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Word for Wednesday

February 5th, 2003

Conservative: As an antonym to ‘progressive’, the term ‘conservative’ is affected by many of the same confusions.
First, a conservative may be one who, like Burke, believes that that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid, top-down and rationalistic.

Second, a conservative may emphasise obligations to society and community rather than, or as a counterbalance to individual rights . Since societies and communities tend to change more slowly than individuals, this is broadly consistent with the first definition. Closely related to this group are conservationists, who seek to conserve the natural environment often at the expense of short-term benefits to individuals.

Third, a conservative may defend more specific traditional institutions such as monarchy or private property.

Fourth, the term ‘conservative’ is used as the official name of some right-of-centre political parties and as a general descriptive term for right-of-centre politics

Given a historicist belief that history inevitably flows in a given direction, defined as ‘progressive’, a conservative is one who seeks to halt or slow down that flow. Assuming further that the trend of history is towards the political left, all these definitions fit together pretty well. Even in this case, a conservative of type 3 must gradually adjust to lost ground. A contemporary supporter of absolute or even limited monarchy in Australia and the UK would not be a conservative but a reactionary.

As with ‘progressives’, though the big problems emerge when the trend of history changes. Consider, for example, the role of trade unions. As long as trade unions were growing in power, conservatives of all types could join in resisting this trend. But now that unions are in decline, there is a sharp conflict between different types of conservatives.

On any abstract definition of conservatism, it’s clear that conservatives should support trade unions. They are traditional institutions dating back to the 19th century and beyond, they endorse conservative values of community solidarity and they are under attack primarily because they are seen as an obstacle to radical change. And of course this attack is being led by Conservatives in the sense of definition 4 and, to a lesser extent, definition 3.

However, whereas the problems with the term ‘progressive’ are, in my view, so severe as to render it useless as a description of political views, this is not true of ‘conservative’. The absence of any monotone linear trend does not invalidate conservatism in the sense of the first definition. Rather it strengthens it. If the policy trends of this decade may be reversed next decade, then in makes sense to move slowly and to distrust impressive-looking theoretical blueprints.

Having witnessed a massive reversal of policy trends in my own lifetime, and having been on the losing side for most of the past few decades, I am now a conservative in the sense of definition 1. I hope that, should the tide of policy debate turn in favour of social democracy once more, social democrats will avoid the hubris that characterized the Left before the 1970s and the Right thereafter, and will favor slow and careful change based on broad social support.

Update Coincidentally, Stephen Barton at Online Opinion has a piece headlined “Conservatism is not evil, stupid nor ignorant – it’s just misunderstood. ” Since he starts by quoting a member of Margaret Thatcher’s radical free-market government, he clearly does not refer to conservatism in the sense of definitions 1 and 2, despite the obligatory nods to Burke and Oakeshott. Rather he lists a number of conservative politicians and activists and asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t “evil, stupid nor ignorant’, characteristics he instead attributes to people on the other side like Clinton, Whitlam and Keating.

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