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What’s a conservative?

When I was a child, my father was driving the family somewhere or other and some political conversation came up. This was the 70’s, when conservatism was a rising star but not yet the term ascribed to anybody liberals don’t like. I remember him describing for us children the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Dad was no philosopher. He wasn’t terribly sophisticated politically. But he had a point worth contemplating.

He was frustrated with Jimmy Carter, and his explanation was that “Liberals have to have things right now.”

That’s a fascinating oversimplification, but he was on to something. If people aren’t wealthy, what do you do to help them become wealthy? Give them money. Now. By taxing others.

I’ve come to look at most political discussions through that perspective. Not so much that liberals want their solutions right now, but the understanding that no problems can be solved right now, and most can’t ever be solved.

Americans, if my father was right, are all pretty liberal in that sense. We don’t like to see people suffer and we don’t like to think that suffering can’t be ended right now.

The trouble is that this approach creates so much more suffering. I cannot fathom, for example, the suffering imposed on African-Americans when they were more or less forcibly moved into the cities and projects.

Good intentions don’t solve problems when they are accompanied by the pride – the hubris – of the person or group who considers himself or itself qualified to solve them. Compassion and capacity are not the same thing.

That is why, in my opinion, liberalism is more inclined than conservatism toward abstractions and symbolic gestures.

And it is at least one reason why the liberal considers the conservative heartless.

Of course, conservatives also make themselves look pretty heartless as well, but most of that arises from their fears of a government that, from their perspective, is completely uncontrollable.

So here we are, 2009, conservatism supposedly having been beaten to death by the events of the last 8 years and a renascent liberalism obliterating the hopes of the conservative heart.

More than anything, it seems to be an age of conservative confusion. What is a conservative? What ideology do we believe? What policies do we support?

And that’s very interesting, because those questions, especially the second, show that conservatism, a movement with great respect for tradition, is not drawing nourishment from its roots.

If there is one thing conservatism is not, nor cannot be, it is an ideology. Conservatism is the ultimate enemy of every ideology.

What then do conservatives believe?

It depends where he lives. An American conservative believes that the constitution provides the job description for the federal government and that, like every other subordinate, the federal government should focus on doing its job and leaving other people to do their jobs.

In general, the American conservative prefers the old order when political decisions were more likely to relate to daily realities than to visions of the future and undefined changes.

The conservative in America wants his government to act more humbly and circumspectly.

But are there any foundational principles to conservatism. I believe there are. I believe they can all be summarized in one principle, but this principle cannot become ideological.

That principle is reverence. The conservative soul is deeply disturbed by any irreverence, whether it be to holders of office, cultural norms, parents, tradition, religion, the neighbor, or anything else.

Conservatives revere everything according to its degree. That doesn’t mean they don’t want things to change. To the contrary. If a president shows himself incompetent in office, the conservative wants him respectfully removed. But changes must be respectful. Contempt and irreverence is the fundamental attitude of the revolutionary.

More precisely, perhaps, conservativs believe in and revere human nature. They believe it to be unalterable in its essence, though widely adaptable in its state. This probably explains why liberalism fights viscerally for evolutionary doctrines, while conservatives have a much more hesitant response to them.

To go a step further, the conservative believes that morality leads to the fulfillment and satisfaction of human nature.

He believes that the individual finds and perfects himself through active love.

He believes that reality is more important than theory.

And he believes that there is a realm of what Russell Kirk called the permanent things that matters much more than the things that change and can be changed.

Every one of these principles only provides guidance and light for the issues of the day. When a Rush Limbaugh or an Ann Coulter or any other pundit rises up to tell conservatives how they ought to think on various issues, they have betrayed a fundamental principle of conservatism: the need for judgment and personal involvement in the decision making process.

The conservative wants a small state because he wants everybody to grow up politically, to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives (which is what we mean by political freedom). When the state grows too large, the local government becomes an association of eunuchs.

The liberal, in my opinion, tends toward the large state because he wants to create a world that defies nature and only through undefined power can nature be defied for any extended period of time. It always eventually wins, but a large government apparatus can absorb and redirect an awful lot of the blows that nature directs at her enemies.

The conservative reveres the nature of things and wants to live in harmony with it.

That is why conservatism tends toward agrarian approaches to life. And it is why it opposes abstract environmentalism, but favors concrete actions on behalf of the environment.

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