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Conservative Group: Fred Speaking
Current speakerAmerican conservatism is complicated. It might be best to say that there is a family of conservatisms that resemble each other in various ways, but also have differences. We'll say more about the family in a minute.

First, I want to try to define American conservatism. The best I can do is to pick out one package of ideas and attitudes from the family of conservatisms. Of course, I'm going to focus on the conservatism that I believe in, but I think it is also a conservatism that many thoughtful Americans accept. In very general terms, I would say that my conservatism consists of a generous dose of classical liberalism combined with a tablespoon of Edmund Burke. Here's a list of some of the important concepts:

American Conservatism: Basic Concepts

  • Respect for tradition

  • Cautious reform of social institutions

  • Belief in God and fixed moral principles

  • Natural rights, including strong property rights

  • Limited constitutional government
  • Respect for the autonomy of the many intermediate institutions that make up civil society.

  • Fiscal responsibility

  • Equality before the law

  • Free markets

  • Limited plasticity of human beings and society

Each of these concepts is fundamental. They can be embodied in principles that give us the essence of a conservative social philosophy.

An American Conservatism: Principles and other Views

  • The belief in individual rights is fundamental for most American conservatives. It is incorporated into the Declaration of Independence, the main body of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The classic liberal rights to belief, expression, movement, and association are of great importance.

  • Citizens are equal before the law. That means that all citizens have the same legal rights. It does not guarantee equal chances to succeed or equal outcomes in the competition that characterizes American life.

  • Many conservatives stress belief in God and fixed moral principles. Many deplore what they call the "moral relativism" of some secular intellectuals.

  • Conservatives have great respect for traditional institutions and values. Traditions that have developed slowly over a long period are assumed to fit the character of the people and to fulfill important functions in society. Abstract plans designed to achieve perfect justice are to be regarded with skepticism. "Organic" change is preferable, partly because it maintains stability and reduces conflict.

  • Change and reform are not to be rejected, but should be carefully considered and carried out slowly. The plasticity of individuals and institutions is limited. The best plans often have unintended consequences that are highly undesirable.

  • Private property and free markets are important not only because they allow the profit motive to spur economic progress, but because they balance and limit the power of government.

  • The Constitution should be narrowly interpreted. This means that the powers of the federal government should be limited, the powers of the states should be expanded, and the power of the Supreme Court to loosely interpret the Constitution is unacceptable.

  • Power should be dispersed in many ways: between the federal and state governments, between branches of government, between public and private institutions, and between large and small enterprises. Government should not control the institutions of civil society more than is necessary to maintain order and liberty.

  • Fiscal responsibility implies low taxes, modest deficits, and a modest national debt.

  • Communism is to be opposed and the welfare state at home should be kept to a minimum.

Links (opening in a new window)

Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Conservatism

Wikipedia article: Conservatism in the United States

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