Occasionally, I answer queries about my neo-conservative philosophy (most are linked under "Ask the Neo-Con" on the sidebar). Recently, commenter "Thai" questioned "How do you define a conservative?" Because it was off-topic, I responded briefly that one attribute is the understanding that "freer markets will enable individuals and society to. . . best balance price and quality." Thai reacted by wondering whether "Freedom of choice is ALWAYS how you define a conservative?????."
Thai's follow-up seemed like an attempted "got-ya" on abortion. I never debate abortion policy, limiting my discussions to the law, the purported reasoning and process. Still, this post provides some analysis, including the constraints on choice.
The topic is, of course, well-plowed ground. Many of the best known remarks are negative, including John Stuart Mill, Colin Welch, the Duke University philosophy department, virtually the entire Berkeley faculty--some of which took taxpayer money to conclude conservatives share "Fear and aggression, Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity [and] Uncertainty avoidance." Obviously, most such critiques are condescending--as is the analysis Thai endorses, by U. Va. psych prof Jonathan Haidt in a September 2008 piece "What Makes People Vote Republican?." Other views seem downright deranged.
Most importantly, these voices rarely seek the source of right-wing thinking: the father of modern conservatism, the Anglo-Irish Whig MP Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Russell Kirk's widely-read survey "The Conservative Mind" (7th ed. 1985) lists (at 8-9) six principles of Burkean conservatism (I quote only the first phrase of each, except for the third where further explanation is necessary):
- Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of the human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society." With reason, conservatives often have been called "the party of order." If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before the courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
- Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked.
- Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.
- Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.
I've previously quoted a similar six-part summary of Burke's world-view:
- a deep suspicion of the power of the state.
- a preference for liberty over equality.
- a belief in established institutions and hierarchies.
- skepticism about the idea of progress.
Conclusion: I've defined English (Whig) conservatism and the abbreviated American variation. I'm closer to the latter. That means liberty and choice, but it also mandates Constitutional process and popular sovereignty. Both approaches presuppose grown-ups with personal responsibility.
Conservatives are neither cretins nor crazy. Excepting the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, few Democrats credit the right with the positive principles on either list. And, with little understanding of the definition of conservative, it's no surprise that their complaints often are un-focused and illogical.
An anonymous commenter:
Neo-conservative, as I understand, grew from the Reagan Revolution when he helped to free those suffering inside Russian gulags ie Natan Sharansky; there can be no prosperity if there exist tyranny.See also this testament.
Paleo-conservatives, as I understand, are the isolationists in Republican Party which is why many were against America's right to defend herself from Islamic-Fascist domination.
Paleos are like Libertarians in that Libertarians have no problem doing dirty dealings with dictators, kleptocrats, Sharia-theocracy because the profit margin is greater.
The difference between the two is that Paleos don't like porn whereas the Libertarians can't have sex without porn.