To Be, or Not to Be, a “Conservative”?

A friend recently referred me to this essay by the inimitable G. K. Chesterton.

Reviewing a book called Conservatism, Chesterton explores the question: “What is a conservative?” He begins by questioning conservatism’s very existence.

G. K.’s doubts stem from recognizing “one of the great mistakes of modern controversy: the duty of writing round a word rather than round a thesis.”

Arguments have a meaning, and may be true or false, but a word is a “mere badge” that can be defined one way one moment, another the next.

Chesterton illustrates his objection by considering possible definitions of conservatism, and their hollowness.

If conservatism is a belief that human affairs must be made to conform to eternal principles, then some of history’s greatest radicals were “conservative.”

If it is a conviction that the status quo must be defended against all proposed modifications, then conservatism is as rational as wanting to “preserve pheasants till they have all died of old age.”

Following the lead of this “apostle of common sense,” I would suggest four theses, all derived from Aquinas’s thoughts on law, that might contribute to a meaningful definition of conservatism:

1) Law exists to guide us toward the common good, which requires us to live virtuously, but human beings cannot be forced into virtue. Even the best laws will not bring about a perfect society.

2) Good laws are grounded in sound reasoning, but law works best when citizens obey from habit rather than scrutinizing each rule. Changing laws whenever we think of something better confuses citizens and weakens the influence of laws in general.

3) Long-established laws may be based on reasoning that is sound but no longer familiar to most living citizens. Changes that seem like improvements may turn out to be harmful.

4) Laws must come from a recognized authority. Even when public officials abuse their power, dissidents usually lack the standing to replace defective governance with a practical alternative.

Note that each of these claims is not merely disputable in itself. Even if all are true, each leaves open the possibility that, in particular circumstances, change is likely to do more good than harm.

As the author of this essay argues, a thoughtful conservatism has genuine merits, but cannot absolve us of the duty to govern by the light of a principled prudence.

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