What Is Conservatism?

What is conservatism?  It is a question that could be answered a thousand different ways.  On the modern American political scene, conservatism is often portrayed as outdated, offensive, and inconsistent with the rapidly changing times.

Yet, at its core, conservatism is still a practical, applicable, and logical political philosophy — a philosophy deeply concerned with maintaining what is good in society while rejecting dangerous and idiotic pipe dreams from the Left.

The most convincing argument for conservatism was presented by 20th-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott.  Oakeshott presents a conservatism that seems easy to accept and understand.  The basis of Oakeshott's argument for conservatism is the idea of familiarity.

In his landmark work, On Being Conservative, Oakeshott writes, "To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances[.] ... [T]hey [conservative values] center upon a propensity to use and enjoy what is available ... rather than what was or what may be."  In other words, to be conservative means to prefer certain belief systems and styles of living and human behavior more than other types.  It also means to appreciate what exists in the current social system without a pining for a future that might never exist.

A rudimentary view on Oakeshott's conservatism is that it simply prefers the familiar over the unfamiliar and the proven good over unproven potential, or, as he says it, "present laughter to utopian bliss."  Oakeshott's conservatism is an appreciation for the good that presently exists in the world.

At the most basic level of human life, there are preferences for food, music, and types of employment.  On a more political level, one might prefer to maintain the good aspects of a society, such as basic freedoms of speech and religion, rather than hypothetically seeking what could be.

Additionally, a key aspect of Oakeshott's conservative political philosophy is his view on change.  Just like 18th-century conservative British philosopher Edmund Burke, Oakeshott finds change a sometimes necessary thing, but a thing that should be carried out with caution and restraint.  He argues that conservatives oppose change not because they don't think the future could be better; rather, they appreciate and enjoy what currently exists and believe that it should remain in place.

Elsewhere in On Being Conservative, Oakeshott writes, "[H]e [a conservative] will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden ... to be conservative is not to be averse from change ... it is also a manner of accommodating ourselves to changes ... for, change is a threat to identity."  In other words, when change does have to occur, it should happen in incremental stages.  A conservative finds large and sudden change to be dangerous and impulsive because no one can predict the ultimate outcome of that change.

Conservatism is about preparation for change and how to adapt one's identity to that change without losing his values or belief system.  This argument is convincing and applicable in American politics today.  While one might appreciate change and reform when needed, it seems reasonable that the change be carried out in a conservative manner.  The future could offer promising change, with the advance of innovative technologies, but the change has to be safeguarded by conservatives to ensure that nothing occurs too quickly and potentially rescinds what is good within a society as well.

Applied both to the governmental system and international incidents, Oakeshott's conservatism can be seen in the real world.  Because Oakeshott is a conservative, he doesn't believe that the unproven and untested dreams of politicians of the liberal disposition should be imposed upon the entire population of a society.  This means that people should have the right to determine their own potentially conservative destiny without the impositions of a "forward-looking" government.

To understand this interpretation of conservatism, one should consider China in the mid-20th century.  In the early 1900s, China had witnessed an era of social upheaval with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent reign of warlords and the heavy-handed nationalist party.  This ultimately led to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following World War II.  However, once the CCP led by Mao Zedong took power, its leaders implemented a series of reforms known as the Great Leap Forward to transform Chinese society.

These "reforms" ultimately led to the death of tens of millions of Chinese citizens.

Oakeshott, a contemporary of the social upheaval within China, was fundamentally opposed to the unbridled changes carried out by the CCP because they were unproven and eventually led to the death of millions of people.  A conservative of Oakeshott's disposition would have argued for restraint and caution and would have preferred small-changes being made by the Qing Dynasty or nationalists without the social turmoil and death caused by the communists.

Oakeshott believed that a conservative attitude toward change can help prevent the extinction of beliefs and identity, but it also prevents the dreams of the few (Mao's CCP) to be forced upon the masses.  In the case of mid-20th-century China, the dreams of revolutionizing the culture were imposed upon people who simply wanted a better life.

A conservative who agrees with Oakeshott must ask a simple question every time a government or revolutionary proposes mass change within a society: has the far-reaching initiative he created benefited the populace more than the supposed tyranny or backwardness it deposed?  In most cases, the answer will be no.

 Conservatism can mean a lot of things, but Oakeshott, a brilliant conservative thinker, sees conservatism as the maintenance of what is good in a society and the aversion of unneeded social upheaval.

Andrew Cunningham is a published author and a junior at the University of Illinois, Springfield.  Follow his writings at Conservative Roundtable.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

What is conservatism?  It is a question that could be answered a thousand different ways.  On the modern American political scene, conservatism is often portrayed as outdated, offensive, and inconsistent with the rapidly changing times.

Yet, at its core, conservatism is still a practical, applicable, and logical political philosophy — a philosophy deeply concerned with maintaining what is good in society while rejecting dangerous and idiotic pipe dreams from the Left.

The most convincing argument for conservatism was presented by 20th-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott.  Oakeshott presents a conservatism that seems easy to accept and understand.  The basis of Oakeshott's argument for conservatism is the idea of familiarity.

In his landmark work, On Being Conservative, Oakeshott writes, "To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances[.] ... [T]hey [conservative values] center upon a propensity to use and enjoy what is available ... rather than what was or what may be."  In other words, to be conservative means to prefer certain belief systems and styles of living and human behavior more than other types.  It also means to appreciate what exists in the current social system without a pining for a future that might never exist.

A rudimentary view on Oakeshott's conservatism is that it simply prefers the familiar over the unfamiliar and the proven good over unproven potential, or, as he says it, "present laughter to utopian bliss."  Oakeshott's conservatism is an appreciation for the good that presently exists in the world.

At the most basic level of human life, there are preferences for food, music, and types of employment.  On a more political level, one might prefer to maintain the good aspects of a society, such as basic freedoms of speech and religion, rather than hypothetically seeking what could be.

Additionally, a key aspect of Oakeshott's conservative political philosophy is his view on change.  Just like 18th-century conservative British philosopher Edmund Burke, Oakeshott finds change a sometimes necessary thing, but a thing that should be carried out with caution and restraint.  He argues that conservatives oppose change not because they don't think the future could be better; rather, they appreciate and enjoy what currently exists and believe that it should remain in place.

Elsewhere in On Being Conservative, Oakeshott writes, "[H]e [a conservative] will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden ... to be conservative is not to be averse from change ... it is also a manner of accommodating ourselves to changes ... for, change is a threat to identity."  In other words, when change does have to occur, it should happen in incremental stages.  A conservative finds large and sudden change to be dangerous and impulsive because no one can predict the ultimate outcome of that change.

Conservatism is about preparation for change and how to adapt one's identity to that change without losing his values or belief system.  This argument is convincing and applicable in American politics today.  While one might appreciate change and reform when needed, it seems reasonable that the change be carried out in a conservative manner.  The future could offer promising change, with the advance of innovative technologies, but the change has to be safeguarded by conservatives to ensure that nothing occurs too quickly and potentially rescinds what is good within a society as well.

Applied both to the governmental system and international incidents, Oakeshott's conservatism can be seen in the real world.  Because Oakeshott is a conservative, he doesn't believe that the unproven and untested dreams of politicians of the liberal disposition should be imposed upon the entire population of a society.  This means that people should have the right to determine their own potentially conservative destiny without the impositions of a "forward-looking" government.

To understand this interpretation of conservatism, one should consider China in the mid-20th century.  In the early 1900s, China had witnessed an era of social upheaval with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent reign of warlords and the heavy-handed nationalist party.  This ultimately led to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following World War II.  However, once the CCP led by Mao Zedong took power, its leaders implemented a series of reforms known as the Great Leap Forward to transform Chinese society.

These "reforms" ultimately led to the death of tens of millions of Chinese citizens.

Oakeshott, a contemporary of the social upheaval within China, was fundamentally opposed to the unbridled changes carried out by the CCP because they were unproven and eventually led to the death of millions of people.  A conservative of Oakeshott's disposition would have argued for restraint and caution and would have preferred small-changes being made by the Qing Dynasty or nationalists without the social turmoil and death caused by the communists.

Oakeshott believed that a conservative attitude toward change can help prevent the extinction of beliefs and identity, but it also prevents the dreams of the few (Mao's CCP) to be forced upon the masses.  In the case of mid-20th-century China, the dreams of revolutionizing the culture were imposed upon people who simply wanted a better life.

A conservative who agrees with Oakeshott must ask a simple question every time a government or revolutionary proposes mass change within a society: has the far-reaching initiative he created benefited the populace more than the supposed tyranny or backwardness it deposed?  In most cases, the answer will be no.

 Conservatism can mean a lot of things, but Oakeshott, a brilliant conservative thinker, sees conservatism as the maintenance of what is good in a society and the aversion of unneeded social upheaval.

Andrew Cunningham is a published author and a junior at the University of Illinois, Springfield.  Follow his writings at Conservative Roundtable.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.