What is conservatism?

I've already done What is Progressivism? so here is another installment.  This isn't what conservatives today necessarily believe, it's a retranslation of a mishmash of conservatism into a language which I can understand and, in part, present to others.  Here goes:

1. Evil is real and there exist evil nations in the world; the relatively virtuous Western powers require strong states to fend off such evils.  This distinct from "big government" in the sense advocated by modern liberals. 

2. In international affairs, in the twentieth century, the United
States in particular has been unselfish to a remarkable degree.  We
therefore should trust the United States with unprecedented power.  In
fact we have no alternative.  Some cultures really are better than

3. The spread of nuclear weapons, and other forms of WMD, to irrational, evil and undeterrable
powers is the number one foreign policy issue.  It runs the risk of
equalizing the balance of power between virtuous and evil agents in the

4. On the domestic front, education is the keystone issue.  Societies succeed if strong family structures support an emphasis on learning and acculturation.  While this does not rule out public sector education, if public sector education works the credit is not to be found in the public sector.

5. When in doubt, side with the laws and customs that have, over time,
been associated with the Western powers and their growth into powerful
and durable societies.  It's hard to judge a lot of customs using pure,
unadulterated reason, as Oakeshott and Hayek have suggested.  Defending traditional values is an enterprise which itself requires a mix of law and custom.  If you're focused mainly on "policy proposals," you are missing the point.

7. We do not have either the resources or the norms to remake society in the direction of a fully-comfortable-for-everyone social democracy.  We do need welfare states to keep a polity in running order, but we should be modest about what such regimes can accomplish.  They cannot overcome a fundamental lack of proper values as found in many poor or disadvantaged communities.

8. Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se.  A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay.  This is a lesson from history.  States must "save up their powder" for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals — often those with weak values — meet this standard.

9. For conservatism, small government is a means, not an end.  It is a means to the values which lie behind Western civilization and it is a means toward the prosperity we need to live well and defend ourselves.  Capitalism is important but capitalism itself relies upon particular values held by the citizenry.

10. Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.

Here is Julian Sanchez on what such exercises might mean.  I don't know exactly what they mean.  For me they are a means of thinking through ideas.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.


I'm OK with all ten points.

This seems like quite a weak list. The first three points can be condensed to "We love the USA and hate all those regimes that the mainstream media terms as evil - regardless of any underlying principles or questions of who is evil, and what is evil and what is 'good'." I would rather you expouse why a certain country is to be considered evil or not.

Point 4 is not a conservative value. "On the domestic front, education is the keystone issue. Societies succeed if strong family structures support an emphasis on learning and acculturation." Conservatives DO NOT support an emphasis on learning. Evidence of this is the conservative bias against science and bias toward creationism/religion. Education, learning and intellectual values are definitely not part of the conservative movement of today.

5 may or may not be a conservative value. I think a lot of liberals would agree that a lot of western values are admirable. The true conservative value here, across societies, is that they tend to value THEIR OWN society's values/norms. So an american conservative will love american values while a muslim conservative would love muslim values.

Of the last four, I think only 9 can be claimed as a purely conservative value - one that I think I agree with. The others really are quite unclear. For example, I could cite conservative who think liberty is more important that responsibility.

Great list. Although acknowledged somewhat already in the list--I would add that MODERATION is an essential characteristic of conservatism--Limbaugh and freinds to the contrary. Ideals guide conservatism but pragmatism motivates it.

The original, authentic Ten Principles:


You are way off on #8. They might talk about deficits when Dems are in office, but they have consistently raised the debt since the era of the modern conservative presidency. Via Klein...........

"As Kent Conrad told me, reconciliation "was designed solely for deficit reduction." The Senate parliamentarian, predictably, objected to the Bush administration's effort. He was fired and replaced with a parliamentarian that blessed the procedure.

Bush's 2001 tax cuts was the first time the budget reconciliation process had ever been used for a bill that increased the deficit. Ever. Democrats were appalled. When they retook the Congress, both the House and the Senate passed a rule barring reconciliation from being used for bills that increased the deficit."


"conservative bias against science"

Repeating a lie doesn't make it true - wait, are liberals at war with logic?

Perhaps we're casting the net too widely when we define conservatism. But there are certainly a goodly number of people who are anti-science by any valid definition (anyone who 'denies' evolution for instance) and who would self-identify as conservative.

It would be helpful if Vernunft and Bkarn expanded their positions. Using taking a stance on evolution as an example, which (if either) of the following are you saying guys?

a) Those who deny that evolution is backed by valid science are not included in our definition of conservatives (or are too small/marginalised a constituency to be relevant). There is no systematic conservative bias against science.
b) Evolution is not backed by science. Those who say that it is are liberals pushing a particular political ideology.

1. Evil is a construct. Constructs are real. "West" is a relative term, distinct from "east" not "evil".

2. The construction of "unselfishness" is clearly self-serving.

3. Only nuclear armed states can disarm.

4. Education good. Apple pie good. Beer gooood.

5. Great argument for not following the U.K. into imperial oblivion.

6. Best point on the list.

7. Second best.

8. What fiscal conservatism?

9. For conservatism, "small government" is a slogan, not a policy proposal. If you're focused mainly on "policy proposals," you are missing the point.

10. Liberty and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.

Maybe I sound too much like a Marxist, but there is essentially nothing in here about the distribution of the pie and returns to capital versus returns to labor.

I would suggest you put these items into more economic terms.

You're leaving out this one:

Work is good for people, but people hate doing work, and will use any government-caused change in their personal finances as an excuse to do less of it. If tax increases take more money from high earners, they'll work less. If programs give money to low earners or the unemployed, they'll work less.

Point #6 removed for national security reasons. Just be thankful that there are points you never even have to know happened.

Tyler is excellent at describing the other side in their best light. An example of NOT doing this would be like saying something like this:

"Conservatives see raising and educating their own children in a way that only marginally effects others as non-political. Liberals on the other hand see this as political action. However, they view having the leader of the Democratic party make closed circuit address to all children as utterly apolitical and you are stupid to suspect otherwise."

Or, "conservatives believe that our culture is superior, so superior in fact to be infallible and immune from hubris."

These statements are are examples of what Tyler is NOT trying to do.

"Work is good for people, but people hate doing work, and will use any government-caused change in their personal finances as an excuse to do less of it. If tax increases take more money from high earners, they'll work less. If programs give money to low earners or the unemployed, they'll work less."

Ok, so if we take more money from the low earners, theyll work less, and if we give more money to the high earners, they will also work less? (unless your comment was supposed to be ironic)

On that note, I have yet to see anyone work less because their taxes went up. I think that line of argument is unrealistic.

Re: anti-science attitudes on the left, don't forget RFK Jr. and the anti-vaccine crowd.

Interesting that you've avoided anything to do with sex on this list (apart from one mention of strong family structures). While it's definitely possible to construct a coherent conservative political philosophy without reference to it, I think it is one of those areas that most clearly separates conservatism from classical liberalism or libertarianism and so it is important to an exercise like this. Unless you consider the entire topic (along with gender roles and parenting, abortion, etc.) a subset of #10, which is plausible but a bit too cerebral to understand the full extent of ideological separation on this issue.

Given this blog's overall international orientation, I'm puzzled that Tyler would define conservatism in so narrowly American terms. For example, I study Japanese conservatives; here are some differences.

1-2) The whole "Evil" versus "Virtue" in international politics disappears--though they do believe the US has (occasionally) been unselfish.
3) Nuclear weapons are bad. Period. The US does not get a special mandate from heaven to wield them unilaterally.
4) Family is the important thing here. Education--and a stable society-- follows from that. Making a private/public distinction in education is a waste of time.
5-7) Japanese conservatives (as opposed to neo-liberal politicians like Abe who the West sees as conservative because of their nationalism) reject both "Western values" like individualism and gender-free society, and the economic inequality of point #7. On the contrary, Japanese conservatives strongly support direct intervention by the government and indirect intervention via influencing corporations. The old cliche about the Japanese being the "World's richest communists" refers to a period of _conservative_ government, not liberal. Remember that the conservatives implemented national health insurance, de facto nationalized agriculture, and controlled their banks more tightly than even the Scandinavians did.

They are, of course, "conservatives" because they want to conserve traditional Japanese society, which puts them at odds with some "Western Values." Why should another culture's "conservatives" be required to change their traditions to conform with Adam Smith or John Locke?

I take the point that over the fullness of time both conservatives and liberals have had their fair share of science deniers. My problem is that at the moment I'm still in the habit of conflating the core positions of conservativism with those of the contemporary republican party.

I feel that there is often less distance between the positions of thoughtful representatives of the two political positions than there is between said representatives and those at the extremes of their ideological grouping. And unfortunately the conservative anti-science extreme is currently way worse (louder, more numerous, more willfully ignorant) than the liberal anti-science extreme. If you conservatives with a brain could get your outliers (sorry Andrew - I'm going to have to include you on the basis of your last comment) to shut up a bit more: then there might be a better chance of an understanding and a decent public dialogue (and perhaps some constructive compromise?) between the politicians who are out there implementing these positions.

I think you miss the emphasis on a market economy. McArdle in a recent post said something like: conservatives trusted anonymous market forces to do good, even though bad sometimes happened, and progressives trusted conscious government planning to do good, even though bad sometimes happened. IMO she's about right.

wow... substitute Islamic for Western, some Middle Eastern nation for US, imperialism for WMD and it's a pretty good definition of islamofascism.

if this passes for educated, enlightened conservatism, it is frightening.


No, see, I was trying to find a completely apolitical scientific issue that proves nothing politically. That was kind of the point. You thought I was trying to find a political one. I could have pointed out where Larry Summers might have been right about sex differences. I could have brought up economics. I could have...see, I was trying to point out where I think the left is hypocritical because they don't really support "science," only people and issues on their side and that requires showing non-excitement for an issue that is both true and non-beneficial to their groups. See, science is allegiance to truth, not people or institutions. Institutions may be good or bad at aspiring to discover science but...oh nevermind.

Also: would it be helpful to think of conservatism and progressivism in terms of anthropological minimalism vs. anthropological maximalism--the former operating with due skepticism about human attainment and motivation, the latter avidly celebrating human potential and ability?

True, this is Thomas Sowell's formulation of left v. right as constrained v. unconstrained view of human nature. One might ask whether the constrained v. unconstrained dichotomy still matches the left v. right political divide, though. Bush Republicanism (which as many have already said, isn't necessarily traditional conservatism), with its disregard for various constraints on government like balanced budget rules and restrictions on national security powers has an element of the "unconstrained" view of human nature in it. And this is leaving aside the idea of invading other countries to promote liberal democracy -- a policy more in line with the Jacobins than with any recognizable conservative tradition.

I'm actually surprised. It seems like most conservatives on this blog agree with the list. Most of the criticism is coming from liberals telling conservatives what they believe. Although note to Jim: Tyler Cowen is not a liberal. Personally, I was expecting a lot of backlash against number 2, but if conservatives genuinely believe that, then no reason for me to say otherwise.

It's always great to see people like Andrew discuss global warming. It's apparent that he thinks the UN committee and the American Meteorological Society don't understand the subject. Since he is sure that he does, I wonder if he could clarify the following points:

1) Bearing in mind that the Knudsen number is an increasing function of height in the atmosphere, does he think that existing GCM's treat the upper boundary condition correctly?
2) Is he satisfied with present methods of treating droplet formation and rainfall in the treatment of clouds?
3) Does he favor a continuum approach to the treatment of atmospheric particulate matter?
4) What kind of numerical scheme does he favor in the integration of the Navier-Stokes equations, a finite volume approach or a pseudospectral scheme? If he favors a finite volume approach, is he in favor of using an adaptive grid to resolve fronts?
5) Does he favor the use of large eddy simulation or a second-order turbulence model in the treatment of the atmospheric boundary layer and the mixed layer in the ocean?
6) Is he satisfied with the methods now in use for treating the large difference between the atmospheric and oceanic spin-up times?
7) Does he think that changes in the oceanic albedo due to surface water waves should be incorporated into GCM's? If he does, how does he think wave breaking should be incorporated into wave forecasting models?
8) A number of researchers think that ensemble modelling should be used to average out the use of different parameterization schemes for sub grid scale phenomenon. Does Andrew agree?

I've learned a lot from discussing scientific matters with real experts, and therefore I'm looking forward to seeing what Andrew has to say.

I put point 3 in these words:

3. Conservative presidents must have the freedom to invade any nation; each added nuclear power limits conservative presidents' power, best illustrated by Cuba, Haiti, and Granada -- JFK screwed up when he allowed Cuba to defend itself and prevent invasion, thus limiting the US to invading Haiti and Granada.

I just read Thomas Sowell's book Conflict of Visions. It was the best book on ideology I've ever read. He divides the spectrum into unconstrained and constrained visions of human nature. A vision, according to Sowell is part of the pre-cognitive assumptions about the nature of ourselves and others.

The unconstrained vision is the progressive vision. It says that people are blank slates, normally good, and the cause of human corruption/evil is the institutions/systems of society. If only these institutions could be eliminated or changed (by super-smart and super-moral elite), then we would progress toward a perfect society. The left is all about using unlimited human reason to engineer equal outcomes for all people.

The constrained vision is the conservative vision. It says that man is permanently hampered by selfish tendencies, which manifest themselves in crime, corruption, violence, and poverty. The institutions and traditions of our culture are the way in which we contain the bad part of our nature and emphasize the good part. Man is inherently incapable of "solving" and curing societal problems. The best we can hope for is trade-offs. Fair, equal processes (the free market, rule of law, etc.) are what matter to conservatives, and outcomes are recognized to sometimes be unequal.

Sowell's book is great, and it explains so much. Sowell traces the history of each school of thought from the 18th through 20th centuries. I can see where the left is coming from now. I can also see what Obama and his crowd have in common with other world leaders more clearly identified as leftists.

But anti-science attitudes have been common on the left also.

Global warming, GMO, Franken food, anti-vaccine, DDT and malaria, anti-globalization generally.

On that note, I have yet to see anyone work less because their taxes went up. I think that line of argument is unrealistic.

What tax bracket are you in? Do you know any small business owners? Actually, it might have the opposite impact with small business owners who must work more as they can no longer justify/afford to hire less skilled workers because of the minimum wage law. What, you say, minimum wage is not a tax, it is an unalloyed good? Oh yeah, that's why teen unemployment is so high and rising....

As taxes rise, people don't necessarily work less. They figure out ways to avoid taxation. But you've never seen that, correct? Bet you're one of those rare folks who pays your state's sales tax on all of your online purchases.

Uh, are you making the leap from global warming and cooling, as processes that have been happening for a LONG time, to the stance that we humans are the main influence on those processes? Too bad we didn't have the internal combustion engine during the last ice age.... That's such hubris that it seems to me to border on being very much like religious faith.

And I agree with Jake that the future will be like "Schumpeter on steroids".

That's why liberty is such a good thing, and why being a supporter of a large and growing state OR being a supporter of an orderly society are both going to increasingly be uncomfortable. And untenable.

Open source is good. Self-organizing is good. Liberty is good.

Liberals are not generally good with numbers (see #6).

There is a profound error in point #1. It should be rewritten along the lines of:

There are nations under the control of regimes with a proven capacity for evil. The relatively virtuous Western powers require strong states to fend off the actions of these regimes and, hopefully, bring about the eventual liberation of the people oppressed by them.

I don't think there is a conservative anywhere that would call the oppressed peasants of North Korea, or the beaten pro-democracy protesters of Iran, evil. It is governments, not countries, that possess the capacity for evil.

Hmmm, on the one side we have a few marginal conservatives--oh, say, a few POTUSes like Reagan and W--explicitly embracing creationism and ID. On the other side we have such liberal lions as... Derrida and Stalin?!?!

As many have pointed out, anti-science attitudes on the left are hardly limited to post-modernism and the Soviets. Add the anti-GM food and anti-vaccine nuts. Recall the hostility on the part of the left to Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology. Include leftist technophobia and the 'Precautionary Principle'. Notice how some on the left have adopted the equivalent of religious devotion to organic food (sometimes approaching Kosher-style contamination rules) despite the lack of evidence for health benefits of organic foods (and despite the clear evidence that organic techniques produce less food per acre at a higher cost--while millions in the world go hungry). Or, if we want to be more topical, how about Obama's 'green jobs' advisor turning out to be a 9/11-truther conspiracy nut (based, it obviously should go without saying, on no empirical evidence of a conspiracy).

No, the political left seems at least as willing as the religious right to disregard empirical evidence when it conflicts with cherished dogma.

Does anyone really believe 1-3, or is it intended as a parody of conservatism? Another case of crazy is a preexisting condition?

4 doesn't seem much related to conservatism.

5 sounds like the key of what should be called "conservatism", except no actual conservatists seem to consistently apply it, they tend to have things about status quo and the past they like and things they dislike, and only apply this heuristic to the former cases.

10 is extremely vague, what is this "responsibility" as a value?

I think what most people are forgetting is that conservatism, like any ideology, is an organic construct. If you compared the tennets of first wave feminism to third wave, you wouldn't be able to recognize anything but the most basic similarities. I think this post was getting at what the original conservative values were, while many commentators are talking about conservatism, and more neo-conservatism, now. What happens with any powerful movement, like the conservative movement, is people recognize it's power and self identify with the power without necessarily understanding the values completely. They then change the values to suit them until soon the group's minority are those who created or held the original conservative values. Remember that conservatism was originally a reaction to an East Coast Liberal Inteligencia monopoly. One of the original tennets was that education is important, but standard education is not the only way to get educated (largely as the ivy leagues and much of higher education was controlled by a liberal agenda at the time). You can see how that turned into Joe Six-Pack saying we don't need no college, and then not educating himself in any other way as just one example of the organic shift that takes place in movements like these. Look at punk rock for example.

In #3, it should say nukular, not nuclear.

Is this what conservatism is, was, could be, should be, would be? I have a lot of trouble identifying any conservatives from this list. Buchanan perhaps?

1. The problem seems how can one prevent evil from taking power. A republic suborned to the interests of the wealthy and powerful?
2. Trust and power are at war with each other. Power is its own authority. It demands respect, not trust. A world remade? An empire?
3. No one should fear a balance of power. Everyone should fear an imbalance of power, power in the hands of those willing to use it for irrational ends or to upset power and order.
4. It is more education in a negative sense. The unsuccessful are so due to their lack of education and lack of ability or willingness.
5. Stability, preserving existing power structures, rights, and privileges is most important.
7. The question is do we even have the capacity and resources to preserve the status quo?
8. Deficits no longer matter, or haven't you heard? Low taxes and aggressive foreign policy is what matters.
9. Small government in ways that conservatives prefer, large government in ways that conservatives prefer. It is not size but direction that is important.
10. Not more important, but each half of a balanced pair.

I do acknowledge that there is an ideological opposition from the left to certain lines of scientific research, e.g., sociobiology. However, these are far less established than the theory of evolution, and the opposition is far less mainstream and powerful in the liberal movement. Talk to me when Democratic Presidential candidates are obligated by their base to ritually embrace ... well there really aren't liberal equivalents to Falwell and Dobson and the Creation Museum, are there?...

Conservatives have trouble with science. Being tolerant of people with religious beliefs does not mean treating those beliefs with special deference, or refraining from mocking the more absurd ones among them. Indeed, it is only through the vigorous consideration of the relative merits and explanatory capabilities of different viewpoints that we can further refine our understanding of the world. The sad thing is that there are some people who never get a fair shot at it because those in power choose to give them a deeply inadequate initiation into the teaching of science.

Looks like Andrew just confirmed the "conservatives are anti-science" meme. Congratulations Andrew you ignorant conservative clod.

I do not know if Andrew is a conservative or identifies himself as such. But the most remarkably ignorant remark he made
in his comment was that stem cell research and the human genome project are (were?) "total boondoggles." Huh? Maybe we have
not seen some of the things coming out of them that some have hoped for from them, but the latter in particular has been
leading to enormous amounts of insight and research, and it should be kept in mind that the former was held back during the
past eight years due to a president actively limiting it in order to satisfy demands by religious conservatives, although
as has been noted that president was in some ways not at all conservative, as for example in turning budget surpluses into
large deficits.

'Tyler is excellent at describing the other side in their best light. An example of NOT doing this would be like saying something like this:

"Conservatives see raising and educating their own children in a way that only marginally effects others as non-political. Liberals on the other hand see this as political action. However, they view having the leader of the Democratic party make closed circuit address to all children as utterly apolitical and you are stupid to suspect otherwise."'

Prayer in schools and creationism notwithstanding.


Actually, I am going to challenge you more sharply. The only item I am aware of that anybody might
be able to claim might be "indoctrination" in Obama's speech is his reference to how he is trying
to get schools more supplies, which can be interepreted as a pitch for his stimulus package or more
state control of schools, or whatever. Pretty vague compared the stuff in Reagan's speeches. Or
do you think it is some kind of wicked indoctrination to tell kids to study hard, stay in school,
obey their teachers, and wash their hands?



I tend to differentiate between three types of conservative who are not often the same person: social conservative (esp. religious), foreign policy conservative (neocon), and small-government conservative. One of the reason there can be so much scoffing in trying to define A Conservative is that these three conservatives don't agree.

As just one example, small-gov's want just that, but foreign policy guys want money for guns and social conservatives want money for social programs, and together they have problems. Similar thing happens with education.

I find it much easier to break the left, the right, and any other grouping into its constituents for a clearer, less acrimonious nomenclature.

7... We do need welfare states...

I'd call this more an accommodation to political reality than a core principle; many a mid-century conservative, like Reagan, demonized “the welfare state† and its queens. Also remember that privatizing social security (stripping out the "social" element and converting it to a program that rewarded those who saved the most, implicitly penalizing those whose higher taxes cut their personal savings to support the 401(k)-type subsidies of the savers) was a major push of the last couple of decades (fortunately, I'd say, failing to achieve critical mass). Later, but partially effective, the effort to privatize Medicare.

- - - -

More importantly, I'd call out a belief that “right living† by individuals -- hard work and keeping the rewards of that work; adherence to handed-down religious beliefs; respect for a Father figure -- is the only way society can thrive, too. Individuals should have the freedom to interpret how to adhere to these goals, and bear the full consequences of how aggressively they pursue them, both on the up- and down-side. Anything else flies in the face of the Free Will that only God gets to mess with.

They are seem very broad, which I can agree with a little on each point.

#10 - is completely backwards. Liberty is the force behind responsibility. Responsibility so we can maintain our liberty. So we can govern ourselves without resorting to law.

Equality. Only at birth and in the eyes of the law. After that, everyone changes. Decisions are made. Anything else is just arbitrary preferences intended to benefit some at the expense of others.

I think that if you want to understand the conservative mindset, you really should read the paper "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" which can be found here: http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org/resources_files/ConsevatismAsMotivatedSocialCognition.pdf

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