to differentiate between conservatism and competing ideologies that may be advanced by the party set to take control come January. Conservatism can only advance when there is a clear understanding of what it means.