For the record, the applicable definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary reads as follows:
Conservatism: a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (as retirement income or health-care coverage)
This definition pretty well sums up some of the things that are indicative of a conservative political philosophy, but it doesn’t do much to address the driving force behind conservatism – freedom.
Conservatism is based on the idea that men were created with the right to do as they see fit, up to the point that their actions infringe upon the rights of others. Being reasonable human beings, we recognize that in order to live in a civil society, our freedom must be limited to a certain degree, but only to that which is necessary to avoid infringing on the rights of our neighbors. With that in mind, we have created and established governments for the purpose of ensuring that we are able to live in close proximity to each other while maintaining as much personal freedom as possible.
By definition, “government” functions by restricting freedom. If you govern something, you must control it. The amount of freedom you have is inversely proportional to the amount of government applied. As conservatives then, we believe that only limited government can ensure maximum freedom, and all other aspects of conservatism are tied to this core principle.
It is perhaps just as important to understand what conservatism is not. Those on the other end of the political spectrum, those we call “Liberals” or the “Left”, would have you believe many things about conservatives, most of which simply are not true. Many of them believe these things themselves, mostly out of ignorance, but there are many liberals who know better yet continue to use deliberate mischaracterization of our views for the sake of political gain.
Conservatives are not “greedy” or “mean-spirited” as they would have you believe. We don’t hate the environment or want old people and children to starve to death. As demonstrated by the fact that conservatives tend to give more to charity than do liberals, we do care about the less fortunate, but we recognize that charity is not a legitimate role of the government. We love our children and our elderly (and in fact we all plan on being old one day ourselves), so it would be foolish for us to want them to starve in the streets; but we do not believe massive and wasteful government programs are the best way to ensure their well-being.
When you understand the core tenets of conservatism, it is easier to distinguish the differences between the two competing political philosophies that shape our political environment. One resists the expansion of government and the other sees a new role for government in every crisis they manage to create. For every problem they can find, they propose a new government program to manage it, which invariably necessitates new and higher taxes to fund it. When their new program manages to cause more problems than it solves, they respond with yet another new program and eventually entirely new agencies. This never ending cycle is the mechanism by which they grow and expand government into every aspect of our lives, and as a result destroy the very freedoms that government was responsible to protect.
The differences between the two philosophies are distinct and profound. It is therefore vitally important that we understand these differences and recognize the threat to our freedom that we face. Our ancestors fought to protect the freedoms they passed down to us, and now it is our turn to protect those freedoms for our children and grandchildren.