What is the essential element of conservatism? Beneath the perennial debate over who is and is not a conservative, 60 years after William F. Buckley founded National Review in November 1955, lies the deeper question of what conservatism is.
As an impulse, of course, conservatism is as old as politics and just as universal across cultures and systems of government. But conservatism of the American variety is more than an impulse; it is a system of political thought steeped in classical liberalism that traces its roots to the Founding Fathers and their Anglo-Irish contemporary Edmund Burke. In that sense, when we define “conservatism” we are already leaving the realm of theory and entering the world as it is, in which American soil produced a philosophy quite different from the throne-and-altar conservatism of Old Europe.
Yet, also unlike so many of its competitors in the world of political ideas, American conservatism remains a philosophy, not an ideology—a way of looking at the world and making decisions in it, rather than a rigid set of prescriptive commands. While American conservatism draws from a variety of sources, it is ultimately about drawing on the wisdom of the human experience of the largest possible number of people over the longest possible period of time.
Of course, the conclusions drawn from experience will depend on one’s values; American conservatives always had some differences in values from those of our foreign cousins (even the Canadians and Australians), owing to our distinct culture and history. Today, we face new challenges, as the growth of a secular progressivism that rejects classical liberalism leaves American conservatives feeling that the values we share in common with American liberal-progressives are so few, and the differences so many, that even discussing questions of “how” is futile.
But understanding our own philosophy is still worthwhile. Ultimately, if one is to understand conservatism, one must begin with its essential element: not the mind, the heart, nor the soul, but experience.
Some argue that the core of conservatism is the intellect, the use of reason. These tend, by and large, to be the economic conservatives, doing constant battle with the Left’s efforts to repeal the laws of economic reality in the name of “equality” or “fairness.” Or the legal conservatives, struggling to hold the line for the consistent application of the rule of law in the face of appeals to “progress,” “empathy,” or a “living Constitution.” (The economic-analysis-of-law movement sits neatly at the intersection of both). Or, at times, the national security hawks, arguing for more cold-eyed realism and fewer appeals to the self-abnegating moral vanities of the moment.
All of these have their point. Reason and intellect have a vital role in conservatism. But the intellect, taken alone, carries its own dangers and limitations. Polls regularly show that Americans with post-graduate educations tend to be less, rather than more conservative, and that’s been true for years. Conservative intellectuals in particular have often been late to join the populist waves that have given political conservatism its greatest victories.
More broadly, intellectuals are rightly notorious for building castles in the air that have neither appeal nor connection to the common man and the world he inhabits. Intellectuals as a class have fallen prey to nearly all the worst ideological fads and enthusiasms to sweep the Western world since 1789.
Too often, intellectuals have left themselves defenseless against moral monstrosities and the seductions of power (especially where the ideology in question offers to give power to intellectuals as a class). A conservatism solely of the intellect can be a powerful force in a debate society and a valued contributor to the movement’s leadership, but alone it will never be either politically resonant or wholly trustworthy with power.
The failings of intellectuals give rise to the opposite argument: that the weakness of liberal-progressivism, which conservatives must remedy, is precisely that it is a sterile intellectual creed, reducing man to his wants and his biological imperatives and neglecting what really animates the human animal: pride, anger, fear, and love of family and country and all that is dear and familiar.
Law-and-order and national-security conservatives will tell you the Left’s legalisms leave it unable to grapple with the true threats posed by dangerous men and too limp to appeal to legitimate needs and methods for gaining the people’s loyalty and redressing their injuries. We’ve seen people on the Left who demand that we bring terrorists to our shores and put them in our prisons, and who cannot for the life of them understand why anyone would object to that, because they have locked themselves so thoroughly into their own mental straitjackets that they can’t use simple common sense.
Students of patriotism know that men will fight for their homes in ways that they would never fight for international abstractions. Students of culture will tell you that all the studies and programs in the world are no substitute for what a man will do for his family if government stops trying to substitute itself for his role. Critics of abortion will tell you that the cold utilitarianism of the “pro-choice” movement and its clinical approach to the most powerful emotional force known to humanity—a mother’s love for her child—leaves women who make that fatal choice with an emotional wound they may never entirely salve. Critics of big government argue that central planning and the rule of experts is doomed to grief because it passes the point where a man is willing to be nagged.
The heart is indeed a powerful and mysterious thing, one we must account for in public policy. But the heart can be an even more treacherous guide than the mind, more prone to romantic fantasies that are all the more inexplicable when the madness passes. Conservatives may thrive at times on their connection to deep emotional currents, but we are just as often called upon to curb them.
A further school of thought is that the core dividing line between conservatives and liberals is faith. Mind and heart alike may be powerful tools, but they can only be properly guided by an informed conscience, which is a gift from God.
The devotees of the role of faith in conservatism have polls on their side: even in the worst of times, regular churchgoers are conservatism’s most faithful core. The dissipation of churchgoers among the Democratic Party’s voting base has paralleled the decline of that party’s once-significant conservative wing. Strong religious faith is a powerful indicator of being conservative, more so even than having a family, a mortgage, or a job. Turning from politics to policy, certainly there is much to say for the view that a society that loses its faith loses its conservatism and, ultimately, its moral bearings and even its desire to populate the Earth with the next generation.
But faith alone is too narrow a definition, and not merely because such a definition ignores the contributions of non-believers to the movement. Religions are notoriously fractious and factional, so while a political consensus can be built on broadly shared moral foundations that themselves are the products of faith, one cannot be built directly on faith itself.
In any event, many faiths simply don’t provide the answers needed to grapple with the myriad banal matters of politics, and are rightly suspicious of entangling themselves in trying to answer them. Conservatives may include both people of faith and ideas rooted in faith, but to get how conservatism works, something more earthbound is required.
Reason, emotion, and faith are all important. But the crucial and distinctive element of conservatism is experience. There’s a reason why people in general tend to grow more conservative as they age: partly because they have more responsibilities and pay more taxes, yes, but also because they have seen more of life. That process is only a microcosm of the broader conservative belief in tradition: not tradition as nostalgia or fear of the unknown, but rather tradition as the proving ground of human experience, the ultimate laboratory of humanity. Experience, as the saying goes, is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other.
Principles and Ideology
Defining conservatism as the product of experience is not to deny that conservatism (American-style, at least) has general and indeed indispensable principles that reflect our values: patriotism, individual liberty, free enterprise, the rule of law, protection of innocent life, the centrality of faith to an informed conscience and a meaningful life.
But it is experience and tradition that guide us as conservatives in applying those principles in the real world and in resolving the tensions when those values conflict, as values often do. Indeed, realism about the fact that circumstances often force us to choose between competing core values is itself one of the central conservative insights derived from human experience.
It is also true that the conservative movement has room within it for a variety of ideologies. But conservatism itself is a philosophy, not an ideology, and every kind of ideology on the Right comes to grief when it loses its moorings in experience and tradition. Judge Richard Posner, for example, has for years espoused—in media ranging from his judicial opinions to his blog posts—probably the most sophisticated version of one conservative ideology: the relentless search for economic efficiency and the application of that same methodology to every aspect of life.
Now, the search for efficiency-maximizing rules is a useful lens for analyzing problems, but man does not live by efficiency alone, and the public wisely tends to balk when told that it should accept results people view as unjust, cold-hearted, or immoral for no other reason than that it’s the most efficient way of doing things.
Likewise, libertarianism is a vital element of every conservative’s intellectual toolkit; the libertarian questions are the ones we need our representatives to never stop asking. Why does the government need to be doing this? Why the federal government, not states or localities? Is the problem caused by what the government is already doing? Could private business provide a solution if government stopped getting in its way? Should individuals bear the costs of their own choices? These are essential lines of inquiry, and the libertarian skepticism they embody is of great value.
But libertarianism has only questions, not answers; it is not a workable program so much as a Socratic exercise. Just try going to your local town or city council meeting and suggesting privatizing the fire department if you want an illustration of what happens when dogmatic libertarianism collides with common experience. Even when we ask the best of questions, if we want the answers, we must look to the world as it is and historically has been.
Translating Experience Into Policy
The conservative preference for reliance on life experience manifests itself, procedurally, in four major ways: a preference for democracy and the rule of written law over rule by judges and other “experts”; a preference for free markets over centralized planning; a preference for federalism and deliberative democracy over one-size-fits-all centralized government, direct democracy and pure majoritarianism; and respect for tradition in all things.
Democracy may not seem like a point of controversy in modern America, but it is, and conservatives time and again end up standing on the side of increasing the power of democracy in its long struggle against centralized, unaccountable authority.
Now, conservatives generally do not fetishize democracy for its own sake. Many conservatives would share Winston Churchill’s observation that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Indeed, it’s not hard to find conservatives who would, at least in theory, be perfectly happy to live under a monarchy if it respected liberty, free markets, the rule of law and the other values treasured by conservatives. The Founding Fathers themselves were mostly content to call themselves loyal subjects of the king so long as their established rights were respected. Experience, not ideology, taught them otherwise.
Yet conservatives in modern America are not only staunch defenders of democracy, they are often—as in the case of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—eager to evangelize it around the world. Why? Because long experience has shown that, in Churchill’s more famous phrase, it is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
The good king may be preferable to messy democracy, but the good king is a rare breed—one is far from guaranteed to get a good king at the outset, and even if you do, he is subject to the corrupting temptations of power and difficult to be rid of without bloodshed if he goes astray. Democracies are, we know from experience, less apt to make war on one another, and more pliable in correcting their own errors than other forms of government.
When coupled with the separation of powers, democratic governments are also, whatever their periodic failings in this regard, less likely to make dramatic changes generally and specifically less apt to toss away long-recognized rights of the citizen and long-established forms of common sense. As George Orwell wrote in explaining the deficiency of government by so-called experts:
The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.
Democracy’s virtues arise from that connection to the common man, who is valuable not because there is great virtue in being “common,” but precisely because the common man, being more numerous than the uncommon man, has more human experiences—and more opportunities to learn from his mistakes. Democracy draws from a broader pool of human experience than other forms of government, by involving the greatest number of people in the making of decisions, thus bringing to bear the most wisdom (the most folly, too, but individual decision-makers are hardly immune to folly; the difference is that the really eccentric and dangerous forms of folly are diluted when you poll a larger number of people).
This is precisely what separates conservatism from the liberal-progressive model by which the wisdom of the people and their representatives is considered suspect if it collides with “progress” or “data” or the “conscience” of a much smaller number of experts. This becomes especially obvious when judges arrogate to themselves the power to decide questions like what rights are “fundamental” or what punishments are uncivilized, even when the public has voted them into law.
Abrogation of democratic enactments—especially those embodying the myriad individual and social judgments that compose experience and tradition—by judges is unconservative in three ways: it substitutes the experience of the few for that of the many; it is often based solely on appeals to a narrow type of professional legal reasoning, rather than the competing judgments of reason, emotion, faith, tradition, and experience that inform the views of the populace as a whole; and it involves pronouncing rules that are inflexible and hard to change if proven faulty through trial and error.
Conservatives do, of course, recognize that sometimes the judiciary is charged with restraining the popular will, but the judiciary acts legitimately in doing so only when it is bringing to bear the popular judgments of prior generations, written down and voted upon with due deliberation. The core concept of conservative judicial review is to invoke constitutional limitations grounded in tradition and blessed at some time in the past by the people—in short, to say that the judgment of the people today must give way only to a judgment made with greater reflection by the people in the past.
Yet the Framers of the Constitution nonetheless allowed for the possibility—in Article V’s amendment process—that the people could always win out in the end over their predecessors, but only if their determination to change the constitution was sufficiently sustained and widespread. This vision of gradual and broad-based change over time is precisely the opposite of the progressive vision of sudden, jolting, permanent revisions by small numbers of legal specialists. Voters gave us the Bill of Rights; judges gave us Dred Scott.
The judiciary is hardly the only area where liberal-progressives seek to erode democratic decision-making and its necessary companion, democratic accountability, i.e., the means for the people, upon deciding that something has been tried and hasn’t worked, to hold responsible the people ultimately in charge. The erosion of democratic accountability by the waters of big government progressivism can be seen in the proliferation of independent agencies, the rise in power of unelected international institutions, the creation of this or that permanent mandated legal entitlement, and the use of the federal government to relieve states of direct responsibility for financing their own spending. All are destructive to the basic principle that the best decisions are those made by the most people and subject to their continual review as experience warrants.
In foreign affairs, the enthusiasm for democracy has sometimes created controversy within and without the conservative movement. Critics are apt to decry the Bush-era view of the value of democratizing Iraq and other Middle Eastern states as being unduly utopian social engineering. While this critique is not without its merits (given the difficulty that democracy has faced in setting down roots in cultures unaccustomed to it), there is nonetheless a powerful argument that the Iraq War in particular was about removing the obstacle of a bad government and replacing it with the kind of governing structure that has been proven by experience to be the best option across many different cultures over the past several decades.
The conservative part of the neoconservative argument for exporting democratic institutions (today as at the end of the Cold War) is that since men can change governments more easily than governments can change men (that being why the American Revolution succeeded where the French and Russian Revolutions failed), the best one can do to address the problems of dysfunctional societies is to remove the obstacle of a problematic centralized government and give the people the space to work things out on their own, by reference to their own experiences in their own cultures.
The conservative enthusiasm for free markets is, at the end of the day, simply another aspect of conservative enthusiasm for democracy. Both have their failings, but the idea in each case is that the individual decisions of the many from their own experience, when added together, will produce more reliable value judgments over time than the dictates of the few, however well-intentioned or technically proficient.
Free markets for products, for investment capital, and for labor are the ultimate example of trial and error, and they work only when the error part is permitted to exact its price. The businessman or the labor union leader who is bailed out today will not remember the sting of failure well enough to avoid repeating his mistakes tomorrow.
Federalism and Deliberation
Louis Brandeis famously referred to American state legislatures as “laboratories of democracy.” Brandeis was no conservative, but he understood that the best way to promote progress in government over time was to start small, test ideas in one place, and see if they work before imposing them across the nation.
Federalism in the United States is an accident of history, but then conservatism is all about accepting the accidents of history if time tests them and finds them useful. What makes the conservative preference for federalism consistent with the preference for democracy and free markets is the idea that, yet again, the states provide a broader base for decision-making and a wider scope for stress-testing different approaches: 50 state legislatures are better than one, and state and local lawmakers, being closer to the people they govern, are more apt to make decisions based on local experience rather than ideology. States and localities can and do make terrible mistakes, but the nation as a whole is not saddled with them so long as other states and localities are free to witness the experience and choose a different path.
On economic issues, this is obvious: different tax and regulatory structures produce different results, and over time people and businesses migrate to the ones that produce results they prefer. But on social issues, it can be even more urgent because of the difficulty in resolving socially divisive questions in a way that respects differences of opinion.
The nation would have a much more stable basis for resolving debates about, say, legalized marijuana if there was more confidence that differing localities could experiment with different rules without having to export them nationwide (to say nothing of questions like same-sex marriage or abortion). Even on those issues where forceful federal intervention has been needed to resolve situations that are truly both intractable and intolerable, like slavery and Jim Crow, federal action did not come until there had been decades of experience with free states to offer a positive model to provide a contrast.
Along with federalism there is the deliberative process of democracy, which includes the separation of powers, a preference for representative democracy over referendum, a preference for a more informed electorate (even if that means electoral procedures that don’t prioritize maximizing voter turnout), and speed bumps like the legislative filibuster and the onerous Article V process for amending the Constitution.
Whereas liberal-progressives prefer to let the voters exercise their immediate impulses and then use the courts, agencies, and other anti-democratic bodies to override those voter preferences that conflict with those of the elites, conservatives prefer to invest the democratic process with the proper sense of seriousness and deliberation at the front end and live with the consequences.
In the case of the filibuster, aside from the simple fact that—like federalism—it has been tested by experience, there is practical wisdom in recognizing that many of the things done by Congress prove difficult to undo, and they should therefore not be so easy to do in the first place. People make mistakes, and even electorates and markets can err in the short run, but the more people whose experience you involve in a decision, the larger your sample size, the better your chances of getting it right.
Our democratic system respects the ultimate right and power of the majority, but it contains checks and balances precisely to prevent short-term majorities from saddling the country with long-term decisions. A Senate majority large enough to break a filibuster takes time and geographically broad-based appeal to develop, as it should. Even the high Democratic tides of 2006 and 2008 weren’t robust enough to provide the margin of error against the death of a single senator that put an end to the Democrats’ 60-vote majority.
Federal legislation, and in particular large, “comprehensive” federal programs and regulatory schemes, are almost never repealed, pretty much regardless of whether they work well or not. They’re generally designed that way: the president promises a for-all-time solution to a problem, bills are written so as not to require reauthorization or in some cases (for new entitlements) not to require even new appropriations, bureaucracies are created, unionized civil servants hired, businesses, lobbyists, and legal advisers grow up around the regulatory scheme, and self-interested segments of the population grow dependent on the status quo. The ships are burned behind us.
Our current system of government has grown so proficient at ossifying federal programs that it has become a caricature of tradition stripped of its trial-and-error virtues: we get the dead hand of tradition ruling the future without the ability to correct it if it proves in practice not to work. The last thing anyone should want is for such long-term decisions to be made by one political party solely on the basis of winning a narrow and transient majority in one election cycle.
Finally, we come to tradition. Perhaps the classic distillation of the antithesis of conservatism is the line popularized by Robert F. Kennedy that “some people look at the world as it is and ask why; I look at the world as it could be and ask why not.” Now, this credo is a wonderful one for the inventor, the entrepreneur, the academic opening a graduate seminar. Asking “why not” is a fine way to stretch the mind to seek ways to try new things and find new answers.
But it’s a horrible way to make public policy, which always must be rooted in knowing why the world is as it is. Thus conservatives prefer the opposite dictum, as famously explained by G.K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
Conservatives can love theory, and experiment with all sorts of intellectual exercises, but fundamentally the only sustainable basis for conservatism is to offer solutions that already have a basis in things proven to work in the real world. That doesn’t mean conservatives are slavish devotees of the status quo; far from it. Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that a society without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation is as true today as it was 220 years ago.
The difference between the Burke and Chesterton worldviews and the RFK worldview is respect for tradition. I’ve listed tradition fourth among the ways in which conservatives put the value of experience into practice for a reason: to emphasize that it’s only one of several tools conservatives use to determine what works and what doesn’t, what is and isn’t consistent with human nature, what solutions can be implemented without massive unintended consequences. But it remains experience’s ultimate proving ground because it draws on an even larger sample size of human judgments and human life experiences than democracy or markets or federalism.
Social, cultural, political, religious, legal, and economic traditions incorporate within them the vast sweep of thousands of years of trial and error by billions of individuals. As Chesterton was fond of saying, tradition is the true democracy, superior to the tyranny of whatever generation happens to be walking around at a particular moment. Human beings do things in particular ways for reasons they often do not even understand or think about because someone before them tried and witnessed the results.
Liberal-progressives may love calling themselves pragmatists too, of course, but a pragmatism that discards tradition deprives itself of the raw material to test whether a purportedly pragmatic solution actually works, and confines itself to unduly small sample sizes in measuring what does.
What is most ironic about the Left’s disdain for tradition is that it emanates from the same people who are most stridently worshipful of Darwinian evolutionary biology and most insistent that it makes sense even in the absence of the Divine. I have no quarrel with evolution as a scientific theory, but to recognize the basic mechanism of natural selection is by necessity to admit the value of tradition as a fundamental organizing principle of nature: that which works over time prospers, and that which does not falls by the wayside, even without the visible guiding hand of any centralized power.
Tradition, properly understood, is not stasis; it is change, but change over time by constant experimentation with the new and comparison of its results to the old. It is the gradual accrual of the lessons of trial and error of countless individuals. It changes when new things are proven to work, and old things are found to have become un-useful.
Tradition protects us from the tyranny of small sample sizes, by delivering to us the lessons drawn from experience of prior generations. It is growth that is organic to the human family. It is the school of mankind; and all the dictates and mandates of government can make us learn at no other. You cannot believe in moral progress of any kind if you do not believe in tradition, only a sort of moral Brownian motion in which nothing learned today has any guarantee against being unlearned tomorrow.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In short, deliberative democracy, free markets, federalism, tradition, and the rule of written law are all valuable for the same reason: they include the largest number of people in the making of decisions. Conservative successes in politics and policy have always been rooted in experience, in offering solutions that were consistent with the common experience of voters and that stood in contrast to the liberal-progressives’ impractical efforts to bend the world to fit their theories.
Conservatives rose from the 1960s to the high water marks of 1980 and 1994 by connecting with real worries about liberal theories run amok in law enforcement, tax, and welfare policy, and by offering solutions that were easily connected to common-sense experience and historical tradition, or were successfully tested locally. Obituaries of Jack Kemp, for example, noted that his view of the supply-side virtues of reducing marginal tax rates was based on study of how John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts worked in the 1960s.
By contrast, conservatives under George W. Bush struggled when the public was unconvinced that we were being conservative: when voters believed the Iraq War or Social Security reform to be unduly ambitious rather than in line with the lessons of experience and tradition. The conservative resurgence at the polls in 2010 was driven, in large part, by public recognition that the Democrats under President Obama were doing things that just don’t, in common experience, make sense.
If the ebb and flow of electoral politics is to turn the way of conservative candidates and ideas in 2016, it will require that Republicans—as the only home for either—appeal to the popular sense that there are better, proven ways of doing things. In the longer term, conservatives going forward should not take this lesson as a reason never to propose big ideas and big solutions, but the movement’s many ideological factions can best sell themselves to the public by respecting the value of experience.
Take control at the local or state level to test-run ideas, as many GOP governors have done (one reason why President Obama fought so hard to compel GOP governors to accept stimulus money and spend it as he wanted it spent, or to go along with Obamacare exchanges and Medicaid expansion, is precisely to prevent any governor from offering a different model of how to do things). Explain to voters why and how conservative proposals are consistent with things that have worked in the past, and why and how the Left’s ideas seek to impose ideology on reality rather than the other way around. Principles are fine things, but the voters by and large see our principles as secondary to a decent respect for how things work and what people are really like.
The conservative may seek to promote many good values, but liberal-progressives too have their own values. The conservative may make moving appeals to reason, emotion, and faith, but liberal-progressives have their own appeals. The conservative may offer a hopeful vision of the future, but liberal-progressives offer their own vision and their own hope.
At the end of the day, what makes conservatism both distinct and viable is not the castles it builds in the air, but the roots that hold it deep in the ground. The essential element of conservatism is that by learning from experience and tradition, it reflects the world as it really is.