I had a short series of recent conversations on the nature of conservatism. The upshot of the conversations was this: conservatives don’t really have very many tools at their disposal, while a liberal political theory has at its disposal all the means of the state. This follows from the fact that liberal politics – at least in the sense in which liberal politics coincide with progressive politics – attempt to modify society, to change it and make it better. This activity of modifying society requires the tools and methods of the state – the ability not only to suggest norms, but to codify them in law and enforce them.
A conservative, on the other hand, starts with a suspicion that humans, being fallible even at their best, will often get it wrong. Thus, the conservative holds that there is value in what is inherited from our common past, so change should be brought about incrementally and with great caution at each stage. This stance is, in most cases, incompatible with use of the tools of government. Legislation, like executive acts and judicial decisions, is a blunt tool. Even when legislation or a judicial decision is excruciatingly narrow and detailed – when it also risks futility through its necessarily small scope – it impacts the actions of large swaths of society. To the conservative mind, modifying society through governmental means is akin to performing surgery with a battle axe.
Thus, the conservative in government – or seeking to be there – is fundamentally disadvantaged in the eyes of the public by the reluctance to embark upon sweeping social programs and legislative initiatives. A liberal comes to office with an agenda: fix this, create that, abolish the other. A conservative (not necessarily a Republican, of course) comes to office with fear and, if not more humility, then a different humility: don’t touch anything, lest it break, until it’s clear you have no other moral choice.
At least, this is what came out of the conversations I mentioned. Thoughts?