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Political conservatism is a term used to describe political philosophies that favor tradition and gradual change, where tradition refers to religious, cultural, or nationally defined beliefs and customs. The term is derived from the Latin, com servare, to preserve; "to protect from loss or harm". Since different cultures have different established values, conservatives in different cultures have differing goals. Some conservatives seek to preserve the status quo or to reform society slowly, while others seek to return to the values of an earlier time, the status quo ante. In psychology it is potentially associated with conservatism a personality trait favouring similar values such as duty and moral standards.
Conservatism as a political philosophy is difficult to define, encompassing numerous different movements in various countries and time periods; there may sometimes be contradictions between alternative conceptions of conservatism as the ideology of preserving the past, and the contemporary worldwide conception of conservatism as a right-wing political stance. For instance, as one commentator questions, "who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wingviews of modern conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher?"
Samuel Francis defined authentic conservatism as “the survival and enhancement of a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions.” Roger Scruton calls it “maintenance of the social ecology” and “the politics of delay, the purpose of which is to maintain in being, for as long as possible, the life and health of a social organism.” Conservatives believe that radical change and unproven beliefs should not be quickly implemented before being tested.
Schools of conservatism
- Main article: Cultural conservatism
Cultural conservatism is a philosophy that supports preservation of the heritage of a nation or culture. The culture in question may be as large as Western culture or Chinese civilization or as small as that of Tibet. Cultural conservatives try to adapt norms handed down from the past. The norms may be romantic, like the anti-metric movement that demands the retention of avoirdupois weights and measures in Britain and opposes their replacement with the metric system. They may be institutional: in the West this has included chivalry and feudalism, as well as capitalism, laicité and the rule of law.
According to the subset called social conservatives, the norms may also be moral. For example, in some cultures practices such as homosexuality are considered wrong. In other cultures women who expose their faces or limbs in public are considered immoral, and conservatives in those cultures often support laws to prohibit such practices. Other conservatives take a more positive approach, supporting good samaritan laws, or laws requiring public charity, if their culture considers these acts moral.
Cultural conservatives often argue that old institutions have adapted to a particular place or culture and therefore ought to persevere. Depending on how universalizing (or skeptical) they are, cultural conservatives may or may not accept cultures that differ from their own. Many conservatives believe in a universal morality, but others allow that moral codes may differ from nation to nation, and only try to support their moral code within their own culture. That is, a cultural conservative may doubt whether the broad ideals of French communities would be equally appropriate in Germany.
Religious conservatives seek to preserve the teachings of particular ideologies, sometimes by proclaiming the value of those teachings, at other times seeking to have those teachings given the force of law. Religious conservatism may support, or be supported by, secular customs. In other places or at other times, religious conservatism may find itself at odds with the culture in which the believers reside. In some cultures, there is conflict between two or more different groups of religious conservatives, each strongly asserting both that their view is correct, and that opposing views are wrong.
Conservative governments influenced by religious conservatives may promote broad campaigns for a return to traditional values. Modern examples include the Back to Basics campaign of British Prime Minister, John Major. In the European Union, a conservative campaign sought to constitutionally specify certain conservative values in the proposed European Constitution.
Because many religions preserve a founding text, or at least a set of well-established traditions, the possibility of Radical Religious Conservatism arises. These are radical both in the sense of abolishing the status quo and of a perceived return to the radix or root of a belief. They are ante conservative in their claim to be preserving the belief in its original or pristine form. Radical Religious Conservatism generally sees the status quo as corrupted by abuses, corruption, or heresy. One example of such a movement was the Protestant Reformation.
The world of political Islam can be broadly divided into two categories: conservatives and dissenters. The conservatives are tolerant, respectful of older traditions while at the same time open to new ideas and non-radical change while the dissenters are generally intolerant, critical of tradition and inclined towards extremism and intolerance towards other political perspectives. Sufism is widely accepted as the conservative wing of Islam whereas Salafism or 'Wahhabism' is generally accepted as the dissenting voice notwithstanding the general misunderstanding often prevalent in Western popular imagination.
Similar phenomena have arisen in practically all the world's religions, in many cases triggered by the violent cultural collision between the traditional society in question and the modern Western society that has developed throughout the world over the past 500 years. Much of what is labelled as radical religious conservatism in the modern world is in fact an indigenous fusion of traditional religious ideals with modern, European revolutionary philosophy, sometimes Marxist in nature.
Fiscal conservatism is the economic philosophy of prudence in government spending and debt. Edmund Burke, in his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France', articulated its principles:
...[I]t is to the property of the citizen, and not to the demands of the creditor of the state, that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged. The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity. The fortunes of individuals, whether possessed by acquisition or by descent or in virtue of a participation in the goods of some community, were no part of the creditor's security, expressed or implied...[T]he public, whether represented by a monarch or by a senate, can pledge nothing but the public estate; and it can have no public estate except in what it derives from a just and proportioned imposition upon the citizens at large.
In other words, a government does not have the right to run up large debts and then throw the burden on the taxpayer; the taxpayers' right not to be taxed oppressively takes precedence even over paying back debts a government may have imprudently undertaken.
Ideological interaction and influence
Many forms of conservatism incorporate elements of other ideologies and philosophies. In turn, conservatism has influence upon them. Most conservatives strongly support the sovereign nation (although that was not so in the 19th century), and patriotically identify with their own nation. Nationalist separatist movements may be both radical and conservative. They appeal to tradition and often emphasise rural life and folkways.
Conservative patriotism is sometimes expressed in the words of American naval hero Stephen Decatur, Jr., who said, "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!" The nation or, at an earlier time, the city state, is seen as a major force safeguarding traditional values and preserving the very life and freedom of its citizens.
Value conservatives in Europe appeal to national values. Burkean conservatives value them for their own sake, because they are the result of long experience, but the patriotic impulse also has a strong emotional appeal, as illustrated by the famous Sir Walter Scott quotation, "Breathes there a man, with soul so dead, who never to himself has said, this is my own, my native land!"
Most patriots appeal to national symbolism: the national flag, national historical icons, founders and emblems, the works of national poets and authors, or the representation of the nation by its artists. Conservatives often express admiration of the patriotic values of duty and sacrifice.
Conversely, some conservatives say that to defend their national identity, they may need to expose the hypocrisy of an existing regime. For example, G. K. Chesterton responded to Decatur in The Defendant, saying "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" Further, paleoconservatives and others say that in this era of the managerial state, there is no clear consensus on what institutions should be conserved; therefore, the term conservative can only mean that any idea or ideology or institution that preserves human rights, and the rights of other sentient beings to exist in peace, is what should be preserved.
Conservatism and economics
The phrases "economic liberal" and "economic conservative" seem to be antonyms, diverging from modern neoliberalism, and classical liberalism in the tradition of Adam Smith. Some conservatives look to a modified free market order, such as the American System, ordoliberalism, or Friedrich List's National System. The latter view differs from strict laissez-faire in that the state's role is to promote competition while maintaining the national interest, community and identity.
Outside the United States, "liberal" often refers only to free-market policies. For example, in Europe "liberal-conservative" is an accepted term. Differences in meaning and usage of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have contributed to a great deal of confusion, and often the words seem to be used with no more meaning than "us" and "them". Conservatives and classical liberals are "allied against the common enemy, socialism," but classical liberals are less suspicious of big government than conservatives.
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