At Saturday’s Republican debate, several candidates were asked to define “conservatism.” Marco Rubio gave a politically-astute answer. He said conservatism embodies three principles: (1) limited government under the framework of the Constitution, (2) free-market economics and (3) peace through strength. Donald Trump gave an answer in keeping with the root word “conserve,” he conserve that which one has.
Russell Kirk, in his book The Conservative Mind, inferred the meaning of conservatism from his study of great “conservative minds” of the past. As summarized by the Kirk Center, conservatism involves six principles. As he wrote more than sixty years ago, I thought I would take the liberty of considering certain great conservative minds of more recent history. I’ll work from the Kirk Center’s template, except for a wholesale substitute for #5.
- Belief in a transcendent order or body of natural law that rules society as well as conscience. There is objective truth in the universe, and we can know it. All sources of knowledge testify to this truth, and therefore faith and reason must be reconciled. Furthermore, our knowledge of “self-evident truths” grows over time as we become more aware of our nature and that of the universe.
- Affection for the variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrow uniformity and egalitarianism of “radical” systems. We love people, not merely “the people,” and we enjoy our culture as well as other cultures. We love the planet on which we find ourselves and the entire universe in its vastness and in its tiniest details. It is all utterly amazing and beyond full comprehension. And, we are suspicious of those who would seek to impose their designs on society, as they only reveal they have no idea of the limits of their knowledge.
- Civilization needs the rule of law and something Adam Smith described as “useful inequality.” This is in contrast to the notion of a “classless society.” Conservatives believe there are natural distinctions among men, leading to inequalities of condition. Conservatives affirm equality before God and the law; anything more leads not only to servitude but also to boredom.
- The argument for property is more than economic efficiency. As Pope John Paul II taught, it is that by having something a person can call his own, and by earning his living as opposed to depending on the apparatus of the state, a person is enabled to see himself as a unique and wonderful creature, and to love himself; and, loving himself thusly, and relating to others on the basis of mutual advantage and affection, he is enabled to love others as he loves himself.
- That social institutions such as the family, churches, fraternal organizations, for-profit business organizations, charities and even governments, are animated and justified by the choices made by those entering into them. Edmund Burke recognized the “little platoons” of society, John Marshall, “eleemosynary institutions,” and they were the reason Alexis de Tocqueville said “America is great because America is good.” James Buchanan generalized the concept of self-forming social institutions with his theory of clubs. It is the nexus of libertarian and conservative thought, libertarians being concerned with freedom, and conservatives with social institutions.
- Conservatives recognize risk and reward involved in change. While we believe in progress, we accept that mistakes are and will be made by those engaged in the process of discovery. Hayek dedicated his book The Constitution of Liberty to “The unknown civilization taking shape in America.” Hopefully, after the election this fall we will again be excited about the great adventure we embarked upon with the founding of this country.