(Author’s note: this originated as an information page on my website. I decided to post it as an “essay” after receiving repeated inquiries from folks who had not seen the info page and wondered what exactly is a “traditional conservative?”)
Traditional Conservatives – some call us Old Right or Paleo-Conservatives – could be thought of as the closest intellectual, moral, and political living kin of America‘s Founding Fathers. That is not to say we yearn for the past; rather, that we understand history is much more than ancient facts or ideas. History is, in reality, a roadmap to the future.
No doubt you have heard the saying, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” Traditional conservatives do not assume, as do so many today, that we are wiser than our ancestors. While we know human knowledge has increased exponentially since 1776, we, like our Founders, also know from the simple observation of history, politics and culture that human nature has not changed since the dawn of man. Therefore, history – ours as well as that of other nations and peoples – can teach us about the mistakes of the past and how to avoid them.
This is how Thomas Jefferson expressed it in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, 1781: “History, by apprising [citizens] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”
Traditional conservatives believe we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. And so it is our ancestors, our kin and our culture which give us our sense of self and place and history, a sense that has been described as “both collective and personal.” We revere God, national sovereignty, cultural identity (both national and regional), community, republicanism (with a small “r”), and self-restrained capitalism.
Thus unlike all of today’s various shades of liberalism – progressivism, statism, socialism, fascism, Nazism, Marxism, communism, etc. – traditional conservatism is not an ideology but a way of life, and of thinking about life. And it is the biggest political tent of all because unlike every one of those other “isms,” it does not demand its followers adhere to any strict code of thought, speech or action.
Traditional conservatism does have parameters, of course, encompassing all of what President Ronald Reagan once described as the three-legged stool of true conservatism: strong free-market economic policies, strong defense and strong social values. And as with liberalism, there are variations. Some are minor while others are significant. Many who consider them selves conservative embrace only one or two of those “legs.” We believe the stool cannot stand without all three.
The group referred to as neo-conservatives, for example, agree with traditionals on the need for a strong national defense, but that is where the similarities end. Traditionals see neo-conservatives as pro-defense liberals or progressives who have shifted what is thought of as conservatism to the Left.
Traditionals also share beliefs with Libertarians. But we believe in what the late Russell Kirk called a “transcendent moral order,” while Kirk says libertarians see “no transcendent sanctions for conduct.” Libertarians also see the individual as the primary focus of all political activity. While traditional conservatives agree with the need to protect individual rights and freedoms, we also know man is a social creature whose nature derives true fulfillment from faith, family, kin and neighbors.
For the vast majority of traditionals, faith holds the dominant place in our private lives. And we believe faith can be expressed freely in the public arena without “imposing” it on others. But we reject the idea that any government – or group of activists – can tell us what we can or cannot believe, force any faith upon us or require us to abandon our beliefs in the name of “political correctness.” Traditionals believe our Creator has given us “unalienable rights” which no earthly person or organization can limit or take from us, an idea stated clearly in our Constitution.
We believe – as did America‘s Founders – that the content of our individual and social characters is more important than the accumulation of money, possessions or political power. And we believe the content of character is more important than the color of skin.
We believe above all else, the most essential institution which must be conserved is the family, and conserved as our Creator intended. We believe the family is the natural and basic social entity and must be based in marriage between one man and one woman and committed to bringing new life into the world.
We believe culture is more important than politics or economics and that the nation can be saved only by restoring America’s specific culture – as well as its regional cultures – based on its own historical experiences, involving its own institutions as well as its own beliefs and values.
We believe that if our culture is to be saved, it will be accomplished only by adhering to what have been called the “Permanent Things,” ancient moral truths which have been the bedrock of healthy societies throughout history and which must govern our everyday lives.
We believe in the Small, the Local, the Old and the Particular as opposed to the Big, the Global, the New and the Abstract. And so we are as suspicious of big business as we are of big government and believe small government and small business are much more efficient and therefore better for individual freedom as well as the economy.
Traditionals believe in self-government: of taking care of oneself, one’s family, one’s property. But we also believe those who truly need help should get it. Both ideas are part of the Judeo-Christian ethic which has made this country the most generous in human history, as well as the wealthiest.
We believe self-government must include government of the self: personal restraint and humility. We believe that includes good stewardship of the natural world to achieve a balance between the judicious use of natural resources and the ongoing replacement of those which can be renewed. Thus, we are conservationists, not environmentalists.
We believe that private property is the bedrock of a free society. Among other things, ownership teaches responsibility, encourages integrity, raises work to a level higher than drudgery, and allows us to rise from poverty to security.
We believe in Capitalism, the only economic system ever devised which democratizes wealth. But we also prefer a “distributist” (small business) approach to capitalism. And we believe with our Founding Fathers that the true purpose of wealth is the spiritual and intellectual improvement of the individual.
Traditionals agree with President Ronald Reagan that America should be the “shining city on a hill,” but we see our nation as an example for others to emulate and aspire to, not as an instrument for spreading democracy. We realize certain cultural and institutional conditions are necessary for our form of government to take root, conditions which simply do not exist in most countries.
Traditionals believe in American sovereignty and secure American borders and that American troops should be used to protect America. We believe Republics should mind their own business; that their citizens and government have more than enough to do to take care of them selves.
Therefore, we do not believe America is the world’s policeman. Rather, it should heed the advice of President George Washington in its dealings with other countries: to trade with all, but “to have with them as little political connection as possible.” This would allow us to base American foreign policy solely on American national interest.
Harry Beadle is a former news anchor for the CNN Radio Network. His essays are posted at http://harrybeadle.com