Conservative values are based on a desire to preserve traditions. Classical conservatives are skeptical of change and generally seek to maintain the status quo.
The concept of conservatism has many branches, and indeed some branches of conservatism may appear vastly different from the values presented in classical writings on political philosophy.
For example, a person may identify as a fiscal conservative but not a cultural conservative, meaning you may identify overall as ‘conservative’ while having personal philosophies and values that clash with the examples of conservative values listed below.
- Respect for Tradition – A central value of many conservatives is a desire to preserve traditional values. Conservatives tend to believe that cultural and social traditions have served them well, meaning they want to honor those traditions and maintain them into the future.
- Resistance to Radical Change – Conservatives are often up against progressives who want to achieve social progress. Conservatives are skeptical of to much change at once and will often be more slow to accept a change until they are convinced it will serve them (or society) well.
- Desire to Protect what you Have – The term ‘conservative’ embeds within it the phrase ‘conserve’, meaning to maintain something. We see in most Western democracies that people who possess the wealth and power in society tend to be more conservative because they want to preserve the social heirarchy which is serving them well. By contrast, the poor and disempowered tend to be progressives because they see change as an opportunity to disrupt the status quo.
- Individual Liberty – The concept of individual liberty was considered radical during the Enlightenment. If we go back then, it was liberals who pushed hard for the idea of individual liberty which was resisted by conservatives within the Church. But today, individual liberty is widely accepted as a conservative value. Generally, this is because conservatives today see governments as restricting individual liberty, and as we’re about to find out, conservatives tend not to like nosy governments.
- Limited Government – Conservatives tend to have mistrust in governments. It’s not that they don’t like government (we’ll cover that later – in fact, classical conservatives like to preserve core democratic institutions). It’s more that fiscal conservatives think government is inefficient and wasteful. Remember, conservatives like to conserve things, including money!
- Rule of Law – You’ll often hear conservatives talking about how they’re the ‘party of law and order’. They’re often endorsed by, and voted for in large numbers by, police personel. That’s because conservatives think the police are an important institution for preserving (or CONserving!) the status quo.
- Peace Through Strength – Conservatives also tend to value strong militaries and respect strength. As with the above point about law and order, valuing strong authority figures can be partly explained through the fact that those authority figures are guardians of the status quo, which is at the center of a conservative ideology.
- Fiscal Responsibility – Outside of the realm of politics, a person may be seen as philosophically conservative if they are very careful about how they spend their money. For example, you might say that you “will spend your inheritance conservatively”, meaning you’re not about to go out and buy a fancy new car with it. Instead, you’ll save it or spend it in ways that will preserve your wealth for the long term.
- Risk Aversiveness – As with the above example on fiscal responsibility, a person with a conservative outlook is generally going to avoid risks. You’re not going to go into debt for no good reason, and you might make conservative judgements when investing in the stock exchange or even deciding whether it’s okay for your teenager to get on the train alone at night. You err on the side of avoiding risks wherever possible.
- Capitalism – Conservatives tend to embrace a capitalist economic ideology. This is, in part, because they don’t like the alternative: government-managed economic markets. According to conservatives, a centrally-planned economy will have lots of inherent waste, which capitalists abhor. Furthermore, a capitalist market will allow individuals to openly compete against one another, allowing the strongest person to win.
- Neoliberalism – Neoliberalism is a certain type of capitalism that conservatives absolutely loved since around the 1980s. This is an approach to capitalism where government intervention is avoided at all costs and taxes for the rich are lowered. It tends to help countries rapidly increase overall wealth levels, but also allows money to ‘trickle up’ toward the rich and powerful, leading to greater income inequality. Remember – many wealthy people are conservatives because they want to conserve the status quo (which is helping them quite nicely). Neoliberalism has been a great mechanism for helping conservatives to maintain their status quo of being quite wealthy, thank you very much!
- Institutionalism – Classical conservatives tend to want to preserve the institutions that serve a society well. 300 years ago, that was the Church. Today, in Western democracies, it’s institutions like independent courts, an independent police service, and the institution of democracy that are highly-regarded by conservatives. Note that this is a traditional conservative value, not a populist conservative value (populists have been on the rise in conservative political parties recently, much to the chagrin of classical conservatives).
- Family Values – We often hear conservative politicians talking about the importance of the family. This is because they see the family as the core ‘institution’ of society. Families care for each other, raise children, and pass on a culture so the cultural values can continue from one generation to the next.
- Free enterprise – Free enterprise refers to the freedom of people to start businesses and buy and sell things. Conservatives tend to respect people who pull themselves together and give things a go. They respect effort and hard work, which are central features of businesspeople.
- Personal Responsibility – Conservatives believe in personal responsibility. This means that people need to take responsibility for their actions. If you did something wrong, you’ll have to face up to it and also face the consequences. But if you did something well, then you should be rewarded for it. This is because a conservative generally sees people as individuals who have to take care for themselves. That takes us to the next value!
- Rugged Individualism – Rugged individualism is an American term that refers to the much-valued self-sufficient person who doesn’t rely on the government or handouts to get by. These people are highly respected because they take personal responsibility and take action to protect (even conserve!) their own family.
- Property Rights – Conservatives believe that people should be allowed ownership over their own personal possessions. Governments shouldn’t be able to take them off you, and if someone else takes them from you, then a judge should prosecute them.
Criticisms of Conservatism
Conservatism has been an important institution in the political and philosophical life of modern societies. However, it’s also been heavily critiqued by progressives and liberals. Below are some central critiques.
- It Fails to Understand Context: While conservatives often value people who ‘pull themselves together’ and ‘achieve personal success’, they fail to realize the role of systemic oppression and disadvantage that makes it a lot harder for some people to succeed than others.
- It Protects the Powerful: Hierarchies, strength, and wealth are respected by conservatives. But this often means that those in power are shielded and given special treatment, while the marginalized and oppressed continue to be pushed down.
- They’re Late to the Party: In an attempt to sustain the status quo, conservatives are often last to accept social changes that, after several generations, become normalized. Often, once a social change is normalized, conservatives come around and want to protect those ‘new’ changes because they are, now, the status quo. One example of this is integration in the United States.
Conservatism is a philosophy and political orientation based upon preserving the status quo and being skeptical of change. It’s based on a desire to protect what you have and minimize risk.
However, there are many different arms of conservatism, so the above examples are tied to classical conservatism, but it’s almost impossible to come up with examples that match all the different branches of conservatism around the world.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]