What is a conservative?
I have struggled with defining this question for a long, long time. Several times I have begun to write a message on it, but have stopped, finding my definition to be lacking. Even this one may not be perfect, but this is my attempt to define what exactly this political term means in today’s climate.
First, I must start off by saying that political monikers change through time. What is progressive today will not be tomorrow. What was conservative 200 years ago is something very different from what a conservative is today.
The Founders of the United States of America may or may not be conservatives today. Its impossible to imagine what Alexander Hamilton may look like today. Would he reject the liberal points of view in terms of the reach of government, even though he was more a of a big government founder? We cannot know this for sure. What of Jefferson? His beliefs were in some ways very conservative in today’s views, but then again, wildly liberal in others. Libertarian? Perhaps, but we simply cannot know with certainty on Hamilton, Jefferson, or any early leader.
So it is through time. What about Lincoln? The first GOP president freed the slaves and fought a war to protect the union against the claims of states rights, hardly attributes that would be given to the party today (not to suggest today’s GOP wishes a return to slavery– far from it). Even Eisenhower may not be the same leader today that he was in the 1950’s. Would JFK be a Democrat, or a Republican? His beliefs seem to line up more closely with today’s GOP than with the Democrats.
But the label “conservative” means something today. It is not an empty word. Some use it to deride their opponents, while others laud other conservatives. The same can be said of liberals and progressives, but since I am seeking to define conservative ideals rather than liberal or progressive, they can be left alone.
What, then, does it mean in today’s climate? Some use it to show a commitment to the ideals of the Founders, who may or may not have been conservative themselves. Some use it to demonstrate the idea that the best government is small government. Others still celebrate conservatism through religious commitment and purity. The concept is expressed in other ways, too. Further, conservatives can come in various levels. To some, it is enough to be less progressive than liberals. Others want no government at all, while still some allow a strong government to enact socially conservative ideals. Some are only economic conservatives
And in most of them, there is truth. Conservative can contain all of these things, but not all are necessary to be conservative. There is only one attribute of conservatism that I think is necessary: a focus on iindependence.
This might seem overly simplified, but that is it. That is all a conservative is. He believes nothing else in life except that our independence is what matters most. Everything else stems from that simple idea. The freedom to run a business; the freedom to use our own money; the freedom to worship as we please; the freedom to live our lives as we see fit; the freedom to accept or reject ideas without fear of punishment. The conservative also recognizes that others share this vision and these same freedoms
Its ironic in that some of that has been adopted, although perverted, by liberals. The freedom to do what we want is something the liberals live to hang their hats on. However, that is tempered by the idea that while some can do what they want, it is simply wrong for others to push their views on those who are different. That is not a conservative position, because a conservative would say that each is indeed entitled to his views, whether they agree or not.
Of course, there will be discussion of being right or wrong, because it is natural. An exchange of ideas is key to a free society, and here again we see a difference between a conservative and a liberal. While a conservative promotes discussion, and liberals seek to shut it down. While a conservative may be appalled at a view, he will teach the person why that is wrong. Just the same, the liberal will shut it down.
If a conservative’s main trait is independence, it is necessary to discuss what dependence is to distinguish the ideas and define what independence looks like further. Dependence is relying on someone else to do something, whereas Independence is doing it on your own. Dependence, then, is what liberals espouse. While they claim it is for freedom and equality that they push for various policies, freedom and equality are different concepts than Independence. Freedom is the ability or inability to do something, and equality means that the weight given something is roughly the same. Dependence vs. independence is who can do what.
So, how to liberals espouse dependence? They do so by stating that the people are unable to achieve certain goals on their own and require intervention. Whether the goal is who to sleep with or how to pay bills, they need something, most often the government, to provide the means to do so. The individual is dependant on something other than himself; the individual is therefore not independent.
Before closing, I’d like to point out one more thing. There is another term out there that confuses the issues: libertarian. Libertarians, in short, cover a wide range of positions– some are conservative, and others are liberal. They essentially want the government out of their lives on whatever issue(s) it may be. This is different from a conservative in that conservatives recognize and accept that the government has a positive role to play. Where a libertarian would push the government out of any issue, the conservative would allow the government a role, albeit a small role.
A conservative believes the role the government should play in society is not to micromanage, nor to let loose everyone to their own devices. A conservative’s government would be active in society promoting independence. Most often, that means backing off, but it does leave open the prospect of it getting involved if it needs to. When it does get involved, its involvement is to be minimal and narrowly focused to address whatever it is called to address.
Why does a conservative accept a government’s involvement? Simple, because a government is necessary. As tempting as it is to argue that a government-less society would be bliss, its result is nothing but chaos and the strong picking on the weak. Stated differently, a ruling class would develop on its own wherein this class would make the weaker class dependant on the ruling class. Rule and order are necessary, and that is what government provides. Because rule and order are necessary, government is necessary.
However, as I have emphasized, a liberal government that is too far reaching creates dependency, and one that does too little allows people to live in chaos wherein a system of the strong ruling the weak results. Only a conservative government respects and promotes independence. Regardless of too much intervention or too little, the result is the same– one group dependant on the other.
Is this definition perfect? I wouldn’t think so, but I think it does capture the essence of what makes a conservative. Its the independence to pursue whatever we want regardless that we find the most freedom. It may not be the most equitable system, as some will fail when others succeed. But all have the same opportunity to do either. In our independence, we have the freedom liberals want, and we avoid the reality that society can never, ever, be fully equal.
Let me know what you think conservatism means.