Contrary to what many assume, the conservative political tradition is neither reactionary nor opposed to change. True conservatives are simply wary of revolutionary change – especially when inspired by utopian idealism.

Conservatives prefer an evolutionary approach, where experience, common sense, and pragmatism lend a certain stability to society and its institutions.

We could sum up the conservative political outlook in a couple of maxims:

  1. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

  2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

It is important to distinguish between conservatism as an ideological outlook and the conservative brand some political parties operate under. Some practice the type of cautious conservatism described above. Some are more radical in their outlook.

Conservatism is often associated with liberalism, unregulated capitalism, and in some cases, libertarianism. This is no accident. It’s the product of a mixed history of ideas and the occasional opportunism of certain individuals and political parties who have misappropriated the term for their own political ends.

Vive la révolution!

The most famous and early exponent of conservatism is the Irish-British philosopher, Edmund Burke. In most respects, the long-standing Member of the British House of Commons was a classic liberal, respecting the ideals of liberty and equality.

But Burke found the French Revolution a step too far. A quick history lesson: the French Revolution was a 10-year uprising that began in 1789 against the aristocratic social and political systems. It eventually overthrew the monarchy.

In the Revolution’s push for radical change, Burke saw the seeds of what we might now call totalitarianism – a society where the individual counts for nothing and the State for all. This is captured by Burke in his Second Letter on Regicide Peace where, describing the Revolutionary Government of France, he wrote:

Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The State has dominion and conquest for its sole objects—dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.

This aversion to radical idealism and its tendency to lay the foundation for a totalitarian state is a theme frequently returned to by conservative philosophers. For example, Karl Popper observes in The Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume One):

The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which is therefore likely to lead to a dictatorship.

Like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, after all the unrest and upheaval of the French Revolution, overthrowing the monarchy led to Napoleon’s rule, which is widely regarded as a totalitarian dictatorship. The conservative critique of efforts toward revolutionary change provide such examples as an argument for cautious and prudent evolution instead.

Conservatives are likely to feel that proponents of radical change often fail to realise that they will also be swept aside if something entirely new is to be made. As the contemporary philosopher in the ‘Burkean’ mould, Roger Scruton puts it:

All that conservatism ultimately means, in my view, is the disposition to hold on to what you know and love. And if you don’t hold on to what you know and love, you will lose it anyway.

Join the conversation

When should we be cautious of change?