Conservatism stands on pillars far deeper than Karl Marx or Adam Smith. If conservatives can rediscover those traditions and come to terms with an evolving world, they will have a vital role to play in building a post-Cold War order
When Mitt Romney last year described himself as “severely conservative,” he was perhaps marking the nadir in the decline of conservatism as a potent, coherent political philosophy. In common usage now “conservative” means little more than “very enthusiastically Republican.” Thus a “moderate” is a so-so Republican and a “liberal” is an enemy of the party.
That loss of meaning comes in large part from a change in circumstances that conservatives have been slow to acknowledge. After the Cold War the alignments that defined conservatism for generations are gone like smoke. The powerful philosophical foundations that lay beneath those assumptions have for the most part been pasted over by bumper stickers and weakened by angst.
Conservatism stands on pillars far deeper than Karl Marx or Adam Smith. If conservatives can rediscover those traditions and come to terms with an evolving world, they will have a vital role to play in building a post-Cold War order.
The roots of conservatism stretch back to ancient understandings of human nature expressed by Plato and the later philosophers of the Roman Republic. The American and French Revolutions inspired the first modern efforts to define conservatism in the English-speaking world, best articulated at the time by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. The philosophy was probably best defined for our time by Russell Kirk in the 1950’s.
Kirk helped found the National Review along with William F. Buckley. Through his influence on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Kirk’s version of conservatism became the pole star of right wing politics in the late 20th Century.
In his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Kirk summarized conservatism in six central tenets:
1) Belief in a transcendent order
2) Respect for the complexity of human existence
3) Civilized society requires orders and classes
4) Freedom and property are closely linked
5) Distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs
6) Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions
Kirk believed that a natural order set in place by a transcendent power governs political life in much the same way that physics guides the stars. That natural order is imperfect and sometimes unfair, but it preserves us from the ravages of our animal instincts.
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