Understanding Conservatism: From Principles to Policies
As summarized from Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Plato.*
Don’t Start with Policy
No new taxes. No corporate bailouts. No apologies to dictators. No terrorists released. No
deficits. No enslavement by government handouts.
Conservatives will say “NO!” to half-baked quick fixes satisfying the demands of the special interests.
But what is the thought process that leads to these policies as articulated by most
First, it must be clearly understood that the above positions are merely policies; they are not, in and of themselves, core conservative principles.
Instead, these are the policies that result after carefully applying the core principles of
So to understand the derivation of policies that sometimes require a “No!” one must learn
the principles that drive the policy-making process.
Never confuse policy with principle.
As Russell Kirk says in his 1953 The Conservative Mind “prudence is the chief virtue” and is thus a foundational principle of conservatism. And prudence frequently demands a “No” or at the least, a “Not yet.” Advocating the primacy of prudence goes back thousands of years through Edmund Burke to Plato and requires a behavior of looking outward with broad scope and timeless depth.
Thus, a conservative decision process values history for its ability to reveal which policies help, and which policies hinder, a society in its quest to be vigorous and innovative yet stable and secure.
Russel Kirk and Friend
Ignorance of history condemns one to blindness, robs one of the ability to be prudent, and enslaves one to a victimhood of whims and fads.
People see or hear slogans from the political right such as “smaller government” or “lower taxes” or “more personal freedom.” They are mistakenly led to believe that these slogans are some of the so-called conservative principles.
What should be clarified is that these sound-bites symbolize only the resulting policies of applying the conservative principles and do not constitute the founding principles, themselves.
In like manner, the listed “No” items at the beginning of this article are the results of applying the principles.
The conservatives principles are very broad, general guidelines and have no specific remedies or solutions embedded within them. The conservative principles should be viewed more as providing a starting point along with a pathway to be followed when deriving public policy.
In other words, when faced with the need for a policy decision, applying a conservative decision process begins at a nexus of several axioms as a starting point and then proceeds
to fit the particular issue at hand into various guidelines.
Conservative Axiom No. 1: Humans are imperfectible. [RK-6]
Not only are humans imperfect, they cannot be made perfect. Any policy goal that is based on perfecting society or on perfecting humans is doomed to failure. Any proposed problem solution that assumes human perfection or perfectibility, or that strives to achieve such, will fail. Any true conservative process has this fact of human nature as a foundation.
Conservative Axiom No. 2: There are only two equalities: at the Last Judgment and at the bar of a just court of law. [RK-5]
All attempts at leveling outcomes must lead to stagnation. Any vigorous society
must embrace variety and differences with the concomitant freedoms that these
differences allow. Imposing equality of outcomes destroys equality of rights and freedoms.
As the Declaration of Independence states, all men are created with equal and unalienable rights to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Conservative Axiom No. 3: There is a universal thirst for freedom in every human.
All humans have a yearning to breathe free as guaranteed by the Lady Liberty with her torchlight who replaces the pompous Colossus of Rhodes and his conquering might.
Conservative Axiom No. 4: Our senses can fool us. In addition to optical illusions, there are auditory illusions and cognitive illusions.
All humans share the common trait of being fooled by their perceptions. For
this reason, the scientific method requires that many scientists repeat the
same experiment many times before its conclusion can be accepted as trustworthy
knowledge. Our jury system requires twelve people to hear the same evidence. Many
cultures require at least two witnesses and sometimes more before a testimony is considered fact.
From Axioms to Principles
The above axioms serve as gatekeepers for determining what sorts of policies should even be considered. If it is proposed to bring about some perfecting quality or leveling of some material or social asset, such a proposal should be dropped – these axioms are a litmus test of realizability.
As history has repeatedly proven, utopia is unrealizable, and all attempts to achieve it
eventually result in societal destruction.
The genius of many sovereign states each having the right to try variations on a central theme leads to successful trials being imitated and increasing and unsuccessful trials being
avoided and diminished.
Conservative Guideline 1: Prudence is the chief virtue. [RK-4]
Be careful! In considering a new or different path, prudence demands a thorough
review of history searching for exemplars. Prudence demands for data – for solid evidence – that the proposed policy has had salutary effects in past situations.
This guideline is easily traceable back to Plato and could probably be found in our hunter-gatherer fore bearers. It is enshrined in such homilies as “don’t upset the apple cart” and “don’t rock the boat.”
As recognized by the Founding Fathers, our own Declaration of Inpedpendence asserts the primacy of prudence. In the second paragraph, after declaring the equality of every man to the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness they state: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Conservative Guideline 2: Voluntary local community always trumps involuntary centralized collectivism. [RK-8]
Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the
functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real
government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process
hostile to freedom and human dignity.
Conservative Guideline 3: Grant authority to long established custom – immemorial usage is prescriptive. [RK-3]
As Russell Kirk puts it: “The human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.”
It makes no sense to worship precedent and stare decisis in the practice of law but then to ignore it in other pursuits. When the winds of change are trying to blow us onto an
uncharted rocky shore, we should anchor to custom until the weather calms.
Conservative Guideline 4: Both permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. [RK-10]
Without a confident sense of permanence, a society is in constant turmoil with a dangerous tendency to slip into anarchy. Without a prudent spirit of progress
and change, a society can stagnate and wither or engage in revolution. The conservative is ever alert to the requirement for balancing these two societal needs.
Conservative Corollary 1: Custom, convention, and continuity must be adhered to. [RK- 2]
Customs allow us to live together peaceably. Conventions allow us to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties. Continuity links us generationally and helps to give meaning to our existence.
Kirk reminds us: “When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover
the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.”
Conservative Guideline 5: Freedom and property are closely linked. [RK-7]
Policies that result in forcing the separation of a citizen from the fruits of his labor impinge liberty to the same degree and fray the fabric of a free society.
Again, Kirk puts it well: “To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity;
to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.”
The volunteer small-farm owners of the ancient Greek city-state democracies maintained their culture at its pinnacle for centuries whether as voting citizens or as part-time
fighting warriors. Philip and Alexander’s conversion of these societies into an empire with a landed aristocracy initiated the decline of this culture into oblivion.
A nearly identical scenario occurred in the rise of the Roman Republic based on the free farmer and merchant which pivoted into its downward spiral with the conversion to a property-usurping Empire by Caesar.
Conservative Guideline 6: Prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions are needed. [RK-9]
A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic.
Conservative Guideline 7: There exists an enduring moral order. [RK-1]
That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
Policies Must Rest on Principles
If a self-described conservative disagrees with a policy that has been based on conservative principles, then he is obligated to point to the specific principle which has been misapplied.
The policy can then be discarded or revised to correctly align with that principle and the
procedure then carried forward.
In the event that the policy does align with all of the principles, it must be either accepted as a well-founded conservative policy; or its opponents will have thereby exposed themselves as non-conservatives.
Those not claiming to be conservatives should point to the specific principle or principles with which they disagree. That is, do they believe that Utopia can be achieved or that history can be ignored? It is useless to debate policy, until all debates about the underlying principles are resolved. A lack of resolution on principles nullifies
debate on policy; the vote must be called.
The next article will examine some policies – debated both past and present – and illustrate how they may be scrutinized through the filter of the principles outlined here.
*The author makes no claim to originality of thought and cautions that his interpretation of Kirk, et al is probably not error-free.
Notations with “RK-n” refer to one of Russell Kirk’s principles as enumerated in his