This essay is excerpted from Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution—As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen edited by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor. Big Tent grew out of a course held at The Citadel on “The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America,” which was a joint project between Factor and ISI.
Stay tuned on Wednesday as we excerpt the chapter of Big Tent written by Michael Barone, “Tocqueville’s Prescience: The Rise of ‘Soft Despotism.’”
The Pillars of Conservatism essay presented here originally appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of the Intercollegiate Review: you can find the full article here.
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Conservatism has, over the past fifty years or so, become the dominant political philosophy in the United States. Any newspaper or magazine article, any television news or background report, or anything else having to do with politics more often than not will mention the word conservative. Politically, almost every Republican candidate running for office—whether for the county clerk or president of the United States—will establish his position in the political spectrum relative to how conservative he is. Even Democrats, particularly in the South and West, distinguish between members of their party as more or less conservative, albeit less commonly than twenty years ago. Similarly, in economic policy, tax policy, foreign affairs, social issues, and the culture more generally, the “conservative” position provides a common measuring stick.
This conservative primacy in American politics and culture didn’t just happen. It is the result of decades of hard work by those who are often referred to as “the conservative movement”—the great body of organizations, committees, political activists, politicians, think tanks, periodicals, talk-show hosts, bloggers, and the rest who are actively involved in conservative politics..
Although conservatism as we know it today is relatively new, emerging on the scene only after World War II and becoming a political force only in the 1960s, it is based on ideas that are as old as Western civilization. Its basic tenets—the intellectual foundations on which this movement has been built—stretch back to antiquity, were further developed during the Middle Ages and in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, and were ultimately formulated into a coherent political philosophy at the time of the founding of the United States. In fact, in a real sense, conservatism is Western civilization.
There are four fundamental concepts that serve as the four pillars of modern conservatism.
The First Pillar: Liberty
Conservatives believe that individuals possess the right to life, liberty, property, and freedom from the restrictions of arbitrary force. They exercise these rights through the use of their natural free will. That means the ability to follow your own dreams, to do what you want to do—so long as you don’t harm others—and to reap the rewards. Above all, it means freedom from oppression by government and the protection by government against oppression. It means political liberty, the freedom to speak your mind and advocate any political position that suits your fancy. It means religious liberty to worship as you please. It also means the liberty not to have to do any of those things.
Liberty also means economic liberty, the freedom to allocate resources by the free play of supply and demand and the free market system that follows from it; it means the freedom to own property and to use it accordingly.
Conservatism embraces the notion that the pursuit of virtue is central to human existence, and that liberty is an essential component of the pursuit of virtue. Virtue is a necessary element in the pursuit of freedom—it ensures that freedom will be pursued for the common good—and when freedom is abused and must be controlled, virtue provides a standard for restraint.
Over the course of history, people came to realize that the greatest threats to liberty are the impositions of government, whether monarchial, democratic, or otherwise. On the other hand, people also realized that there are some things the government must control. Finding the right balance in this tension between order and liberty is often at the root of questions of the desirability of more or less government. At the end of the day, in choosing whether to have more security or more liberty, the conservative usually inclines toward liberty.
The Second Pillar: Tradition and Order
Conservatism is devoted to conserving the values that have been established over centuries, resulting in an orderly society. It believes that human nature has the capacity to build a social order that respects human rights and is able to repel evil. Order consists of a systematic and harmonious arrangement, both within one’s own character and in the state. It entails the performance of certain duties and the enjoyment of certain rights in a community, as implied by the phrase “the civil social order.” It is absolutely necessary for life and the pursuit of our dreams. Order is an achievement but is easily taken for granted; it is perhaps more easily understood by looking at its opposite. Disordered existence is confused and miserable. If a society falls into general disorder, many of its members will cease to exist at all. Disorder helps to explain why order depends upon virtue—if the members of a society are disordered in spirit, the outward order of society cannot endure. Disorder describes well what conservatism is not.
The Third Pillar: Rule of Law
Conservatism insists that a predictable and consistent legal system is necessary for ordered liberty. A lawful society consists of a government of laws, not men, as John Adams described it. It is one in which people know what the rules are, and in which rules are enforced uniformly for all citizens. Rule of law means that government itself, along with the governed, is subject to the law, and it means all people are to be equally protected by the law. Rule of law promotes prosperity, and it protects liberty. Simply said, rule of law provides the conditions for uniform justice.
The Fourth Pillar: Belief in God
Belief in God means adherence to the broad concepts of religious faith, things like justice, virtue, fairness, charity, community, and duty—concepts absolutely foundational to conservative thought. Conservatism is tethered to the idea that allegiance to God transcends politics and sets the standards for politics. For conservatives, the reality of a supreme transcendent authority, higher than any earthly authority, naturally limits the legitimate authority of the state. No government can demand absolute obedience or legitimately attempt to control every aspect of our lives. This belief in God does not conflate faith and politics, and it does not mean that religious disputes are necessarily political disputes, or vice versa. Nor does it mean that all conservatives believe in God, or that they have a monopoly on faith. It does mean that conservatives believe that there is a moral order that lies behind political order, and that order establishes the natural limits of all human authority.
Man is fallible. If you believe that man is on top of things, that man is at the top of the heap—then you must believe that man can’t make mistakes, that man has all the answers. The foundational tenet of liberalism is that man can do anything. Individually, of course, that’s impossible. But the Left believes that man collectively can do anything, and that acting collectively through government, man can create heaven on earth. He can answer all the problems that people have, and he can do it in such a way that there really aren’t any mistakes or errors. There is a reason that communism requires atheism; if rights descended from God, and heaven were not possible on earth, communism would fall flat philosophically.
Each of the four pillars is related to the others—indeed, they are interdependent. Conservatism provides a conceptual framework that incorporates them into a whole. Liberty, for example, is a gift of God that is safeguarded by, and dependent on, the rule of law. The rule of law itself reflects and is dependent on natural law, the law written on every man’s heart from a transcendent source beyond human perception, which is reflected in every orderly and civilized society. This higher law distinguishes between good and evil and finds particular expression in tradition, custom, and human laws. Tradition and order are best expressed by the common law, the law that was developed over centuries by reasonable people in their everyday lives and experiences, and which establishes rules for order consistent with the past. And tradition and order are central components of belief in God. What could demonstrate tradition and order more fully, for example, than the Old Testament and the history of the Jews, or the teachings of Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church?
From BIG TENT edited by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor Copyright © 2014 by Mallory Factor. Reprinted courtesy of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.