What Is A Conservative?

In his introduction to Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age, Benjamin Lockerd writes: “In one of his letters to Eliot (October 27, 1955), Kirk quotes Ambrose Bierce’s defintion of a conservative: ‘A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others’” (xviii).

This is the only sense in which “conservatism” ought to be opposed to “liberalism,” when the two are taken, not as labeling distinct political philosophies (a material distinction), but rather as labeling dispositions toward politics and cultures in every time and place (a formal distinction). The conservative might be a (material) liberal in the sense of preferring regimes that have a high regard for human dignity and for limited government; but the conservative’s attitude toward proposed changes to these regimes will be one of epistemic humility, a chastened skepticism of our ability to master the tides of human fortune, born from the recognition that the interlocking institutions and intuitions, political and cultural, that make liberal democracy possible were not drawn up on the back of a napkin, but evolved painstakingly and haphazardly over centuries, in the rise of limited government from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution and beyond; the rise of a culture of rights-discourse among medieval canonists; and the gradual rise of free markets for the exchange of wealth and labor (beginning esp. in the Dutch Republic, and spreading thence to England). Conservatives recognize that we inhabit a moral and social ecology not of our making, and fear to tamper over-zealously with the delicate array of forces that sustain its health.

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