What is Conservatism?

To me, conservatism is about believing in the principles on which this country was founded. Those principles are grounded, not in the unlimited powers of government to regulate every aspect of our lives, but in our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone understands what’s meant by life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness clause is not always clear to people. The government doesn’t guarantee anybody’s happiness. But what it does guarantee is that each of us has the right to pursue whatever happiness may mean to us, as individuals, in whatever way we see fit, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of anybody else. That’s a powerful concept.

What makes this country unique among all nations is the fact that our founding fathers believed so strongly in individualism that they placed the rights of the individual above the rights of the collective society, or the “common good.” From its inception, this country was founded on the precepts of individual freedom and individual responsibility. As an American, you have the freedom to live your life however you choose to live it. But the corollary of that freedom is that you also have to take responsibility for your life, and the choices you make, and the consequences of those choices.

It’s not the role of the government to protect you from yourself, or from your own bad choices, poor judgment, or ignorance. That’s up to you. It’s also not up to the government to provide you with basic necessities, like food, shelter, medical care, employment, recreation, or anything else, save the protection of your individual rights. All those are your responsibility to provide for yourself and your dependents. But, by the same token, neither does the government have the right to take away what is yours to provide those things for others.

The concept of private property is fundamental to the realization of individual freedom. What you earn by the fruits of your labor, your mind, your creativity, talents, and the skills you’ve worked to develop, belongs to you and you alone. You may choose to share what’s yours with whomever you want, but that, too, is up to you. It’s not up to the government to take what you earn and redistribute it to those who can’t, or won’t, or don’t earn.

Our founding fathers recognized that, to maximize individual freedom, you have to limit the powers of government. The only truly legitimate role of the government is to protect your rights from being infringed upon by others. Quite simply, the purpose of government is to protect me from you, and you from me, and both of us from a common enemy. Locally, that means law enforcement and criminal justice. Nationally, that means a strong military. I support both.

I’m not against all taxation. I recognize that you don’t get something for nothing. The protection of my rights as a citizen, and our national sovereignty, is worth a lot to me. And I’m willing to pay for that. But I’m not willing to pay for everything else anybody wants that they can’t afford to pay for themselves. If you want something of value, you have to provide value in return. Just because you can’t afford something, doesn’t give you the right to take it out of my pocket. Nobody owes you anything, except what you earn.

The other fundamental building block of a free society is the free market. Some people confuse the phrase “free market” with “big business.” Those two concepts are orthogonal. A free market simply means that every transaction is entered into by the free will of the participants, with no coercion. A free market transaction is always win-win because, if either party doesn’t believe he’s getting more value than what he’s exchanging for it, he can walk away from the transaction. When the government imposes subsidies, tariffs, price controls, quotas, or other regulatory constraints upon the free market, it only serves to circumvent the free will of the people to choose how best to spend the money we earn, under the premise that the government knows what’s best for us better than we do.

The basic building blocks of freedom are free will, free markets, private property, and limited government. And that’s what conservatism in America is about.

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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s the generalistion of conservatism that I grew up with.
    Terms change. What you described as conservative was called liberal until government became too involved in education. The Marxist elite that dominated academia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s began calling themselves liberals, so those who still adhered to Jeffersonian ideals were then called conservative.
    I sometimes call myself a conservative and sometimes libertarian. Either way, most of your points fit both labels.

  2. Welcome to Daddyland, td. Classical liberal, Jeffersonian, libertarian, and conservative are all terms that have been, or are, used to describe proponents of limited government and the free market.

    Liberalism, today, means all the government you can eat, and more! Liberals support more regulations, more spending, more entitlements, more of everything. Only now, the term “liberal” seems to be falling into disfavor, and is being replaced with the term “progressive.” Nothing could be further from reality. True progress — technological, scientific, industrial, etc. — has always been the product of a free market. Regulations and bureaucracy stifle progress; they don’t promote it.

    I think perhaps, in adopting the label “progressive,” the left may be begging the question.

  3. ‘Regulations and bureaucracy stifle progress; they don’t promote it.’
    Truer words were never spoken.
    Liberal/Socialist/Statist ‘regressives’ seem to unintendtionally following Hayek’s *Road to Serfdom* in the manner contrary to its intended purpose.

  4. Precisely. I think we’re going to have to harp on this for quite a while to keep reminding people even at the risk of being repetitive.

  5. This is a great article. As much as the terms are bandied about, “conservative” and “liberal” still manage to bewilder me. The explanation of a conservative philosophy is enlightening.

    For one, I agree with almost all of the values disclosed here and can certainly go along with conservatism to that extent. At the same time, I think important activities of government are missing in the catechism. So what does that make me? A semi-conservative? A progressive conservative? God forbid, a liberal conservative? I really don’t know.

    Two things. Initially I would note that an important function of all successful governments, of whatever ilk, is the promotion for opportunity for its constituents. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire never hesitated to bring the full power of the government to bear on anyone who would impede that opportunity, whether a foreign nation or individual citizen exerting private property rights to the detriment of commerce or navigation. As a result, their citizens prospered and they were successful. From that, I conclude that such promotion of opportunity is a necessary function of government. I don’t believe that is contrary to Jeffersonian principles. Consider the “promote the general welfare” phrase in the preamble to the Constitution.

    Note my emphasis on “opportunity.” It is not a function of government to guarantee success.

    Exercise of that function has made this country an economic powerhouse. From fighting Barbary pirates to opening Japan to world commerce. It is part of our tradition. Those activities you might call protecting.

    Promoting or nourishing has been another matter. Looking at history, one can conclude that government sometimes nourishes the economy by providing benefits even big business cannot undertake. I’m thinking of the development of hyro-electric power. Projects like the TVA, Hoover Dam, etc. The Panama Canal comes to mind as the earlier Erie Canal.

    At other times, government provided the seeds of prosperity. The Homestead Act made this nation. That was apparently the idea behind forty acres and a mule for freed slaves. That was the idea behind the old railroad grants. I have no philosophical problem with any of that.

    At other times, government promoted opportunity by being a captive customer. I’m thinking of the old Butterfield Stage. Likewise the contracts for air mail that resulted in our modern airlines and attendant industries.

    Sometimes there was cooperative effort. I’m thinking of the grazing, mining, and timber harvesting deals we have known for a hundred years.

    The key is that we grew by the government paying attention and providing important opportunity. Is that intervention and manipulation of the free market? Maybe so. But necessary as a matter of practicality.

    Again, I stress that what worked was the provision, protection, and nurture of OPPORTUNITY. By contrast, the provision of minimum guaranteed benefits for being alive has no model of success anywhere in history and its pattern of failure is killing our economy now.

    So what does that make me? Maybe just a hard-hearted realist.

    This has gone on long-winded enough. I’ll pass for the moment on other gaps in the philosophy. Pardon me.

    • @ Jack Swift, you stole my response! Thanks, you espouse the middle ground of reason and reality so many others lack. Thank you for that as it is what the MAJORITY or Americans are looking for in this era of polarization. Its great for so many of you to bounce around philosophy and theory and to snark at one another for your beliefs but reality for 90% of Americans at the end of the day is having a paycheck to cover the mortgage, pay the bills and have a little something to set aside for the future. Reality is knowing that under our current system a serious illness, job loss, or other calamity would be a financial catastrophe that a family may never recover from. Theory is great, philosophy is wonderful, expression is a freedom we should never take for granted. But what would be nice is looking for solutions that make sense for the nation and its people.

      • I believe that “middle of the road” may not be an accurate description of my convictions. I like to think of myself as espousing what I see as the genius of the founding fathers in their reliance upon the balancing of powers. States’ powers balanced against the Fed’s. In each government structure the balance of legislative, executive, and judicial. In all regards the limitation of the bill of rights. I think that makes me a “republican” in the Roman sense of the “res publica.”

  6. Don’t hold back, Jack. I’m interested in finding out about the other gaps you mentioned.

    I agree, to an extent, that there are some large enterprises undertaken by government that could not have been undertaken by the private sector in that day and age. Now, the government contracts out most work to the private sector anyway, and the politicians make deals with the lobbyists to get the contract that will prove most lucrative for the politician and his buddies, while bringing home the pork to his constituency.

    The problem with relying on government to provide opportunity is that it’s one of those slippery slopes. Most earmarks could probably be described that way. Where do you draw the line?

  7. I think the fallacy might be in attempting to draw a bright red line. At the end it is a matter of judgment. You recognize that “some enterprises” demand the action of government. The issue is a question of which enterprises.

    Just as there are limits to the exercise of free will and free enterprise, practicality demands limitations upon the limits of government power. All a matter of judgment.

    Liken the situation to a family maintaining a savings account or a rainy-day fund. In order to work, they have to contribute to it and they cannot withdraw. Yet, judgment and circumstances will occasionally demand they use it.

    Our problem is that the legitimate government function is being perverted by politicians to buy election. What should be rare government intervention has been made an everyday event – wasting taxpayer money and perverting the system.

    That is the evil of earmarks. Wrong frequency and wrong purpose.

  8. What should be rare government intervention has been made an everyday event – wasting taxpayer money and perverting the system.

    You can say that again…

    I’ll concede that there may be rare circumstances in which the government is justified in making large capital investments in fundamental infrastructure that will benefit all the taxpayers whose money is used to fund it. The justification might include a case where national security is at stake or, in the past, making it possible to transport goods across vast undeveloped spaces for the benefit of the nation’s economy.

    However, I think the key must be that the expenditure benefits all who pay for it. To wit, the federal government should not subsidize projects that benefit only the citizens of a particular state. That would be an earmark. A state government may undertake that, if a majority of the citizens agree to a levy or bond issue to cover the capital expenditure.

  9. “The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.” – Mark Twain

  10. NYD said “I think the key must be that the expenditure benefits all who pay for it. To wit, the federal government should not subsidize projects that benefit only the citizens of a particular state.”

    I agree. That goes with that “promote the GENERAL welfare” bit. Problem is that most earmarks benefit specific constituents – usually lobbies who are in position to effect a re-election.

    Keep in mind, I am not advocating an everyday occurrence. Simply that the capacity be there if and when the opportunity arises and is otherwise appropriate.

  11. The one characteristic of the ideology that we call “Conservatism” today is that there are no guarantees, other than the freedom to achieve or not to achieve. No guarantees to win or earn or learn. The Government guarantees the rights given us by the Creator. The government has no other purpose and the government has no right to intrude into my life. I came to this country because my brother convinced me that given these freedoms, I could achieve anything I wanted. He lived the American Dream and having come to this country 30 years ago with a few thousand dollars to his name, he died a millionaire. But during his struggle no one guaranteed him his success.


  12. I found this online about a year ago (I forget the link it was in) and thought it was applicable to this thread. It is from an 1828 version of Websters American Dictionary, and very clearly delinates individuals and States:

    WELFARE, n. [well and fare, a good going]
    1. Exemption from misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil; the enjoyment of health and the common blessings of life; prosperity; happiness; (applied to persons.)
    2. Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; (applied to states)

    I believe the “GENERAL WELFARE” clause as written in the Constitution is refering to States, not individuals, Article 4 section 4 is quite clear on what the Federal Government guarantees to each of the several states and that seems to support a “state” perspective with regard to “general welfare”.

  13. Unfortunately, this has NOTHING to do with the actions or behaviors of those that call themselves conservatives in 2009.

  14. That was excellent… I love reading your material!!! Keep up the good work!!!


    Gannon Nickell
    Chairman, S.S.U. College Republicans
    nickellgannon@gmail.com (personal)
    gnickell@crnc.org (work

  15. Conservatism works when the population is small. It is not small anymore. The founding fathers were aristocrats and land owners. Do you remember the czars of Russia they were destroyed and so will the people here who believe they have a right to have protection at the expense of the poor.

    The word “conservative” comes from: the supposed importance of conserving established institutions and permanent aristocracy by the wealthy. The opposite of conservatism is democracy. The conservative system is on its last leg.

  16. geecie30 ,

    “Do you remember the czars of Russia they were destroyed and so will the people here who believe they have a right to have protection at the expense of the poor.”

    You and Mister Guy should get together and throw a 92nd year anniversary party this October for the Russian Revolution. I bet you could get the President and the leaders of both Houses of Congress to show up.

  17. Is it just me or is conservatism in this country focusing more and more on money and less and less on morals? I know the economy is a mess but if you trace it back to the root of the problem, it all boils down to no physical morals, no business morals, no respect for the law and the constitution,anything goes now days. People are basicly poor because they haven’t been taught honor, respect and responsibility. The answer to this economis crises starts at home. Instead of standing up for what’s right we make excuses for what’s wrong. We don’t need more government to take care of this mess. A few honest politicians and a bunch of good moms and dads would do the trick.

  18. Just on your first paragraph, I found a major faux pas that rather struck me cold…

    “Everyone understands what’s meant by life and liberty…”

    No, everyone does not understand by that, moreover, very few do. It is that assumption, that erroneous assumption, which is at the root of all the acrimony in our political process.

    To go on, “individualism” was never a stated goal nor ideological concept of our founding fathers. They believed in “rights of the individual” which is both semantically and conceptually different than individualism.

    Classic conservatism is a far cry from today’s pseudo-conservatism. You make a good case for the latter but not the former.

  19. Windsavage, you’re a moron.

  20. I am a liberal. I believe in free will in as much as you are responsible for the choices you make. Freedom is of course constrained by societal norms of accepted behavior codified into laws.

    I believe that markets need to be free and also regulated, monitored to a degree or you have Madoff embezzling billions, the collapse of Bear Stearns, and general economic collapses like the Great Depression and now the Great Recession.

    What’s so hard to understand about that?

    I think that the Federal Government by and large does a pretty good job providing important services that if that you were to sit down and honestly assess its pluses and minuses the pluses would outweigh the minuses.

    I think there is general misunderstanding by a lot of americans that the government is freely elected by them every 2, 4, 6 years depending on the office.

    What is overlooked is the power of corporate and wealthy individuals to corrupt the system. That’s what should be an important focus of people who are unhappy about the system.

    Also the need to be better informed of the factual basis of reality would help as well.

  21. mickster99,

    ” I believe that markets need to be free and also regulated, monitored to a degree or you have Madoff embezzling billions, the collapse of Bear Stearns, and general economic collapses like the Great Depression and now the Great Recession. ”

    There was regulation to deal with this. The regulators failed. Over regulating the rest of the economy to compensate for the stupidity of the existing regulators is not the answer.

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