“What does being conservative mean?”

I heard a teenager tell Mark Levin, on his radio show, that his Mom asked him this question and he couldn’t give a good answer. The teen wanted to know how Mark would answer.

Mark said a lot. But, I don’t think it would make much sense to non-conservatives. It started off something like, “A conservative believes in individual sovereignty…[I zoned out]…he doesn’t believe in no-government, they’re not anarchists, but a limited constitutional republic…[I zoned out, again]…”

First, I liked hearing this question being discussed. I think questions like this are asked too infrequently. But, yawn. There has to more compelling answer for those who don’t consider themselves conservatives.

Any ideas?


14 thoughts on ““What does being conservative mean?”

  1. Thomas Sowell’s book _A Conflict of Visions_ comes to mind. I’ve actually not read it myself, because my local library has never had it. I first encountered it when I read Steven Pinker’s book _Blank Slate_, which contains (what I take to be) a good summary. I won’t nearly be able to do it justice here, but Conservatism tracks pretty well with what Sowell calls the Constrained Vision. This is essentially a view that human nature is deeply flawed and probably largely immutable. Thus they are attracted to political systems which constrain the amount of power any individual might accrue, and to economic systems that purport to leverage individual self-interest into a prosperous society (c.f. Adam Smith).

    What these things have to do with the modern Republican party might, of course, be a different conversation entirely.

    • I enjoyed “Conflict of Visions”. My library also doesn’t have it, but it’s worth the price. I’ll have to see if I can find Pinker’s book.

      I like where you’re going. I think that insight on human nature is important. Though, I’m not sure I would call it deeply flawed. It just is what it is. People respond to incentives and feedback they face and some people are bad.

      I believe I stopped considering myself a liberal the day I realized that and let go of the fantasy that everybody could have the heart of Mother Teresa.

      Once you come to this realization, you are more open to seeing the things that limit how much damage people acting in their own self interest can do to you and others. A system where they act in their own self interest by satisfying yours becomes more desirable, even though it does seem inauthentic to those who want everyone to be Mother T.

      Though, I will also say that I believe many conservatives haven’t realized this either. They appreciate individual liberty (to a certain extent), but many couldn’t tell you why beyond ‘it’s a natural right’. They don’t realize that it naturally aligns human nature for cooperation that leads to expansions of peaceful populations.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • Also, I think the other unappreciated characteristic of human nature is that they are fallible. So, even well-intended experts can be wrong. Systems that minimize the harm such folks can cause others is good.

  2. A social conservative believes that there should be a legislated moral standard for a society.

    An economic conservative believes that there should be little to no government interference in the market.

    A “conservative” in the common parlance means someone who is both socially and economically conservative.


  3. Don’t liberals believe that there should be a legislated moral standard for society? I would submit that laws defining and punishing “hate speech” or “sexual harassment” (particularly the examples we have seen sent from DOJ to U. Montana) certainly attempt to legislate a moral standard.

    Furthermore, please provide some specific examples where conservatives want certain laws enacted in order to set a moral standard – not that such cases don’t exist, but so that we may examine them on a case by case basis.

    I would submit that many intelligent conservatives oppose abortion on three grounds: First, some oppose it on the grounds that life begins at conception. For these folks, bans on abortion are no different than similar laws banning murder of born citizens. Second, some don’t feel that abortion is within the pervue of the federal government and that it should be a state issue. Third, there are some that look at historical parallels and feel that when a society abandons certain moral standards, its decline is certain. I’m sure similar arguments could be made for other legislation that some mistakenly feel is based on moral grounds alone.

    As far as economic conservatives go, why is it that when we hear Obama TALK, he often tries to sound like an economic conservative, stating that government should not be impeding businesses, but all his actions point to economic Marxism?

  4. I think you are absolutely correct: lawmakers who call themselves liberal are just as willing to legislate on moral grounds as conservatives are.

    To cite a specific example of both conservatives and liberals legislating on a moral standard, I believe the DOMA is perfect as lawmakers explicitly stated that the law was designed to “reflect and honor a collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.” This was a law that passed both the house and senate with veto proof majorities and was signed into law by Clinton.

    To your point about intelligent conservatives – I have no doubt that those who think through their positions (intelligent) have much more than a moral reason for their judgements. However, if we are examining what the word conservative means (or what it means to be conservative), I think we’d have to include in our definition all people who label themselves as such and all people who get labeled as such. That is to say, we’d have to examine how the word gets used in everyday language. Maybe I’m reading the question wrong. Are we trying to figure out the usage of the word or are we talking about what we want the word to mean? I think if we’re talking about common usage, the Nolan chart definition is fairly accurate.

    To your point about Obama – I suspect he, a politician, is playing both ends. Isn’t that what they do?

    • Hi Wally — I’m more looking for a way to describe what being conservative means to someone who doesn’t identify themselves as conservative that might make them think of it differently and more favorably.

      I think you’ve identified some ways that non-conservative folks perceive conservatives. And there are some conservatives that fit that bill, no doubt.

      As you and Mike mention, I believe there is a large group of people on the left and right that want to legislate how they would like society to be and believe that’s the purpose of gov’t. I would probably put those people in the same group.

      When I crossed over from identifying myself as ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’ there were some compelling reasons for it and it wasn’t because I believed the set of morals the right was trying to legislate over the left. Just trying to get at some of those reasons.

      • Hi Seth – I don’t know if it can be fit on a postcard. Perhaps there’s someone insightful enough to condense it, but I think it involves a greater amount of reading, reflection and perhaps experience. There’s a saying that goes something like, “anyone who is under 30 and is not a liberal has no heart and anyone who is over 30 and is not a conservative has no brain.” The modern terminology is that liberals base their agenda on “feeling” and conservatives on “thinking”. I think Bastiat’s parable of the broken window is an example of the tow ways of “thinking” – or feeling versus thinking. The liberal view looks superficially at the immediate or intended effect of an action (or law), i.e. if we give freebies to those with no jobs, it will help them out. The conservative view (hopefully) looks more deeply at the unintended consequences, i.e. if we give someone freebies, they will have less incentive to get a job and we can only give them freebies by taking from someone else and giving him less incentive to continue working. Yeah, I know, many Republican politicians fail to uphold these principles either because they don’t understand the principles behind the ideology and/or because they are more concerned with pleasing some SIG in order to get re-elected. I am simply trying to make a bigger generalization. The point is that conveying the differences for the purpose of “enlightening” a person of the left probably entails a more lengthy learning process than what can be conveyed in a few sentences. Indeed, as described above, the difference (IMHO) between left and right is largely that the left’s principles involve very little thinking (and hence little reading and reflection) while the right’s necessarily involves more study (because it looks at the unintended and deeper implications of our actions).

        I once heard Bob Beckel, a liberal host on “The Five”, state that he agreed with the economic principles of the conservatives, but he favored the actual policies of the left because the policies of the right would hurt innocent kids and that he would rather waste money on many that didn’t really need it in order to have one kid in 100 fall through the cracks. In other words, he favored a food stamp program that gave food stamps to 99 people who didn’t need or deserve it as long as it covered the one kid who did need it. Bastiat would note that the problem with this thinking is that it ignores the unintended consequences, e.g. it necessarily takes from one group (thus decreasing their incentive to produce) and also gives to many who are otherwise able to produce, but now have little incentive to produce because they can get food without working for it.

        As far as reading to suggest, I think Bastiat’s works are a good starting place (economically), e.g. “The Law” and “That which is Seen and That which is not seen”. Milton Freidman’s “Free to Choose” might be a good choice as well.

        Jerry Muller has a good collection – “Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present”

        If I could throw out a few more, I might include “The Burden of Bad Ideas” by Heather MacDonald and Bernie Goldberg’s “Bias” (to show the problem with the MSM).

        If all else fails, “The Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater remains an important book.

        NOTE: The original quote was by one of Tocqueville’s mentors, Francois Guizot, who concluded that “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” –

        • Mike — Good stuff. I think you bring up an effective opener. I think often the conversation between non-conservative and conservative goes something like:

          NC: You’d be okay if the kids starved?
          C: Well, no, but they have to figure it out.
          NC: You’re such a monster.

          Maybe the opener is something more like (C to NC): I understand why you believe what you do. I want the same outcome. I’ve come to believe what I do because I think it provides the best chance to do that. And, while I believe you are well-meaning, I think you might want to consider that your way actually hurts the people you want to help.

  5. “I’m more looking for a way to describe what being conservative means to someone who doesn’t identify themselves as conservative that might make them think of it differently and more favorably.”

    I suspect if you’re trying to appeal to someone thoughtful you’d want to stress the thoughtfulness of the conservative viewpoint. Things like:

    – the power of feedback (free markets)
    – the value of efficiency (streamlined government)
    – the intellectual figures behind the philosophy of conservatism

    “When I crossed over from identifying myself as ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’ there were some compelling reasons for it and it wasn’t because I believed the set of morals the right was trying to legislate over the left. Just trying to get at some of those reasons.”

    You mentioned letting go of the fantasy that everyone had the heart of Mother Teresa. Can you explain a little bit more about how you used to think? My guess is that you expected everyone to “do the right thing” without a system of feedback in place.

    • You got it. I was a naive kid who thought people ‘oughta’ do the right thing, which led to disappointment after disappointment. I disappointed myself sometimes.

      I didn’t consider incentives and feedback. Those were not concepts that I thought were even related to folks doing the right thing. Nor did I consider trade-offs. I thought we could just ‘wave a magic wand’ to solve problems –whatever that meant. So, what I hoped for and expected was a fictional place.

      On the bright side, I am amazed at people who do go above and beyond and set good examples, but I came to learn that it was foolhardy and imprudent to expect that. We are what we are and that isn’t necessarily good, bad or otherwise — usually. But, it’s important to recognize that rather than believe you are in a fictional world where scarcity and incentives do not exist.

      • “On the bright side, I am amazed at people who do go above and beyond and set good examples, but I came to learn that it was foolhardy and imprudent to expect that.”

        Maybe the people who go above and beyond are actually making things worse. That is to say, they are (or seem to be) above the feedback loops that the rest of humanity needs to participate in. They make it seem like people can just be good, without any incentives or scarcity.

        • Possibly. But, I don’t think it’s on them. It’s on the people who think everybody could be like them. And, ‘seem to be’ is right. Often, there are self-interested reasons for going above and beyond, but they are often overlooked or not recognized by others.


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