What Does it Mean to be a Conservative in America?

I have written about what conservatism is not, so I suppose it is time to write about what conservatism is. It is always a bit difficult to write about overarching ideologies when we are accustomed to think about policies in the here and now. Modern American conservatism has been a major political force in America for over half a century now, and while the principles assembled over the centuries endure, the policies change. When examining the philosophies behind conservatism it makes little sense to discuss the Conservative reaction to Obamacare in recent years or the conservative reaction to President Ford’s plan to whip inflation in the 1970s. With that in mind, I will instead discuss four enduring principles that are the foundation of modern conservatism.

  1. Humans are inherently imperfectable

The first key to understanding conservatism is an acceptance of the concept of Original Sin. While this is an inherently religious term, the belief does not have to be. Charles C. W. Cooke, an editor for the premiere conservative magazine National Review, refers to himself as an atheist who believes in original sin.

Whatever you believe the cause to be, it is a fact that people are inherently flawed. As a general rule, we are selfish and impatient, caring less about others the more distant they are from our personal lives. If you disagree, consider how much money you spend on your own entertainment versus how much you give to charities that help feed starving children in third world countries. Unless you are applying for sainthood, I’m guessing it is pretty lopsided, and not in favor of the hungry. This does not make you a bad person, it makes you human.

While we all share positive and negative qualities on a spectrum, so that some are better than others, even the best among us have our flaws. Even Mother Teresa was not perfect, and very, very few of us are as good as her.

This is important to understand because, despite even the best of well-intentioned efforts, human nature cannot be overcome. Too many liberal policies are based on the premise that this or that law can correct a flaw in human nature. No law, no matter how well crafted, can defeat wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, or gluttony. Liberals often try to create utopia through legislative action, forgetting that utopia is impossible and literally means “no place.”

Conservatism recognizes that although futile, any attempt to correct human nature will inevitably lead towards despotism. After requests to change fail, any serious attempt moves on to compulsion. As low levels of force continue to be unsuccessful, more and more coercion becomes necessary. All of this can be justified for the greater good, despite the ultimate goal remaining impossible to achieve.

Instead of trying to correct human nature, conservatism seeks to tamper its worst effects or harness the negatives of human nature for good where possible. This is the genius behind capitalist free markets, which tells everyone that to satisfy their greed, they must benefit their fellow man. In a free market, a businessman cannot grow rich without providing services that other people want. Greed cannot be eliminated as some on the left desire, but it and other aspects of human nature can be exploited for the greater good by accepting their reality.

  1. Tradition as a Guidepost

In his 1929 book The Thing, G. K. Chesterton tells a story that has become known as Chesterton’s Fence. In this parable, two men are traveling down a road when they come upon a fence built across the road, blocking their path. The first man says he sees no reason for the fence to exist and suggests tearing it down so they can continue their journey. The second man tells the first that if he does not understand the purpose of the fence, he won’t let him destroy it. He tells the first man to go off and think about why the fence exists, and once he has learned its purpose, then he may allow him to tear it down.

The point here is a simple one: don’t abandon traditions without at least understanding and considering why they exist in the first place. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not a sufficient reason to stymie change, but nor is “that’s an old way of thinking” justification for change. Tradition is the wisdom passed down to us by our ancestors after much trial and error that society cannot continually repeat. Society abandoning tradition is like a child who doesn’t understand why mommy said not to touch the stove, so he decides to experiment and find out what would happen. Sometimes we’ve “always done it that way” for good and valid reasons that save lives and prevent strife.

This is not to say that all traditions are good and there should be no change; merely that sudden and sweeping change is fraught with danger. Take time to consider why each tradition exists – what the benefits are as well as the defects. When you understand the true purpose of a tradition from its supporters’ perspective, maybe then we can discuss an appropriate correction. But the default position should be to preserve.

  1. Individualism

At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the DNC showed a video that contained the line “government is the only thing we all belong to.” Republicans, touting conservative ideals, quickly responded that we don’t belong to the government, the government belongs to us. It’s easy to write this off as clunky language and partisan sniping, but it shows a fundamental disagreement about the relationship between the government and the American people.

We all know the most famous words Thomas Jefferson ever wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But the very next line of the Declaration of Independence is crucial for understanding conservatism. Speaking of our unalienable rights, Jefferson wrote “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Another way to phrase that would be to say that the entire purpose of government is to secure the safety, property, and freedom of its citizens. Anything that happens outside of that framework, anything that takes away from individual liberty, is violating that purpose.

This principle alone, that a free people should be left to run their lives as they see fit as long as they are not harming others, would be enough to justify the support in conservatism for personal sovereignty. But of course there is much more to it; there are practical benefits as well. Every single advancement in the history of mankind has come from an individual going against the prevailing wisdom and starting something new. Top-down government control and direction stifles that creativeness.

But big government does not merely slow down human improvement. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, government dictates cause direct harm to its citizens. Milton Friedman provides a shocking example of this from the 1970’s. At that time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, with obviously noble intent, required that children’s sleepwear meet a set standard for fire-retardation. This is clearly a laudable goal. No one wants to see children burned when it can be prevented. Unfortunately, at that time clothing was made fire-retardant through use of a chemical known as Tris.  Tris, it was later discovered, was a potent carcinogen. Through their admirable attempt to save children from the limited threat of dying in fires, the government had increased the greater risk of getting cancer for every child in America.

Individual action and the free market may move slower than do government dictates, but they are more likely to produce positive change and limit the danger from one bad decision. Flaws amongst individuals are self-correcting. Bad policy based on top-down government control can remain in place long after it has proven harmful.

And yet big government is continually on the march.

In their effort to dictate and control ever larger sections of society, governments all over the world categorize their populations. The American government cannot make policies for 320+ million individuals, so they lump everyone into a set of classifications, reducing the entire population down to a set of statistics. John is no longer John; he is just one member of a group defined as white males between 35-65, college educated, making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, married, with three or less children.

That says nothing about who John is. It does not explain the struggles he has gone through, the lessons he has learned, his potential for the future, the fear he still has of what may come next, what he means to his friends and family, the value of his volunteer work at the local animal shelter, or any of the other many, many facets of life that cannot be easily measured by bureaucrats in Washington.

At a time when so many people are enamored with diversity, we must remember the most important diversity of all. Our skin color, gender, sexuality – these are immaterial. It is our ideas, beliefs, and actions that make us who we are. By their very nature, big government policies cannot take into account who we are as individuals. We must be treated as one of many members of defined groups. Our life choices should be made for us by us, not for a group of seventy million people we happen to belong to by a few dozen people we will never meet.

At the heart of this principle of individualism is a recognition of the importance of individual responsibility. The flip side to understanding that faceless bureaucrats cannot take care of us is the acceptance that we must take care of ourselves and our neighbors. As individuals, our inherent rights come with inherent responsibilities. It is for us, not the government, to ensure that we eat healthily, earn a good living, and pay our bills. It is the parents’ responsibility to raise their children without an instruction manual from the state. And when our neighbors fall down, it is incumbent upon us to help them back up, but as individuals freely choosing to help one another, not through government compulsion.

Being free men and women requires us to be free to make our own decisions, even our own mistakes.

  1. There are no simple solutions

Whenever a problem is discovered or perceived, there is invariably a cry for the government to “do something.” “There is no time for delay, we must do something.” “The plan might not be perfect, but at least they are doing something about it.” Whether it is a lack of home-ownership among minorities, jobs leaving the United States, or the ever increasing cost of a college education, the government must “do something” to fix it.

This is an understandable impulse, and one we all have to one degree or another. It is not easy to see a problem and not at least try to take quick, direct action to solve it. It is an instinct politicians are all too willing to exploit.

Politicians announce their plans as the solution to a crisis. The government will do X, and then the problem is solved. By using the power and authority of the State, we can get banks to offer more mortgages to minorities, prevent businesses from shipping jobs overseas, and and make college education affordable for everyone.

Unfortunately, the world is not that simple. The government has a lot of power, but cannot anticipate all the disparate reactions its policies will generate, especially in a nation as large as ours. A country is not a well-oiled machine that can be directed from a comfortable office in DC, it is a complex society with hundreds of millions of moving parts that no one can comprehend or anticipate.

As a general rule, people do not like to be told what to do. And yet, every government policy is instructing American citizens to alter their behavior, otherwise there would be no need for a new law. This will change some people’s actions in some ways, but will not change their desires. They will consequently devise new methods to get what they want that are not proscribed.

As soon as the Federal Government passes a new law, some portion of the 320+ million American citizens that make up our country begin searching for a way around it. It is simply impossible for the small, select group of people holed up in Washington DC to predict the myriad ways in which so many people will react to their new law. Sometimes this merely results in some Americans circumventing the law and essentially nullifying it for themselves, and sometimes this leads to even worse consequences than the law sought to remedy.

Whatever your political party or ideological persuasion, it should not be difficult to think of a law that did not fix the problem it proposed to solve, but instead resulted in unanticipated reactions that made things worse. Once you recognize that this was not a nefarious plot by the other side, but the unfortunate result of a noble intention, it becomes clear that the problem is not with which politician or political party is making the law, but that anyone is trying to impose a one-size-fits-all approach onto a large and diverse polity.


While I tried to stay away from specific policies as much as possible, these principles are what inform conservative politics. Conservatives do not oppose Obamacare because we flipped a coin or because we wanted Obama to fail; we oppose Obamacare because it is a sweeping policy that minimizes the sovereignty of the individual and comes with lots of unintended consequences. Conservatives support free trade and the free market because they limit the government’s intrusions upon individual’s economic decisions. Conservatives oppose large welfare programs because they substitute government control for individual dignity and responsibility.

I do not expect everyone to agree with all of these beliefs, but merely hope this will provide a better understanding of where conservatives come from and what our true motivations are. We are not hateful or greedy; we have a different understanding of the relationship between the government and a free people.