In an effort to better define and understand what conservatism is, we are now going to look at the second of The Ten Conservative Principles of Russell Kirk. These Principles serve as a reasonable framework to begin this conversation.
Conservatism is absolutely antithetical to progressivism, but conservatism is not necessarily opposed to measured, well thought-out progress. It is important to emphasize the role of continuity in this process. Most people understand what conservatives mean when they talk about customs and conventions.
Conservatives value what G. K. Chesterton referred to as the “democracy of the dead.” In other words, conservatives consider what has worked in the past, what has not worked in the past and ultimately have a bias towards what has worked before as compared to an untried, yet potentially trendy, theory. This is not to say that change is impossible or necessarily undesirable. If something is wrong, then it naturally needs to be corrected. However, conservatives do not seek change simply for the virtue of change itself. That shows a respect for custom and convention.
Continuity is so important for the conservative because it ensures that these customs and conventions are transmitted from one generation to the next. In order to respect those who came before, you naturally have to know who came before. You have to know why they did what they did and why they put value on certain practices. It is this line of communication that in fact makes responsible progress possible.
As a relevant example, William Wilberforce heard the justifications that people made to support the slave trade in the British Empire. In that case, slavery was a cultural custom and a convention. However, Wilberforce understood Kirk’s First Principle of conservatism I wrote about previously. He appealed to a better custom and convention, one that was consistent with the eternal moral order. He sought continuity with the tradition of what was right rather than what was culturally acceptable.
He was so persuasive that he was able to overturn an economically powerful and horrendously evil enterprise. However, he did that because he understood the power of custom, convention and continuity, and he understood why it was important to make sure that we were continuing the right customs and conventions rather than the evil ones. John Newton passed along the great abolitionist tradition to Wilberforce. He didn’t come up with these ideas out of thin air. He was continuing in the right, enduring moral order. It was much more significant progress than the change simply for the sake of change that characterizes a great deal of political discourse today.
Conservatives face the frequent criticism that they are backward, stuck in their ways and stubborn. However, it is not that at all. In fact, conservatives welcome progress when it is progress towards the enduring moral order. However, we do not change simply for the sake of change, and we do not automatically assume that newer is always better. Instead, we critically evaluate the past, respect what has worked and consider how to best pursue goodness in the future. Quite often, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we have to remember why we have the wheel in the first place.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the remainder of the series.